Updated: Oct 15, 2021
How can a business stand out from its competitors and what should the most profitable offering be? How can a company position its brand in the industry and what are the strategies to do so?
By the way, what does brand positioning actually mean?
Companies should aim at differentiating from competitor’s products and offerings. A successful method to stand out is carving out a unique position in the marketplace. Brand positioning is another evergreen pillar of the #MarketingPlan, keep reading and learn everything you need to know to craft the best brand positioning strategy for your brand!
Table of contents
WHAT BRAND POSITIONING MEANS
A pre-requirement of brand positioning is a deep understanding of customers wants and needs, so I suggest you read my previous blog article where I go through market segmentation.
A business analyzes the market and discovers the groups of consumers that they can serve best. Afterwards, it positions its brand in the industry so that everyone recognizes its specific offerings and image.
Defining brand positioning
Brand positioning is a designing process which enables companies to outline their offering and image, and occupy a distinctive place in the minds of their target audience. In other words, the positioning defines consumers’ perception of a company and its brand.
Everyone within an organization should use the brand positioning as context before making any marketing decision.
Some of the variables which help marketers position a company are:
Characteristics of the product or service;
Perceived quality/price ratio;
User of the product or service;
Since a company’s position is not simple to change once established, it should be adequately concrete to reflect the present state of the business, but also visionary enough to leave room for growing. The perfect positioning lays in between what a brand is and what it could be.
Marketing and management of Kotler and Keller has identified three requirements for the right positioning (I’ve explained them in detail later):
Deciding a frame of reference by determining the target audience and relevant competitors;
Given a frame of reference, identifying similarities and differences with other brands;
Making a compelling motto (or mantra) to enclose the brand’s essence.
A different approach: brand storytelling
An alternative to the competitive brand positioning explained above is brand narrative and storytelling. The latter is a less structured approach that doesn’t require an in-depth consumer, company and competitive analysis.
In May 2009, Businessweek issued Selling by storytelling by Ronald Grover where he expressed the concept of brand positioning as a result of storytelling rather than an outline of specific attributes or benefits.
In A breakthrough approach to brand creation, Randall Ringer (founder and CEO of Verse Group, now part of MBLM) and Michael Thibodeau (brand strategist and creative director) have pinpointed five key aspects of brand storytelling:
Words and metaphors which weave the tale;
How consumer interacts with the brand over time;
How the brand represents people, objects and places, and its language;
The bond between brand and sensorial experience: brand engagement level with people’s heart;
The role played by the brand in consumers’ life.
They also elaborated the Narrative branding framework which is made by:
Setting: time, place and context;
Cast: the brand becomes a character with its own history (creation myth) and relationship with/responsibility towards the audience;
Narrative arc: how events unfold in the story;
Language: the brand’s authentic voice, its symbols, metaphors and leitmotifs.
Since I’m a digital marketer, I don’t feel like I’m the best person to talk about narrative, metaphors and language use. Above all, because I believe that a narrative branding approach requires a deep knowledge of the language and culture of a target population. Once you have understood the common guidelines above, the actual process to make an effective brand story may vary according to the industry, region, people’s culture and so on.
In this article, I’ll focus on an analytic approach to brand positioning.
HOW TO CRAFT BRAND POSITIONING
Segmentation, targeting and positioning are the backbone of all marketing strategies. In my previous article, I’ve already gone through the first two steps, so it’s now time to deepen all the elements mentioned above and give some useful guidelines and tools.
Identifying a competitive frame of reference
A competitive frame of reference determines the main rivals’ brands to compete with. That’s why it is strictly connected to the target audience: given a distinct public, a business competes with products or services which are close substitutes.
Mastering competition also means forecasting future rivals. For instance, AT&T, Verizon and Sprint spent billions of dollars to build their network, but thanks to the development of Wi-Fi networks and hotspots, Skype broke through. Another example is represented by the supplement industry. Just consider how deep the energy bar market is fragmented: every sub-category appeals to different people, in different situations.
Companies should acquire rivals’ real and perceived strengths and weaknesses to get a comprehensive lookout. They can interview customers to acquire this intel. The image below represents a poll example where clients expressed their preferences on three competitors.
Analyzing this positioning table, it is clear that the company could attack Competitor A on product availability and technical assistance, Competitor C on almost everything, but it should not engage Competitor B which has no main weaknesses.
Competitors are usually more than what marketers expect. Coca-Cola focused on its soft drink trade and missed seeing the growing market of coffee and fresh-fruit-juice bars which negatively affected its business.
The concept of competition comprehends a broader set of rivals. In 2000, Jeffrey F. Rayport and Bernard J. Jaworski published E-commerce where they suggested to profile companies’ direct and indirect competitors by mapping buyer’s steps in obtaining and using a product or service.
After identifying the primary competitors, marketers should try to figure out their strategies and objectives. What is each competitor seeking in the marketplace? What drives its behavior?
Identifying differences from rivals
A company should determine its points of difference (PODs) which are unique characteristics that consumers only recognize in that company. There are three criteria to make strong, positive and unique associations:
Desirability. The brand associations must be personally relevant to consumers. They have to believe in the brand’s promise or, in other words, in the delivery of the desired benefit;
Deliverable by the company. Organizations must have the necessary internal capabilities to maintain the brand’s associations in consumers’ minds over time. These points of difference must be highlighted by product or service design and marketing offering. Does the product/service deliver the right message or it requires real changes? If the product/service is fine, should consumers receive a different message to align their perception with the brand’s points of difference?;
Differentiating from competitors. Consumers must associate the brand with unique and greater characteristics compared to its rivals.
Identifying similarities with competitors
A business should also find out the points of parity (POPs) with the competition. They are attributes that the brand has in common with its rivals.
Having shared associations or characteristics is fundamental to build brand positioning. A brand must have similarities with the operating industry (or product/service category) to be recognized as credible and legitimate (categories points of parity). For instance, consumers may not consider a travel agency as such till they see it is able to book air flights and hotels, give leisure advice and provide different tickets pricing options.
A business must also have points of parity with its competitors (competitive points of parity) for two important reasons:
Every similarity invalidates a competitor’s point of difference;
A shared association negates a perceived vulnerability of the brand. It happens when consumers focus on a strong differentiating characteristic and think if the business is good at one thing, it must not be good at something else.
A good strategy to master similarities is to put competitors’ shoes, catch their points of difference and, eventually, emulate them.
How to make a brand positioning map
Marketers can’t work on POPs and PODs all at once, so they have to select them to position the brand. During the brand positioning process, it is preferred building points of parity and difference based on benefits rather than attributes. Attributes usually support the reasons why a brand can claim to provide certain benefits.
A useful tool to choose similarities and differences from rivals is the positioning map (also known as perceptual map). Positioning maps are visual portrayals of consumers’ perceptions and preferences. They represent a specific market situation and describe how people see a product or service according to different dimensions.
The image below is a perceptual map example which visualizes clothing brands according to customers’ perception of design and price.
To make this representation, I picked two dimensions:
Price: the more a brand is placed in the right side of the X axis, the more expensive it is;
Design trend: the more a brand is placed in the upper part of the Y axis, the more its design is traditional. Accordingly, the more it’s located in the lower side of the Y axis the more its style is trendy and juvenile.
You can try to make a positioning map for your brand by using relevant dimensions for your business.
What a brand mantra is
A brand mantra should be three to five words short and capture the indisputable brand’s essence or spirit. In A new brand world, Scott Bedbury (an American branding consultant) wrote:
Brand mantra is an articulation of the heart and soul of the brand and is closely related to other branding concepts like “brand essence” and “core brand promise”.
It is very useful to help employees and partners adjust their communication and match it with the brand positioning. A brand mantra is different from the brand payoff (or slogan) and aims at the inner part of an organization. The following examples can help you clarify this difference.
Examples of brand mantra and slogan
Nike’s brand motto of authentic athletic performance leads production and help marketers hire athletes who best fit as testimonials. Nike’s brand payoff is just do it;
McDonald’s brand mantra of food, folks and fun encloses its soul and core promise. McDonald’s slogan is I’m lovin’ it;
Disney’s brand philosophy of fun family entertainment keeps its marketing on track. Disney’s payoff is where dreams come true.
How to design a brand mantra
According to Kotler and Keller, a good brand mantra should communicate the operating industry and condense the unique value proposition.
It should also be simple: memorable mantras are short, fresh and lively in meaning. Besides, a brand mantra should be as meaningful, inspiring and relevant as possible for the employees.
Marketers usually design brand mantras to catch the points of difference which represent the actual unique differentiating characteristics. Businesses use other methods to share the points of parity. Recapping this paragraph, I can say that making a compelling mantra relies on three key points:
HOW TO COMMUNICATE BRAND POSITIONING
Communicating brand positioning means making consumers understand the industry where a company competes, its points of parity and difference.
Announcing the benefits
One way to convey the position of a brand is reassuring consumers on the results expected after using a certain product or service. Marketers rely on benefits to communicate brand positioning: benefits based on performance (e.g. the great taste of a cookie and its high-quality ingredients) or imagery (e.g. image of delighted customers while eating a cookie).
A scheme template that can help marketers visualize their brand during this process is represented by the image below.
A brand can offer more or less benefits compared to the competition. It can even decide to provide more benefits for a lower price!
Comparing to industry leaders
Accosting a brand to others which are already popular and well-established can help marketers in brand positioning.
For instance, Tommy Hilfiger advertised itself as a member of a US designers elite by associating its brand with Geoffrey Beene, Stanley Blacker, Calvin Klein and Perry Ellis. It exploited their brand reputation to grow and carve a place among them.
Relying on the product descriptor
Zorraquino’s branding dictionary defines a product descriptor as a:
Functional brand name, that automatically enables the main quality or application of a product or service to be identified. Tends to be useful in lesser known markets where the public, searching for brands, will first encounter those with a generic denomination.
I couldn't explain it better!
Marketers can rely on the product descriptor to help consumers understand the positioning at a glance. For example, in 2004 Ford invested over $1 billion to make a car which combines the characteristics of an SUV and a station wagon. This model went down in history as the Freestyle and Ford communicated its unique position establishing a new category called “sports wagon”.
Mistakes and challenges in brand positioning
Brand positioning hides many challenges for marketers. Whether they decide to proceed using narrative branding or a competitive branding approach, they will inevitably face the difficulty of communicating points of parity and difference.
For example, trying to position a brand for its high-quality and then stating it is also inexpensive creates a disruption in the minds of consumers. Long-lived brands can exploit the myth of their history and creation, but it may trigger a backlash: consumers can perceive them as old-fashioned and not up to date.
As you can see from the table below, attributes and benefits have often negative and positive associations.
A possible strategy to overcome these continue trade-offs is addressing consumers with distinct marketing campaigns and reveal POPs and PODs one by one.
In my professional experience, the most common mistakes in brand positioning are:
Under-positioning: a brand is not able to understand consumers’ perception and doesn’t unleash its full potential;
Over positioning: a brand’s position doesn’t match the value attributed by consumers;
Confused positioning: people don’t understand the brand’s message or communication and can’t confer it a value;
Impossible positioning: the best way to explain this point is with an example. Let’s say McDonald’s wants to change its positioning and be perceived as a healthy and high-quality bistrot. There is no way it’s gonna happen (should I explain why?). This is an impossible brand positioning.
I have a deal for you. Use the comments section below to describe in a few words the brand positioning of your company. At the end, link your website. I will tell you if your online communication and message match your brand positioning.