While brand positioning isn’t particularly hard to explain, neither is describing how a plane flies. But the physics of rapid air flow over the wings is one thing; actually designing and piloting a plane is something else all together.
First, some simple definitions. By way of example water, caramel, caffeine, sugar and cinnamon are commodities. Taken together, they create a carbonated soft drink called a cola, which is a product. Coke, however, is a brand.
A strong brand is a promise marrying a differentiated, competitive advantage with a compelling consumer insight. A singular, clear idea that’s entirely authentic; true at once to its roots and the consumer’s experience. When it clicks, it’s a disruptive solution today and a distinctive solution tomorrow.
The goal of course is creating consumer preference because the vast majority of companies are simply transforming commodities into products and services. Product parity leads to purchasing on price alone. Brand differentiation and preference are the path to premium pricing and sustainable competitive advantage.
Net, a dynamic brand is an exceptionally valuable asset. And while it may play many roles, internally and externally, at its parent company, it’s primary function is to propel the business. That’s because the brand is all about growth, and ultimately the mark of a leader. In this way it’s important to recognize your brand positioning is not a marketing asset – your brand positioning is your primary business asset.
When It’s Working Well
A strong brand positioning distinguishes your offering in the marketplace, connecting with and earning access to the target’s consideration set. Marketing and sales efforts stimulate demand, expanding and qualifying the target audience by promoting the positioning. Done well, this creates new customers by engaging with and closing prospects who explore and then embrace the brand in their own self interest. At the same time, marketing and sales activities further inform and inspire the faithful among the brand’s community of consumers, dealers, partners, and employees.
Each individual consumer experience reinforces the brand positioning, fulfilling the original promise. With success, this journey yields consumer loyalty and then consumer advocacy which expands and refreshes the brand as it increases its relationships.
Building a Brand Positioning
Every dynamic brand encompasses nine essential elements. While each has its role and can be discerned independently, their impact is most often taken and felt all together; not as separate aspects but as contiguous parts of the whole. Particularly as they’re all completely aligned and mutually reinforcing. And while they’re not necessarily perceived in the sequence suggested below this may be a good direction for the brand builder as the best brands proceed from the following:
1. Clear Vision
This is the statement of who and what you are – and why. Clearly, no one’s waiting for your brand. To break in, much less break through, you need to establish yourself with a very crisp reason for me to care – and hopefully buy into. Building a brand is standing for one thing, not everything. The simpler, more compelling, and more confident, the better. Starbucks changed coffee and a great deal more forever by introducing itself as “The Third Place” (home, work, and Starbucks). Purina’s vision may be among the best for simple clarity and brevity: “Your pets, our passion”.
2. Well-Defined Enemy
What you’re fighting for, and who and what you oppose; your antagonist and foil. The standard marketing examples are Hertz and Avis, Coke and Pepsi, FedEx and UPS. These are classic brand on brand rivalries, but effective enemies aren’t limited to just other brands; they can also be ideas.
Dove’s enemy is values-based as Dove does battle with the stereotypical views of feminine beauty. Apple’s enemy is richly expressed both rationally, against competing brands, and emotionally, in opposition to a prevailing attitude. Logically it’s the authoritarian, monolithic PC industry, once exemplified by IBM (note “The computer for the rest of us”) and now of course by Microsoft. And perhaps more powerfully, Apple’s emotional enemy is the dreary wasteland of conformity (see “Think Different”).
3. Compelling Narrative
Your brand must exhibit a vital, continuing storyline, with a beginning, middle, and an evolving end. Just like people, brands are alive. They start somewhere and evolve as they go forward. The best are almost literally on an adventure; one that people enjoy following and sharing.
As remarkably different as they are, Guinness, Lego, and Google boast brand narratives of mythical proportions that have grown well beyond their respective categories and into the culture at large.
4. Competitive Strategy
This is how you’ll win your fight. It requires an established value proposition and competitive strategy that underline the brand. If you’re famously against something those who agree will join you but only if you’re making an effort and demonstrating progress. Business success breeds brand success. Conversely, if the business is failing, the brand is too. Yes, brand strength is critical but your product performance and portfolio are also key. Some famous failures include Polaroid, and far more recently, Motorola.
In many respects, Apple, once again, is the ideal. They’re clearly committed to creating an exceptional consumer experience through a uniquely superb, simple, and elegant user interface. Further, they link their proprietary devices (MacBook, iPhone, and iPad) to a proprietary operating system (OSX), that runs their proprietary digital content (Apple Music, iTunes, and the App Store), with the iCloud floating in the background. It almost makes your head spin – and all at premium prices!
5. Sense of Community
This is the group I want to belong to and be seen to be a part of as a reflection of my worldview and sense of self. Sports fans are somewhat instructive, and prove communities exist even in the absence of success: I should know as I follow the Mets, Jets, and Nets.
Successful brand communities actually create themselves. Starbucks exhibits a powerful sense of community as does Dunkin’ Donuts. And I would argue people are self selecting between these two at least as much based on the community each personifies as on the coffee that they serve.
Harley-Davidson riders are outlaws, or at least they are when sitting on their Harley. In this way the Harley brand is about far more than just motorcycles. It’s actually its own society based on a common understanding, spirit, and lifestyle. The Harley-Davidson Motor Company knows this and has invested to support the Harley Owners Group. HOG (note the acronym!) was born as a way for the brand’s highly passionate consumers to connect and engage online.
Importantly, brand communities exist to serve themselves and their individual members. To varying degrees, they can be encouraged and mined for insight but it’s important to remember they exist as a response to the brand, not as club to be managed by the brand parent.
6. Active Advocacy
What you, the brand and its community support together: locally, regionally, nationally, and often globally. What you all find acceptable and by extension what you deem completely unacceptable and seek to change.
Seventh Generation, is an obvious, but excellent example. The green home and personal care products brand focuses its ongoing advocacy on “Transforming Commerce, Building Communities, Nurturing Nature, and Enhancing Health.”
Toms footwear is another great case. Founded in California in 2006, the Toms brand is built on its ‘One for One’ mission – to donate one pair of shoes for every pair purchased. Its One Day Without Shoes (ODWS) initiative has become an annual global event. Last year ODWS engaged over 3.5 million people as Toms donated 27,435 shoes to children worldwide. The brand also collaborates with experts in poverty alleviation and international development, including Save the Children and UNICEF. Since 2006, initiatives with such partners, have resulted in donations of more than 60 million pairs of shoes, restoring sight to over 400,000 people, providing over 335,000 weeks of safe water, and supporting birth services for more than 25,000 mothers.
7. Proprietary Visual Icons
The instantly recognizable, emotionally rich signs, symbols, and visual metaphors of your identity. The particular pictures and memorable visual imagery worth all those many words. The design and colors consistently conveyed at each and every touch point, on and offline. Often proceeding from a logo that powers the positioning, see the Nikeswoosh, Target’s red target, and BMW’s iconic roundel.
8. Aspirations & Beliefs
These are your primary principles, what you believe to be true and how you conduct yourselves as a result. While these ethics are not necessarily included in a public presentation of the brand, they’re entirely intrinsic to the brand’s essence. Particularly as there’s a tangible intensity among the employees rooted in a simple, strongly-held belief system. This drives employee identification with the brand and what it stands for, as the employees believe in what they’re doing and act on their beliefs.
Amazon’s a prime example. While it may not be the easiest place to work, it’s certainly among the most successful – and the most clear on what it believes and is trying to achieve. These are exemplified by Amazon’s Leadership Principles, which begin with: “Leaders start with the customer and work backwards. They work vigorously to earn and keep customer trust. Although leaders pay attention to competitors, they obsess over customers.” You’ll find all of Amazon’s Leadership Principle here.
These are the brand customs and practices you share and invest with meaning. They invite the consumer to participate in the brand. As such, they create familiarity and belonging within the brand community while advancing the narrative. Starbucks created a unique ritual with its own ceremonial languafor ordering a cup of coffee: “I’d like a Triple, Venti, Soy, No Foam Latte, please”.
The very best brand rituals are created by consumers and quickly become traditions. Somehow my favorites are edible and include shoving a lime wedge into a bottle of Corona and breaking an Oreo cookie in half and eating the filling first. These are entirely separate occasions by the way; at least for me.
So, how dynamic is your brand?
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Lou Killefferis Editor-at-Large for Innovation Excellence, and Principal with Five Mile River Marketing. A versatile marketing strategist, Lou’s passion for communications and innovation has made him a trusted advisor to some of the world’s most enduring businesses and brands, from AT&T to UPS, where he helps enterprises embrace change, look ahead, and focus on sustaining success.