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Simply put, positioning is
about owning a unique position in the mind
of the target consumer
. It is established relative to
your competition in a way that signals differentiation.

While many marketers still
pursue differentiation as a key branding objective, modern marketing paradigms
have come to challenge this central tenet.

Fundamentally, brand
positioning stands at the heart of marketing strategy. It provides the
direction for strategic and tactical activities that will help an organisation’s
products and services stand out amid the many alternatives consumers could

As such, positioning should
always follow other key aspects of brand
, namely, market
, segmentation and targeting. Only then should marketers seek to
position the brand most effectively.

Creating a brand position
generally implies crafting what is known as ‘the positioning statement,’ a
short strategic document that synthesises the value that the brand would bring
to a particular market segment.

Unlike slogans, positioning
statements are developed for internal purposes and aim to reflect the competitive
advantage sought.

While the statement should be
aspirational, it can’t be so far removed from the reality of the current
situation as to lose credibility in the minds of consumers. In order to
articulate the brand position, you need to consider the three Cs:

  • Consumers:
    It’s all about who you have chosen to serve, and being relevant to them, i.e.
    focusing on value claims that will resonate, and make your brand desirable to
    those consumers. From features, attributes and special ingredients (the ‘what’)
    to benefits consumers receive (the ‘what’s in it for me’) or deep-seated needs and
    values your consumers aspire to (the ‘why’).
  • Competitors: Focusing attention on your competition within a
    chosen frame of reference will help zero-in on specific claims that are
    believed to distinguish the brand from its competitors. Managers may use
    perceptual mapping (see Fig. 1) as a way of identifying how people perceive the
    various brands in the market, and what favorable position may exist.
Example of a perceptual map (correspondence mapping) generated in Qualtrics
  • Company:
    This point is about ensuring the positioning statement is realistic, and can be
    delivered reliably at every interaction with customers. Some brand positions
    will be easier to infuse into all aspects of operations than others, which in
    turn will result in more value being created.

By focusing on who to serve,
where to play, where to win, and why consumers should believe you, the main
guiding principle for crafting a positioning statement can simply be expressed

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“For [target market], Brand X
is the only brand amongst [competitive set/category] that [unique
claim/benefit] because [reason to believe/support points].”

Keep it short, simple, and tight to ensure it’s easily conveyed across the organisation.
In terms of communicating the essence of your positioning, various strategies
can be used.

A popular approach is to promote
features and attributes
you believe competitors can’t
match (e.g. Westin’s heavenly beds) which suggests other options are

Another popular approach is to
directly positioning the brand against your main rival. This is the case of
Avis’ 1962 “so we try harder” campaign that targeted Hertz and cleverly turned
its weakness into a benefit.

While the central tenets of
brand positioning are often taken for granted by many marketers today, some of
its core principles have been challenged over the past 50 years.

The evidence-based marketing view

Evidence gathered across a
number of different categories and markets would suggest the central importance
of differentiation to brand strategy may have been exaggerated.

According to this evidence,
aiming for distinctiveness (when the brand looks like itself) and creating
salience (mental availability) may in fact be better branding objectives for
success. This is a subject of many debates amongst marketing pundits.

While it’s certainly true that
brands can often appear to be more similar than different in traditional brand
imagery studies, claiming that differentiation is almost irrelevant seems a
little simplistic. Most of those claims are based on surveys , which typically fail to  capture deeper expressions of brand, that
attributes alone can’t convey (deeply-held feelings, symbolic value etc.). But
brains don’t lie, and there is ample empirical evidence from various fields of
science that people do perceive differences across brands, even if surveys
don’t always reveal them.

The cognitive sciences view

It is less about what people
buy, and more about what they ‘buy into.’ So while the power of differentiation
may have been overplayed, it is the differential value that a brand has
acquired in someone’s mind that matters, and it likely stems from multiple experiences
that surveys can easily miss.

Recent findings from the field
of neuroscience come to reinforce this idea: the more positive associations a
brand has in someone’s brain, the greater its growth potential and
differentiation. In other words, pursuing a single brand attribute or
association to own might actually be detrimental to success.

The rise of Dollar Shave Club
and its success against legacy brands like Gillette might serve to illustrate
these findings that being more than one thing to consumers can be disruptive.

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The purpose-driven view

Today, taking a stance and
leading the charge on important societal issues is a role many brands look to

From diversity to
sustainability, equal opportunities and many more, doing good is on every
marketer’s lips – and while it may be paying off for some brands, others might
quickly lose sight of what they stand for in the process and end up wrong

While the jury is still out on
the effectiveness of such approaches to power brand growth, social purpose
looks like it’s here to stay – for good or bad. The real danger seems to be
“fake purpose”, i.e. brands not backing up their messaging with real
purpose-driven action (e.g. green washing).

For others, aligning on purpose
would appear to bring positive business outcomes, e.g. on June 11th 2019,
Unilever announced that its purpose-led
Brands are growing 69% faster

than the rest of the business and delivering 75% of the company’s growth. As a
result, Unilever’s CEO announced that “the firm will dispose of brands that are
not able to stand for something more important than making your hair shinier,
your skin softer, your clothes whiter or your food tastier”.

As more brands seek to define
their roles more broadly, it’s seems important to align that
messaging with the underlying brand positioning in order to reinforce it. If
you’re not careful, the brand could end up standing for nothing.

While the intention of standing
behind a social cause is honorable, it goes hand in hand with brand positioning
and an analysis of the competition, or the segment that one wishes to serve.

Nike’s “dream crazy” campaign,
featuring Colin Kaepernick is the perfect illustration of how good positioning
(“just do it”) and purpose-driven messages work together. While many considered
the ad as risky given the criticism that it drew, the campaign was credited
with a 31% sales increase, and “dream crazy” even won an Emmy this September. 
I believe its success stems from aligning message (believe in something even if
it means sacrificing everything) and purpose (e.g. protesting police violence)
with the brand’s DNA and positioning, brought to life through its recognizable
tagline: “Just do it.”, leveraging sports to move the world forward.

While I’m sure it infuriated
many viewers, Nike knew it would strike a chord with its target customers.

This brand positioning post was originally published on

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