Exponential Positioning – Solving For X

People in the real estate business will tell you that the three most important factors to consider are location, location, location. Likewise, the three most important factors in marketing a brand are positioning, positioning, positioning.

Positioning is about the location of your brand in the customer’s mind. Positioning strategy is the most important of all business strategies because it harnesses the power to understand, and then drive consumer buying behavior. The most common use of the science of positioning is brand positioning, but you can use positioning strategy to improve the perception of the company in the investment community, to secure enthusiastic cooperation from another department within the company, or even to position yourself and thereby enhance your own career. Think about the root word – position. How you position yourself, your brand, your company, or even your ideas will determine whether you have an advantage over the other guy.

You shouldn’t worry about the other guy unless he is standing between you and the customer. This is positioning – he is positioning himself closer to the customer and therefore he is a threat to the success of your business. The best way to remove that threat is to find a way to position yourself even closer to the customer. Positioning strategy is like playing the Italian game, bocce ball. The objective is to get your ball closer to the customer than any other alternative.

The secret to positioning is about seeing the world from the perspective of another person, the person whom you would like to see take some sort of action. It is their perspective that you must understand in order to put yourself in the most meaningful position for them.

Position means place

You have the option of either trying to get the target to come to where you are, or you can make the move to go to where they already happen to be. It is much more efficient to move to where customers are in their current attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors than to try and change them. Change, however, is probably what you require to grow your business. You must either get potential customers to stop buying whatever they are currently buying and switch to your product, or you must get existing customers to buy your product at a greater rate… or at a higher price. What you need to decide is how far you can move them and how far you can move yourself.

To be successful, your position needs to be very close (closer than any other alternative) to deliver what your customers need when it comes the time for them to make a purchase decision.

Your customers are constantly re-arranging the position brands hold in their hearts and minds in relation to their changing needs. They are constantly comparing your brand – consciously and unconsciously – to a field of available alternatives with influential information kindly provided by your competitors, as well as other forces in the marketplace.

The basic brand positioning process does three things:
1. It enables you to see the consumer from their perspective.
2. It clearly differentiates your brand from available alternatives with its own distinct identity.
3. It creates sustained interest in your brand by highlighting its most important features and benefits.

The positioning process

Brand positioning consists of three basic elements – target, frame of reference, and point of difference. Normally you start the positioning process with what you believe to be the customers for your products – the target. Then you look at your competitors and try to establish how you can be different, better, and more special than what they are offering the same customers. You would consider this point of difference you establish as the most important element of your positioning and call it a USP (unique selling proposition). Consequently, you will have a business-as-usual positioning.

Exponential brand positioning offers a more powerful alternative because it equally explores all three of the basic positioning elements (target, frame of reference, and point of difference) to leverage the highest growth potential for your brand. Rather than lock yourself in at the start with an existing customer group, or a pre-established list of competitors as viable alternatives (the competitive set), start clean and find the most powerful positioning for your brand – consider each of the positioning elements as a potential key to capturing exponential growth.

Solving for X

The trick is in determining which element contains the power to drive exponential growth. Let’s look at it as an algebra problem and solve for X – the exponential X. Once you find the exponential X, and unlock the full potential of your brand, the other two elements will become almost self-evident.

It is possible to start with the point of difference, a benefit that your new product provides that is better than any alternative, and then try to move customers to your position by highlighting an unmet and probably unrecognized need that your product can fulfill. However, another starting point that focuses on finding a lucrative frame of reference and then staking out a position once you’ve seen who’s competing for the business is how you leverage the frame of reference exponential X element within the positioning mix.

Begin by asking yourself what business are you really in?

For example, is the Kitzbuhel ski area in the ski business, or in the broader family vacation business? It depends. If you are talking to 20-somethings from Munich, it is a ski area and competes against Sell am Zee, or San Anton with a point of difference based on adventure, après ski partying, or some other competitive advantage for young people driving in from Munich for the weekend. But if Kitzbuhel wants to attract Dutch families that spend a lot of money on vacations over a week or two, it will be necessary to compete against other wintertime vacation possibilities that may include sunny beach resorts. Club Med understands this and now has both cold and hot destinations. They position themselves within the broader vacation frame of reference with the point of difference offering a getaway regardless of the season with the advertising slogan: “the cure for civilization.”

Because you don’t start out knowing for sure where the exponential X is in your positioning mix, you need to go through the open-minded process of exploring different alternatives for each of the three basic positioning elements. Let’s take a look at each of the three and what you should be looking for when solving for X.

Different customer targets – different positioning

We often hear the excuse for weak positioning that the brand has different customer segments and therefore needs a common point of difference. This lack of focus on the needs of a single customer segment is simply weak positioning. By definition, positioning must be target-specific to be relevant. Pick the most important target and nail a highly meaningful point of difference for them. Then, if necessary, move on to a secondary target with different positioning for each target.

Jeep case study

Target as the Exponential X

Jeep Cherokee, and the explosive growth of the SUV category almost 20 years ago, is a good example of the power of the exponential X. Somebody very smart over at Jeep had the inspiration to think outside the box and came to the realization that there was a bigger potential target out there than the typical sportsMEN who had bought 99.9% of four-wheel-drive vehicles. Someone once asked Willy Sutton, the famous bank robber, why he robbed banks. His logic was perfect: “Because that’s where the money is.” The Jeep brand manager went to where the money was. Suburban middle-class moms buy a lot of cars. And they buy a new one every couple of years. The exponential X was the target – a totally new customer target for Jeep Cherokee.

From that point of establishing a new and bigger target for Jeep Cherokee, it was a relatively simple process to nail down the other two elements – frame of reference and point of difference.

Frame of Reference and Point of Difference

Instead of looking at previous competitors such as Ford Bronco and Chevy Blazer, Jeep began looking at the world from the new target’s perspective (suburban middle-class moms) and their perspective of available choices. Minivans were very popular with suburban moms at the time. Based on this new target, and the minivan as the frame of reference, the Jeep marketing team established what features and benefits were needed to achieve a superior point of difference. Immediately you think four-wheel drive. Close, but not quite. Four-wheel drive is only the functional support to a stronger emotionally driven point of difference – control and security. Moms driving with their children in a Jeep Cherokee feel more in control because they sit up higher and can see what’s coming ahead. They also like the security of knowing that if the road or weather gets bad, they can get through it safely.

Exponential Positioning From Start to Finish

The Jeep Cherokee example is exponential positioning from start to finish. Jeep was, in essence, creating a new vehicle category with benefits for a new target. SUV (sport utility vehicle) wasn’t a particularly sexy name for a car category, but it did define the playing field to Jeep Cherokee’s advantage. Jeep has a sporting tradition and that has helped them to defend themselves against all the me-toos that quickly followed Cherokee’s lead in going after suburban moms. Additionally, the word ‘utility’ specifically addresses the ability of this new category of vehicles to successfully compete against minivans. And as a result, Jeep sells twice as many Cherokees as it did before it repositioned at an average price of 30% higher.

Jeep started the re-positioning process by looking at a potential new target for a good reason – flat sales in a seemingly mature category. When thinking about whether you want to try and move the target to your position, or move your position closer to the target, Jeep Cherokee is a very good example of successfully doing the latter. By adding power windows and leather seats and calling it an SUV, Jeep moved within the frame of reference (or field of viable alternatives) for suburban moms and then used the higher sitting position and four-wheel drive capability to create a point of difference that was meaningful, deliverable, and defendable.


There are three basic truths about positioning:

1. Positioning is the brand. Who says so? The customer!

2. Your brand’s positioning can never work for the other guy or vice versa. Otherwise, it isn’t a position at all. A positioning must be ownable by a single brand.

3. Everything communicates. So everything must communicate the positioning!

And how do you know if you have a good positioning? The same way you determine if any other strategy is effective.
1. Is it meaningful (to the target as well as to you in accomplishing your business objectives)?
2. Is it deliverable? Can you really do what you say?
3. Is it defendable? Can you own the position today and in the foreseeable future?

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