How Well Do You REALLY Understand Brand Positioning?

People in the real estate business will tell you that there are three important factors to consider when buying a property. Location. Location. Location. Likewise, there are three important factors to consider when marketing a brand. Positioning. Positioning. Positioning.

This won’t come as surprise to many of you as marketers. But we say the phrase brand positioning so much that it is sometimes confused with an interpretation of an overall brand strategy or with phrases like brand essence or reason to believe that you often hear from your advertising agency.

Brand Positioning Origins

When it comes to brands, the word positioning came to the forefront over 40 years ago because of a book by Al Ries and Jack Trout – Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind. It was later used extensively by companies such as Procter & Gamble and other consumer products companies.

Brand positioning books

Ries and Trout’s book is as timeless to marketing as David Ogilvy’s book On Advertising, also written in the early 80s. Every marketer and every marketing student should read both. Ogilvy’s book is a crucial read to keep you focused on the fact that with your advertising you are not creating a work of art or a film; you are creating the motivation for people to buy your product.

Budweiser, the famous American beer brand, would probably still be owned by the American Busch family that invented it over a hundred years ago, but later generations of the family got lost with frogs and goofy television commercials. Augie Busch pushed to entertain customers with funny Superbowl commercials that made people laugh but didn’t sell much product. YouTube Bud Light’s Real Men of Genius campaign and you’ll see a slew of entertaining television that not only doesn’t motivate the customers to buy the brand but creates an image of the Bud Light consumer as a guy most guys wouldn’t want to be. They went out of their way to position Bud Light as the product you wouldn’t want to have in your hand when somebody you wanted to meet walked by in a bar.

Watch the ads on YouTube and have a laugh, but then think about where Bud Light is positioning you as the consumer. Eventually, the company was sold to InBev, which makes the famous Belgian beer, Stella Artois. Now they know a lot about branding and advertising.

Brand Strategy Breakthrough

The breakthrough that Reis and Trout accomplished is that they established brand strategy in terms of how your brand is perceived by customers within their minds. Too bad Augie Busch never read their book. Just as real estate is finite, so is the real estate in your customer’s brain; it only has so much capacity and space. As marketers, we do daily battle with our competitors to occupy the best position in the customer’s mind so that when they get to the moment of truth, as P&G likes to call the point of sale, they think of us; when they make a buy decision to buy ours or the other guy’s brand, they buy ours.

Positioning strategy is the most important of all business strategies because it harnesses the power to understand, and then drives customer buying behavior. The most common use of the science of positioning is brand positioning, but you can use positioning strategy to improve the company’s perception 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 are at an advantage versus the other guy’s position.

Certainly, competitive strategy is a big part of marketing and brand positioning, but you shouldn’t worry about the other guy unless they are standing between you and the customer. This is positioning. They are positioning their brand closer to the customer and therefore they are 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. The objective is to get your ball closer to the customer than any other alternative.

Brand Positioning Strategy is like the game bocce

The secret to positioning is seeing the world from the perspective of somebody else, whether that somebody is a customer or a boss you would like to impress so you get that promotion or raise – hopefully both! Positioning is about motivating the person who you would like to see take some sort of action. It is their perspective that you must understand to put yourself in the most meaningful position in their brain and consciousness.

Change is what you require to grow your business

As position also means a 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 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 more of your product or buy it 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 the customers need when it comes time for them to make a purchase decision.

Your customers constantly re-arrange the position brands hold in their hearts and minds in relation to their changing needs. They constantly compare 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 customer 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 – Solving for X

Let’s take a quick refresher course on the brand positioning process. The process comprises three basic elements – target, frame of reference, and point-of-difference. Normally, you would start the positioning process with whom you believe to be the customers for your products – the target. Then you would look at your competitors and try to establish how you can be more different, better, and more special than what they are offering the same customers. You’d then consider this point of difference as the most important element of your positioning and call it a USP (Unique Selling Proposition). Consequently, you would have a business-as-usual positioning.

The Key to Capture Exponential Growth

Effective brand positioning 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. But 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. Find the most powerful positioning for your brand by considering each of the positioning elements as potentially THE key to capturing exponential growth.

Brand Positioning - Solving for X

One of these elements is X, the key that drives real growth!  And it isn’t always the point of difference. Breakthrough growth strategies usually result from a new perspective on the target or frame of reference. The trick is in determining which element contains the power to drive exponential growth.

Let’s look at positioning like 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 a 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 Kitzbühel 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 Zell am See, or St Anton am Arlberg with a point of difference based on adventure, après ski parties, or some other competitive advantage targeting young people driving in from Munich for the weekend. But if Kitzbühel wants to attract Dutch families who 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 look at each of the three and what you should be looking for when solving for X.

Different Customer Targets – Different Positioning

I often hear the excuse for weak positioning that the brand has different customer segments and therefore needs a common point of difference. That lack of focus on the needs of a single customer segment is simply weak positioning. By definition, a positioning must be target-specific to be relevant. Pick the most important target and establish a highly meaningful point of difference for them. Then, if necessary, move on to a secondary target with a modified, yet related positioning for each target that is particularly motivating to that person’s mind and where you want to be in their consciousness.

Jeep Cherokee, and the explosive growth of the SUV category almost 20 years ago, is a good example of the power of the solving for X. Somebody very smart over at Jeep had the inspiration to think outside the box. They realized that there was a bigger potential target out there than the typical sports-MEN who had bought 99.9% of the four-wheel-drive vehicles. Someone once asked Willie Sutton, the famous American 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.

Looking at the World from the New Target’s Perspective

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 (that of a suburban middle-class mom) and their perspective of available choices. Minivans were very popular at the time with suburban moms. 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

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 (Sports 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-too brands 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 two times more Cherokees than it did before they repositioned, and at a 30% higher average price.

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 a 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 their 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!

How do you know if you have a good positioning? The same way you determine if any other strategy is effective.

  1. Is in 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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