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A Position on Positioning

Ray Baird

What is positioning? It is a term much bandied about and with good reason, as it is central to the discipline of brand strategy. It is the fulcrum between strategy and creative execution; and between strategy and long-term brand implementation. But what is it? What does it do for you? How do you ‘measure’ it? And why is it valuable?

What is it? Positioning defined
Positioning strategy is essentially, fundamentally a competitive ‘assertion,’ a stake in the ground or—more accurately—a cordoned-off area within an established competitive field. Positioning becomes—depending on how you look at it—more or less difficult, if you’re creating a new market, inventing a new category. On the upside, you get to ‘call the shot’; you create the conceptual and linguistic framework that defines everything. On the downside, you have to call the shot; to create the conceptual and linguistic framework…but that’s no small order.

But dealing with the simpler case (the established market), we define positioning as: A sustainable and leverage-able point of competitive differentiation that creates preference and drives loyalty.” One could add—and will—that it can also help create awareness and sharpen understanding (which would complete the Sales Funnel that the concept of positioning is implicitly and critically attached to, in this scheme).

What does it do for you?
In our view, there are three critical questions a positioning statement can answer:

  • How do you define yourself as a company?
  • What makes you special?
  • What unique value or benefits do you deliver to customers?

How do you measure it? How do you know whether one is ‘good’ or ‘bad’? There are five ‘metrics’ or parameters—critically, three—that a positioning statement must meet. It must be:

  • Relevant
  • Deliverable
  • Differentiating
  • Credible
  • Inspiring

First, it should be noted that the sequence or ordering from Relevance to Inspiration is one of logical priority: any given parameter, in order to be valid, depends on the ones that precede it. To give an example, if you’ve articulated a positioning statement that differentiates you from competitors, but you cannot deliver it and/or it meets no established (or firmly projected) need in the marketplace, you’re positioning statement will be DOA.

Second, Relevance, Credibility, and Differentiation can all be determined more or less objectively, through market analysis, trending/forecasting; an internal audit of assets and capabilities; and scrutinizing the competition, respectively. This triad of parameters is almost always established in the first phase of a brand strategy engagement. Credibility and Inspiration are more matters of perception and more subjective. Credibility and Inspiration tend to be confirmed or disconfirmed in validation testing; and/or ‘generated’ by well-funded, well-disciplined, long-term programs.

Having characterized their inter-relationships and how they’re determined, let’s define each parameter.

Relevance is about filling a real need or solving a real problem in the marketplace. That need needn’t be real: it can also be a matter of forecast. A positioning can be ‘future-ized’ by basing it on a well-supported forecast of need.

A positioning must also be Deliverable, meaning simply that you have to have the assets, infrastructure, and corporate will to make good on your promise of value; your ability to really deliver it.

Differentiation is a cat you skin at least a couple of ways. Either you have something that no one else can do (service) or make (product) or you have something or do something that other people do or make, but you do it better or differently, e.g., more efficiently, cost-effectively, better, or as part of a more integrated basket of benefits. The former case is the rare case and it involves category creation, market-building ‘from the ground up’ and requires radical innovation. The latter is the much more usual case and typically involves improving on an already good idea.

Credibility, as we’ve already established, is largely a matter of perception. Based on past performance and reputation, does the market believe you can do or deliver what you say? Are there good reasons to believe your positioning promise? Credibility is about having a ‘permission’ and it goes hand in hand with what we call ‘stretch positioning’: positioning that moves you beyond a status quo, beyond a comfortable category, into ‘adjacencies.’

Finally, there is Inspiration. Again, this is a matter of perception and, ultimately, effort. Does your positioning have the capacity to engage and motivate employees and excite the market place—not just customers, but analysts, and investors as well? Inspiration may ‘lean heaviest’ on Differentiation. It is always the new thing, the new way, the wholly (or partly) unprecedented that starts the buzz or lights the fire.

Why is it valuable?
Simply put, brand positioning is (enormously) valuable because it is:

  1. The focal point and fulcrum of your brand strategy; the place where business strategy and brand strategy blend (i.e., where the latter becomes an asset and a catalyst for the former).
  2. The crispest, clearest formulation of your competitive advantage and orientation.
  3. A company-wide guidepost and point-of-reference that will give coherent, consistent, and cogent form (the Three C’s) to everything you do, message, image, and make. And this will be so, even when—especially when—you have to, for good or unavoidable reasons—distribute the work of image management to multiple, diverse, dispersed (sometimes new) or outsourced corporate ambassadors. It is a guarantee against brand fragmentation.

All of this makes positioning, in RB’s view, the branding Pearl of Great Price (and the one thing you need to get right and get right first to succeed, to grow, and to flourish).

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