Is brand positioning facing a midlife crisis?

Al Ries first coined the term in a 1969 article for Industrial Marketing magazine, which means that it turned 45 last year. The idea was Ries’ response to an “overcommunicated” society; a form of shorthand that brands could use to cut through the clutter and infiltrate the minds of harassed, time-poor consumers. As far as ideas go, brand positioning is pretty simple: it’s about standing for something. But it’s also pretty vague. Hundreds – if not thousands – of attempts have been made at a more precise explanation of what it is and how it works. Few of these have stuck. Many marketers have abandoned the term altogether, in favour of newer, shinier alternatives such as ‘brand essence’ and ‘brand purpose’. At nearly fifty years old, brand positioning remains stubbornly immune to definition and frustratingly open to interpretation.

Perhaps we don’t need to define positioning in more precise terms. The beauty of the idea lies in its simplicity. When done well, brand positioning is an antidote to indifference. It’s a source of belief. Trying to pin it down in more precise terms feels a bit like trying to explain what makes a joke funny. The act of definition strips the idea of its magic and its power. Marketing is not a hard science, so as marketers we have to learn to live with such fuzzy definitions. The problem is that people invest a tremendous amount of money positioning and repositioning their brands –from tens of thousands of pounds to millions. In theory, brand positioning can be an immensely useful tool for creating growth. But in practice, it is often a complete waste of time, money and effort. This is why we have spent the past forty five years trying so hard to define exactly what positioning is: the closer we come to defining it, the closer we come to understanding why so many positioning projects fail to deliver on their promise.

Part of the problem is that brand positioning is approached as an intellectual exercise. Brand positioning is a practical tool. Its ultimate aim is to establish belief that inspires action. To this end, it should be simple rather than cerebral. Your mother should be able to understand it.

Another reason that brand positioning frequently fails is that it is often a knee-jerk response to problem solving: if your brand isn’t performing as it should, if it’s beginning to feel a bit stale, if it doesn’t stand out from the competition, if it’s failing to inspire customers, then it must be in need of a new positioning. But brand positioning is not always the best answer. It’s far from the only tool that marketers can apply to improve their brands’ performance. There are other big, fuzzy marketing concepts we can turn to. Together with ‘brand positioning’, ‘brand strategy’ and ‘brand architecture’ form a sort of unholy trinity of vague-yet-important tools for making brands better.

If brand positioning is about belief, then brand strategy is about thought. At its simplest, strategy can be defined as ‘thinking about stuff’ and brand strategy is thinking applied to a brand. It involves defining the role a brand must fulfil: working out who your brand is targeted at, which needs you will meet, on which occasions, who you will compete with, through which channels and at what price. Brand portfolio strategy is simply brand strategy applied to more than one brand or product: working out who each brand, sub-brand or product is targeted at, which needs it meets, on which occasions and who it will compete with. In other words, brand portfolio strategy defines specific roles for each brand, sub-brand and product. This is also known as innovation strategy, range strategy, product line strategy, innovation pillar development, portfolio navigation and – in some cases – as go-to-market strategy.

Brand strategy is rigorous, analytical and insight-based: the realm of quantitative segmentation, business plans and two-by-two matrices with arrows pointing upwards and leftwards. In contrast, brand positioning is a creative articulation of what a brand believes and how it thinks, feels and acts as a result: it is visionary, emotional, practical and inspiration-based. Some people refer to this as brand essence, or DNA, or brand purpose and sometimes as brand proposition. Marketing pedants will likely protest that these are precise terms with different meanings, but most marketers use these made-up pet terms to refer to the same thing.

If brand strategy involves establishing clear roles, then brand architecture is about articulating relationships between products, brands and sub-brands using visual and verbal signposts. It’s where the rubber hits the road. You see brand architecture on a pack, on websites, in brochures, in advertising and in org charts. Brand architecture is a form of alchemy, which turns all of the complexity of strategy and all of the creativity of positioning into a pleasurably simple experience for a brand’s audiences.

Brand (portfolio) strategy, positioning and architecture are the three most powerful brand-building tools marketers have at their disposal. If these don’t work in concert, brands stop making sense. Here’s the other reason why a lot of brand positioning projects are doomed to fail: brand positioning is frequently used to fix problems with brand strategy and brand architecture. Brand repositioning can be something of a comfort blanket for marketers: it’s a very visible way of demonstrating that the marketing team is hard at work. New values can be posted up on walls. A brand book can be distributed. Fresh advertising can be rolled out in a matter of months. But brand repositioning can’t fix poor brand strategy or brand architecture. If we’re serious about promoting more marketers to the boardroom, we have to be seen to fix the actual problem, rather than fiddling around with words on a PowerPoint. Great brands are managed as a system, with brand strategy, brand positioning and brand architecture working in unison.

It’s difficult to find brands with clearly aligned positioning, strategy and architecture, which is why there are so few truly great brands. One of my favourite examples is Help Remedies, which was established with a very clear belief:

“Everybody in the drug aisle likes to talk about more, bigger, extra, super, and maximum. But we’re not going to talk about that. We think people get enough drugs, dyes, and nonsense from other kinds of drug companies. Help is a new type of drug company—a drug company that promises you less.”

The brand’s portfolio strategy backs up its positioning: it adopts a simple problem / simple solution approach and only sells one product for each problem. If you have a headache, a blister, insomnia, or a cut then you aren’t overwhelmed with choice. The brand’s architecture provides further evidence of its belief: packaging balances matter-of-factness with a warm tone, with products that clearly call out both the brand name and the problem being addressed; “Help – I’ve cut myself” identifies their sticking plasters; “Help – I’m horny” identifies their condoms (not sex drive suppressants). Compare this with Nurofen, which for years has positioned itself as offering “targeted relief from pain”. In response to the threat of own label ibuprofen, Reckitt Benckiser’s has repositioned the brand around a new purpose – “for lives bigger than pain”. Their next challenge will be to translate this into a compelling portfolio strategy and brand architecture.

Waitrose are masters of bringing their positioning to life through portfolio strategy and brand architecture. The brand repositioned around seven years ago, to encourage a love of good food. With this in mind, their portfolio strategy provides different interpretations of “good food”, segmented to appeal to confident chefs, health-conscious foodies, busy professionals and indulgence-seekers. The brand’s decision in 2009 to launch a value range was tremendously risky, with the potential to cheapen Waitrose in the eyes of its customers. Instead, the Essentials range has been a tremendous success, not just commercially but also in terms of brand building: only a brand committed to promoting food values could justify labelling tiramisu, cappuccino mousse and extra sweet honeydew melon as “essential”. The rigorous application of the brand’s positioning extends to its choice of co-branding partners: Duchy Originals reinforces the brand’s commitment to British food heritage, while Heston from Waitrose presents a more progressive twist on the brand’s positioning.

The majority of brands fall far short of the elegance of Waitrose’s brand system. In many cases, brand positioning is not the problem, but a failure to follow-through the positioning into portfolio strategy and brand architecture. For example, I absolutely love Unilever’s positioning of its Lynx/Axe deodorant brand: to help guys get ahead in the mating game. It’s a wonderful belief to build a brand upon. Their communication demonstrates this beautifully. Over the years, the “Lynx Effect” has elevated average guys to the status of Dionysian love gods and has inspired angels to fall from heaven. The brand even issued a public apology to Prince Harry in 2013 after he was photographed cavorting (naked) with a bevvy of beauties at a Las Vegas pool party. The positioning has other practical benefits: the insight team has created a segmentation of guys, based on their approach to the ‘mating game’. Unfortunately, its positioning doesn’t seem to have influenced the brand’s portfolio strategy and architecture, which both come across as relatively uninspired. From the outside, the brand strategy seems to revolve around fragrance and format innovation – introducing new smells and stretching the brand into shower gels and hair products. It’s difficult to see how this builds on the brand’s insight into men’s attitudes to the mating game. The brand’s architecture also demonstrates a missed opportunity: products are given seemingly random names – Africa, Apollo, Peace, Sensitive. It’s difficult to see how any of these help to support the brand’s positioning.

If you’re thinking about repositioning your brand, think again. Are you sure that you’re fixing the right part of your brand? Issues with brand portfolio strategy and brand architecture are far more common than poor brand positioning. There are tell-tale signs that can help to identify which part of your brand system is most in need of attention:

Brand positioning:

  • You find it difficult to explain to your mother why you work where you do
  • Your current positioning reflects what you do today, but not what you want to achieve tomorrow
  • Your agencies ignore your current brand positioning
  • Your current brand positioning can’t be translated into a meaningful lens for decision-making across the business
  • Your colleagues struggle to remember, care about and respond to your current purpose, mission, vision, or values

Brand strategy & portfolio strategy:

  • You can’t articulate the specific role of each brand, sub-brand, range, and product in your portfolio in supporting your brand positioning
  • Colleagues struggle to summarise your offer on a single page
  • It’s not clear from looking at your brands which are most important to growth and profitability
  • It’s not clear how your innovation pipeline relates to your brand positioning
  • The business is holding onto established brands without investing in them

Brand architecture:

  • Your products and services don’t bring your positioning to life for your customers
  • Every time there’s a new innovation or initiative someone creates a new brand
  • There’s no visual consistency, or logical system of naming or numbering , across your products and services
  • Your customers can’t remember the names of your key products or services
  • Your sales team isn’t confident in selling the range of products or services you sell

It’s very likely that more than one area needs your attention. Brand architecture issues tend to go hand-in-hand with brand portfolio issues. In most cases, it is prudent to start with brand positioning, then to clarify the brand or portfolio strategy, then to design brand architecture. Adopting a systems approach to brand-building won’t offer a quick fix, but does provide a practical way to move beyond intellectual debates to build brand value over the long-term.

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