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.

There are very few examples of great brand positioning. Truly awful brand positioning is equally hard to find. The vast majority of brand positioning ideas are neither terrible nor remarkable. They neither inspire nor appal. They are average.

Inoffensive.

This is a problem. A brand positioning that doesn’t inspire people is like a blunt knife. People won’t feel threatened by it and it can’t do its job properly. In a 2007 interview with Fortune magazine, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard observed that “if you’re not pissing off 50 per cent of the people, you’re not trying hard enough.” The same rule applies to a great brand positioning idea. Some people should love it. Some people should hate it. This is why so few truly great brands exist, despite the best efforts of a multi-billion dollar branding industry. Here are some of the most common pitfalls I’ve observed:

1. We are unclear on the difference between brand strategy and brand positioning

Great brand positioning should delight some people and frighten others. So it’s important to be able to identify who you want to target and why they should care about your brand, as well as when and where they will encounter it. Broadly speaking, this is brand strategy: defining a target audience; understanding their needs and motivations; being clear about the occasions and channels through which your brand will influence them. This is an analytical, rational, insight-led process. Brand positioning is the creative response to such a strategy. It should be creative, emotional and inspiration-led. Strategy and positioning are not substitutable terms: they are complementary activities.

2. Brand models focus people on strategy at the expense of positioning

The vast majority of companies employ some form of template to capture their brand positioning. These templates usually take some whimsical shape or other. An onion. A key. A keyhole. A pyramid. A bridge. I’ve even encountered a ‘brand fox’. Whatever form they take, their ostensible purpose is to ensure that the creators of a brand’s positioning have followed a rigorous thought process. The positioning process becomes a box-ticking exercise, rather than a creative enterprise. Great ideas shouldn’t be forced into boxes.

3. We worry too much about today and not enough about tomorrow

People worry a lot about the credibility of a positioning idea but there is little point investing time and money in positioning your brand, simply to produce a summary of how it currently works. Nothing will change as a result.

So why position a brand if it won’t result in meaningful change?

At its best, brand positioning is an articulation of the future you intend to create. It sets a direction for your organisation. It inspires people to find new and better ways of working. This requires you to stretch credibility as far as it will possibly go. Understanding what people expect of your brand is only important to the extent that you can think creatively about how to play with, challenge or even subvert those expectations.

4. We design for the average

Few brand owners aspire to a niche positioning. Big brands appeal to the masses. It’s more profitable to be liked by a lot of people than to be loved by a few. It’s also important that internal stakeholders are happy with the positioning. All of them. There’s no point in developing an idea that 50% of stakeholders love if the remaining 50% of stakeholders hate it. Brand positioning needs to be brought to life across the entire organisation, so the entire organisation needs to like the idea. Otherwise, they will simply ignore it. Whichever way you look at it, it’s better to be liked by the many than to be loved by a weird minority.

Or is it?

Committees don’t create great brands. Great leaders create great brands. Steve Jobs at Apple. Howard Schultz at Starbucks. Thomas Watson and Thomas Watson Jr. at IBM. Bill Gore. Michael Bloomberg. None of these people cared much for the average. They designed their businesses and brands around some of the rarest and most extreme people in the world – themselves. Developing a brand with mass appeal doesn’t require us to design for the majority. It requires us to design for different extremes. If your most demanding target audiences like your idea, the chances are that others will follow suit.

5. Positioning is approached as an intellectual problem, rather than a practical exercise

I once worked for a consultancy that had been employed by a well-known service organisation to develop their new brand positioning. The client loved a particular concept: invisible service. The theory was that their service would be so seamless as to be rendered practically invisible to their customers. An interesting idea. It was swiftly signed-off by the board but then people started to ask awkward questions:

How can a visual identity based on the idea of invisibility result in greater visibility for our company?

How can we create moments of surprise and delight for our customers if our ambition is for our service to go unnoticed?

These questions did not lead to any practical solutions. Invisibility may have been an interesting idea in theory, but it turned out to be useless in practice. Brand positioning should create a pleasurably simple idea that can be readily understood (without the need for PowerPoint) and practically applied across an organisation. Clarity beats cleverness. Brevity beats brains.

These pitfalls are so commonplace that they have practically become standard operating procedure. But there are clear signs that the marketing community is tiring of the old approach. Brand models aren’t being binned, but they are now being complemented by manifestos, videos and statements of purpose. Diageo is ‘shooting for 10’ and Unilever has appealed to its agencies to lose some of the logic and to bring back some of the magic to their marketing. These approaches to brand positioning – many of which avoid using the ‘p’ word altogether – provide some clear lessons to create a brand people might actually care about:

Start with a clear definition of the value you want to create

There’s no point being in business if you’re not going to make money. Profit is imperative in the short-term for survival and in the long-term for innovation and growth. Profit aids bold decision-making. But brands have the ability to create value beyond the P&L and Balance Sheet. They affect quality of life for employees and their families and friends. They affect the economy. They affect the environment. They influence us culturally, subjecting us to language, images, products and services that have a profound effect on how we think, feel and behave.

It seems absurd to suggest that none of these considerations should factor into our definition of a successful brand. IBM is making cities smarter. GE has created over a hundred billion dollars of incremental value through Ecomagination. Thinking broadly about the type of value you want to create will inevitably open up new and interesting audiences and opportunities.

Foresight matters as much as insight

Great brand positioning is a statement of ambition, not a reflection of the current reality of a category. Insight can only take a brand so far. According to ESOMAR, global market research turnover grew to $33.5 billion last year. As an industry, we’ve spent a lot of money trying to find out more about what motivates people to buy crisps, why they hate banks, why they sample new brands of beer and why they talk to their cats.

We’ve spent billions of dollars trying to understand the world as it is today. How much do we spend on trying to understand the future? What 2030 will look like? The crisp category as we know it, may no longer exist. Banking will have changed beyond recognition. These changes will be the result of deliberate actions undertaken by ambitious brands, armed with an appropriate balance of foresight and insight. Brands that are ahead of the curve now base their positioning ideas on an interesting vision of the future, not an insight-laden view of the present.

I spend less and less time speaking to ‘consumers’ and more and more time talking to experts, weirdos, crazies, geeks and the occasional ‘ordinary person’. I speak to addiction clinicians, economists, journalists, teachers, psychologists, nutritionists, hackers, musicians and art dealers. They have far more to say about the future than the present.

‘Why’ and ‘how’ matter more than ‘what’

Brands have an uncanny ability to transcend time, location and the business models they were born into. Nokia began life in 1871 as a paper mill. Originally a British brand aimed at women, Marlboro was founded in 1847. Nintendo sold playing cards during the early Twentieth Century. The business you’re in today matters less than the businesses you might be in tomorrow. Consequently, it makes little sense to saddle your brand with a positioning built on ‘what’ you currently do. It is far better to have a clear purpose that will help you to question which areas to stretch into, as well as a distinctive personality, which will inform how you do so – the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of your brand.

Apple’s share price has recently rebounded following rumours of an expected move into smart watches. Even before the device exists, investors, analysts and potential owners already feel like they know what it will deliver. It will connect seamlessly with their iPhones, iPads, iPods and iTunes. It will most likely be called the iWatch. It will be delightfully simple to use. It will have the battery life of a mayfly. Within 2 years of buying one, we will hanker after the newer model. We have such a clear understanding of Apple’s signature style that the brand has permission to stretch into almost any category where confusion and frustration reign supreme. Virgin used to have a similar swagger about it – an upstart brand that brought savings, service and sexiness to every category it touched…

Invite interpretation

An old boss of mine was fond of telling people that brands provide a ‘central organising principle’ for the businesses that own them. It’s an alluring idea. Whatever the question, brand positioning should provide a clear lens for making a decision. But people aren’t directed by brands in such a way. Brands don’t tell us what to do. Brands are better suited to inspire than to inform. Rather than telling people how they should do their jobs, brand positioning should aim to challenge people to reconsider what ‘great’ means. Strong brand positioning encourages thought. It does not seek to replace it. It is a challenge to an organisation to be better.

Google wants to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. Allen & Overy wants to be seen as the world’s most advanced law firm. BASF wants to create chemistry for a sustainable future. These are broad, visionary statements. It is up to the people employed by these businesses to translate these statements into action across different markets and business units. These are the types of challenge that great leaders rise to.

Sweat the detail

Big ideas are fun to create but eventually they need to translate into meaningful change. They should follow through into small details. When working on a brand positioning for one of the world’s biggest beer brands, the Marketing Director I worked with used a simple test to tell whether a positioning idea was weak or not. We called it the ‘beer mat test’. It involved asking the following question when confronted with a positioning idea:

“What would the beer mat look like?”

If our project team of designers and strategists couldn’t come up with a convincing beer mat, then we rejected the positioning route. Even if it was intellectually interesting, it clearly wasn’t practical enough to inspire a branded beer mat, let alone a 360 degree branded experience.

Mood boards and written concepts can’t tell you if a positioning idea is great. People don’t go to supermarkets to buy concept boards. Ask yourself how a candidate positioning idea would affect your business. What would you stop doing as a result? What would you start? How would you act differently? How would you look different? What sorts of products and services would you launch?

Visualise your future and see how excited people get. Then you’ll know if you’ve found a great brand positioning idea.

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