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Is it time to reposition positioning?


By Neil Simpson, Associate Planning Director

January 23, 2018 | 7 min read

Quick! What’s the difference between a positioning statement and set of brand values?


Or a value proposition and a brand’s DNA?

What about a brand promise and a brand essence?

If you answered ‘er’ to any of the above, then you are not alone.

Week long workshops have been spent parsing out the distinctions between ‘DNA’ and ‘purpose’. Cut through the froth, however, and we are talking about positioning.

But whatever we call it, positioning is central to what marketers do. Yet, here’s a scary New Year’s thought: is it time to reposition positioning?

When Ries and Trout first proclaimed the arrival of positioning in the late 1960s and early 70s, simplicity was at the heart of their thinking. ‘Positioning compensates for our over-communicated society by using an oversimplified message to cut through the clutter and get into the mind.’

Positioning was a strategic exercise, informing everything from distribution, to product innovation, and marketing communications. By analyzing competition, consumer, and company in question, brands could clearly define themselves against rivals with a strong positioning. Ultimately it was about ‘where’ and ‘how’ a brand should ‘play’ against competition.

As a result, the primary goal of the advertising agency morphed from (tactical) creativity, for its own sake, into the (strategic) management of brands.

Yet, as the synonymic inflation around the word ‘positioning’ suggests, this has become an increasingly complex exercise, cast adrift from the original intent.

We now spend a great deal of time ruminating over the finer points of brand personalities, or carefully delving into semantic nuances. We build pyramids, diamonds, and peel back layers of brand onions (weeping, often, in the process), while flicking through thesauruses for synonyms of ‘inspirational’.

More worryingly, positioning is increasingly detached from its original strategic intent. It has become too concerned with marketing communications, and is often treated as a story which should be told (directly) to the consumer. This is a long way from what it should be. Moore and Helstein in a 2007 article on positioning tersely noted ‘a positioning statement is not an advertising strategy, a slogan, or a tagline. It is an internal document, and is often very dull and straightforward.’

The lack of strategic thought is also evident when it comes to understanding of the competition. Competitor analysis is all too often overlooked, and palmed off on someone more junior, with the results filed away and never used. This leads to the weird sense of déjà vu between a lot of brand executions, born, one suspects, from positionings that didn’t pay attention to, or distinguish themselves from, the competition.

All this distracts from an exercise that was originally intended to focus strategy. Positionings have become a pick-and-mix of Big Words that agencies often struggle to execute against.

And positioning faces an even bigger challenge. Jenni Romaniuk of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute has pointed out that the way we think about positioning is back to front.

Unlike marketers, the brand is the last thing consumers think about.

For consumers, brands are not the fixed platonic ideals that brand onions suggest they are. Instead they are a mess of mental cues, recalled to solve certain problems throughout the day.

Romaniuk refers to these situations that induce brand recall as ‘category entry points’ (CEPs).

For example, you might feel hungry at lunchtime (CEP) and several brands will pop into your head to solve this problem.

You might need a mid-afternoon pick me up (CEP) and Starbucks, Coca-Cola, or the godawful stuff in the canteen might mentally appear.

CEPs can be linked to things like hunger, the time of day, a sporting event, or a type of weather. This makes sense because brand considerations are context specific, and different contexts – or CEPs - evoke different brand options. (If you are considering lunch you might not be considering Burger King. But, if it’s 3am, or the morning after the night before, it might be at the top of your mind.)

This is a big challenge to traditional positioning and the 3Cs that inform it.

After all the consumer (or at least consumer mindset) varies depending on the situation. The competition varies too. If you’re Coca-Cola you might be competing with a coffee mid-afternoon, and a beer at 6pm.

And the brand itself is perceived differently in each situation. It’s not, in other words a ‘fixed’ idea. (That’s why it makes little sense to ask consumers what situations come to mind for specific brands - the answer is it depends on the situation. We should instead be asking what brands come to mind for certain situations.)

In short, different CEPs should logically produce different positionings.

So how do we adapt?

For a start, it should prompt marketers to consider what CEPs they are currently linked to, and if they should expand this number. The most successful brands are linked to wide a range of different situations, and smart brands actively seek to expand them. A simple example of how this works is from McDonalds, which went from simply answering a ‘fast food’ situation, to also answering a quick and easy way to get breakfast and a decent coffee.

We should therefore not be afraid of embracing positioning(s) plural. This does not mean that every brand should document a bewildering array of every potential CEP, and position against each. Some CEPs are more common (and profitable) than others. CEPs also seem to have practical limits. Fizzy drinks or fast food chains might have quite a few, but realistically how many does toilet roll really have?

All this suggests that positioning should cease to be the distant, lofty, and totemic PowerPoint it often feels like today. It was, after all, originally intended as a battle plan, rather than a religious text. Positioning should once again act as a practical and powerful tool to help focus thinking, and compete with the competition across (a range of) different consumer cues.

That positioning often feels more like an exercise in semantic acrobatics or character creation suggests it’s long-overdue a repositioning.


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