The Lost Art of Positioning

February 3, 2018

It’s been said, “Positioning is the art of sacrifice.” Meaning you can’t effectively be all things to all people all the time. For successful brand longevity and loyalty, it pays to pick a solid position – which is defensible – and own it. By definition, that means sacrificing other options in order to maintain a position of strength. Any serious chess player is also familiar with the concept. Sacrificing pawns, knights and bishops is necessary in order to build a dominant advantage.

 

In today’s marketing environment there’s so much emphasis on marketing technology, so much data to be had, that the basic concept of building and maintaining a single, focused position in the mind of the target audience often gets short shrift. I get it. There’s tremendous excitement around new and better attribution models, and maximizing return on marketing investment (ROMI) is worth serious attention. But technology won’t build a brand position that a company can own for years.

 

For example, decades ago Volvo examined the US car market. Competitors were known for sportiness, or affordability, or dependability. Rather than engage in a battle to win over one of these positons from a relatively weak challenger position, Volvo examined its vehicles’ strengths and weaknesses and realized that occupant safety was an attribute intrinsic to their design. Not only was no competitor staking out this claim, but because their vehicles were already providing the benefit in a way superior to other manufacturers, the position was easily defensible. Volvo went all in on safety. Their advertising and marketing messaging consistently drove this point home. Dealers were trained on the safety features and records of various Volvo models. Engineering was given the charge of improving and adding to existing safety features. Volvo successfully occupied this position in the mind of the market.

 

Over the last ten or so years, the brand wandered away from this position. It’s easy to do. Competitive pressures, changing consumer tastes and sleek new designs resulted in Volvo moving away from keeping safety front and center. By 2014, underspending in advertising and dealer support, combined with a meandering focus in messaging, resulting in more of a “me too” reputation. Things were not good for the company.

 

In an article on WSJ.com, John Krafcik, a longtime automotive-industry executive now running TrueCar.com, a car pricing and information website, agrees safety is “an obvious anchor, and Volvo can still own it.” He suggests Volvo needs to make high-tech safety features free, giving Volvo a potential differentiation against German auto makers charging for the equipment.

 

Marketing history is rife with examples of how a solid, simple position can be a company's strategic advantage. If you're of a certain age, what comes to mind when you think of Maytag, Volkswagen, or Hebrew National? What single word comes to mind to describe most modern brands? It's mostly a muddle with a few notable exceptions.

 

So here are a few key takeaways on positioning to keep in mind:

 

1.    You can only successfully own one position in the mind of the consumer. Decide what makes sense, make sure it can be defended from a product and marketing standpoint, and build all your communications, product design, and processes around that position.

 

2.    It’s easier to stake a claim on unoccupied ground than to try and unseat someone already entrenched on a hilltop in the consumer’s mind.

 

3.    “Differentiate or Die,” to quote marketing legend Jack Trout. If your position doesn’t clearly set you apart from the competition, you’re wasting everyone’s time and money. Instead of being a unique voice in the market you’re like a papparzi amidst the throng behind the velvet rope, trying to capture the attention of celebrities as they stroll by on the red carpet.

 

4.    Be relentlessly consistent in reinforcing the position. Solid positions, executed well, don’t get old. And give it time. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither is solid positioning.

 

I’m only scratching the surface. To delve deeper into how to create a powerful brand position, I recommend any book by Jack Trout, Al Reis, Seth Godin, or David Aaker.

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