The ultimate brand positioning guide for 2022.

Brand positioning is easily one of the most important elements of a powerful brand strategy. It is also one of the most misunderstood. In this article, we’ll explore how brand positioning is simple to define, yet difficult to put into practice.

A successful brand positioning strategy is essential for all businesses striving for success — and the proof is in the proverbial pudding (i.e. the stats). According to HubSpot, brands that have a consistent brand presentation see an average revenue increase of 10 to 20 per cent. Additional benefits include increased customer and employee loyalty, improved awareness and affinity, and a relatability that sets you apart from the competition.

What is brand positioning?

Branding can be difficult to define, as a quick internet search will bring up dozens of different definitions. However, brand positioning is different in that there is a fairly agreed upon definition. Brand positioning is about owning a unique position in the mind of the target consumer.

Although it was introduced over half a century ago, many marketers view positioning as the foundation for brand strategy. Jack Trout first coined the term “brand positioning” in 1969, describing it as “what advertising does to the product in the prospect’s mind.”

The concept was later cemented into the zeitgeist of the marketing world, when Trout, along with Al Reis, wrote their highly influential book, Positioning: The Battle of Your Mind, in 1981. Positioning became a foundation for developing brand strategies and has been pivotal in building some of the greatest brands in the world.

Why is brand positioning important?

Most marketing and advertising professionals agree that positioning is critical in building rewarding brand experiences, which are a fundamental building block to organizational growth. Branding with intention is important for any business because if you don’t do it, others, be they your customers or your competitors, will do it for you.

In some ways, positioning your business is like having a child. You do your best to prepare it for the world, but once it’s out there on its own, it’s at the mercy of the opinions of others. You can be proactive by:

  1. identifying your positioning early;
  2. refining it when necessary; and
  3. communicating it often.

In the end, brand positioning will improve your business’ chance of success for several reasons:

  • It provides clarity in every aspect of your business.
  • It helps you to say no to the wrong opportunities and yes to the right ones.
  • It allows you to better identify markets in which to expand.
  • It helps you determine your pricing strategy.
  • It helps you build expertise in a subject or vertical (or both).
  • It helps you stand out among a sea of competitors, and with the right positioning, it may reduce or eliminate competitors altogether.
  • It breeds efficiencies within the organization.
  • It makes your marketing more effective.
  • It helps you discover your brand personality.
  • It aides your customer in the buying process by streamlining the customer journey to make the customer experience more enjoyable and speeding up the customer buying process. (This will make your cash register ring faster and more often!)

Brand positioning strategies

There are many different types of positioning strategies your brand can develop to try and own a specific position in the minds of your customers. The best strategy is to position yourself according to something your customer desires that you can deliver better than your competitors. More on that later, but for right now, here are some potential strategies you might consider in your business:

  • Industry leader strategy
  • Innovation strategy
  • Service strategy
  • Low price strategy
  • Luxury strategy
  • Value-based strategy
  • Convenience strategy

Don’t limit yourself to just the more obvious strategies mentioned above. They’re obvious because they’re probably already taken by competitors in your specific industry. (Just one more great reason to undertake a comprehensive positioning exercise.)

Brand positioning pitfalls to avoid

Denise Lee Yohn, in her book, What Great Brands Do, warns against becoming an “er” brand. An “er” brand is like a competitor brand only “better”, “easier”, “tastier” etc. An “er” brand position is not a position at all. There is no way to win that real estate in the minds of your customers because it is already taken.

Similarly, being different for the sake of being different is equally detrimental to growing a brand. Being different is one thing, but to be different effectively, you must also be relevant and meaningful to your best-fit customers. If you’re running a funeral parlour and you realize one day that all the other funeral parlours are very serious, that doesn’t mean you should open up a fun-park themed funeral parlour with clowns and face painting. Sure, it’s different, but is it strategic?

One approach that can and has worked for some brands is the idea of repositioning the competition. This falls in the middle of being an “er” brand and being meaningfully different: you are comparing yourself to your competition while positioning your brand as meaningfully opposite. 7-Up did this in the 80s and 90s by positioning itself as the “un-cola”, essentially creating a new product subcategory outside of the larger category of “colas” and owning the position as the leader of the “fizzy drinks that are not cola” category. It was a brilliantly simple positioning strategy that carried the brand for years.

How to create a differentiated brand position.

At the core of a great brand position, you need to know three things:

  1. What does your customer desire;
  2. that you can deliver consistently well; and
  3. that your competitors can’t?

The diagram simply illustrates that your best position is to offer something that your competitors can’t that your customers want. That is the basis for any brand position. It’s a simple idea that is often difficult to realize.

The fact is, unless you are inventing a brand-new market category, there are likely already competitors in the market that you must contend with. And odds are, they are offering something similar. So, the question on everyone’s mind is, how do we create an effective brand positioning strategy?

The brand positioning statement

If you have been in marketing for any length of time, you have probably come across a positioning statement template before. There are many variations, but they all follow a very similar approach as the one illustrated below:

For target X, brand X is the category X that delivers point of differentiation X, so they get end benefit X because of proof X.

It is not uncommon to see a positioning statement like this:

For people who need accounting servicesABC Accounting is the accounting firm that delivers accurate accounting and timely service so clients can get their returns faster because we use the most advanced software, we have the most experienced accountants, and we’ve been in business for 50 years.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with a statement like this, it is often used as a crutch in place of a proper positioning exercise. The problem is these templates breed laziness. It is far too tempting to fill out one of these templates like you’re playing a game of Mad Libs.

The ABC Accounting statement says nothing meaningful about who the customer is or how ABC Accounting is meaningfully differentiated to provide them an experience their competitors can’t. Statements like these are the result of a lack of understanding of the positioning process.

How to determine your brand’s positioning. 

There are many models branding experts use to determine a brand’s strategic position in the marketplace. Some models are stronger than others. We’ve used several over the past couple of decades, borrowing from one, adding to another, etc., and we will likely continue to do so until we come up with the perfect one (which is likely to never happen). All this is to say, there are many ways to determine your brand’s positioning, and depending on your circumstances, it may come easily, or it may require more work than anticipated. The following outlines a process we’ve found to be effective and, in most cases, illuminating for our clients.

A couple of things to keep in mind before we begin:

1. Positioning means business.

Positioning is as much about business strategy as it is brand strategy. Positioning is not merely “marketing” and shouldn’t be delegated to your marketing lead. It is a leadership decision, and not one that should be taken lightly. It requires leadership participation, input and commitment if it is to ever succeed.

2. Context matters.

How your brand is framed in the larger context of the marketplace can be the difference between “killing it” and “getting killed.” Understanding context means understanding how people make sense of your brand relative to what’s going on around it. Take water, for example. In the olden-days, kids drank water from the hose outside a neighbour’s house, and now, water is bottled for convenience. We even pay different prices for water depending on how it’s marketed, where we buy it, how much we buy, whether we’re hot and thirsty, if we buy it from a machine or out of a cooler, whether it’s spring-fed, shipped from Europe, infused with vitamins or packaged in a carton, plastic or glass. But. It. Is. Still. Water. (that we used to drink for free from a hose) Now if you drink from a hose, it’s bad for you. If you drink from a bottle, it’s good for you. Context matters.

The brand positioning process

Step #1: Lay all assumptions aside.

The first step of any good positioning process is to put everything you think you know about your brand and your market out of your brain. Keep an open mind so you don’t presume to know the answers before you come by them honestly through the work ahead.

Step #2: Make a list of your best-fit customers.

Best-fit customers are not the same as “ideal customers.” Experience has shown us that most people would describe their ideal customer like this: “pay on time, understand the value we bring to the table, appreciate our creative process, trust us, pay for value, easy to work with, repeat orders without being prompted, etc.” This is not a best-fit client. It is not even an ideal client. This is a dream client, and that’s because they only live in your dreams. They don’t exist, or if they do, they are so few and far between it’s rare anybody could build a business on them alone.

To find your best-fit customers, make a list of customers or clients you work with. Split them into two groups: good customers and not-so-good customers – and don’t think too hard about it. You can go on gut and move them around later if you like. Then, list out each customers’ attributes. These could be based on the person themselves or the company you deal with (if you are B2B). Once you have their list of attributes, make a list of why you think they are either good or not-so-good customers. Once you have this list, start to look for patterns or similarities and group them accordingly.

Step #3: Determine your competitive alternatives.

What would people do if you didn’t exist? Write down your answers and leave no stone unturned. Keep in mind that we’re not talking about competitors here. We’re talking about alternatives. For example, if ABC Accounting did not exist, their customers might:

  • Go to another accounting firm they perceive as similar
  • Use an all-in-one business consultancy service that also does accounting
  • Muddle their way through their own accounting by hand
  • Use an online accounting program
  • Hire their cousin’s son who is good with numbers
  • Use an online service like H&R Block
  • Take accounting classes themselves
  • Or (shudder) put all their receipts in a drawer and never look at it again

The key here is to understand how your customers view your brand by understanding who they compare you with. Are you replaceable, and if so, by what or by whom?

Step #4: Identify your brand’s attributes.

Attributes, a.k.a. features, are the pieces that contribute to your customer’s overall brand experience. Many attributes are obvious, like a car’s ability to go from 0-60 in 3.2 seconds. Many, however, are not: especially when we are talking about an organizational brand vs. a product brand. For example, a list of organizational brand attributes could include things like:

  • Full-service offering
  • Expertise in a single vertical
  • Two-day onboarding period
  • High customer satisfaction rating
  • Established partnerships with several not-for-profits

But it could also include things that you might take for granted, like:

  • Open from 8-5
  • A person actually answers the phone
  • Located centrally downtown
  • Multilingual staff
  • Efficient standard operating procedures (SOPs)
  • Large boardroom
  • Willingness for staff to travel
  • Staff all below the age of 35

In fact, it could also be things you perceive as a negative, like:

  • Don’t accept credit cards
  • Less than five staff members
  • No experience in a specific industry
  • Don’t have 24-hour service

It’s important not to dismiss the impact of any of your brand’s attributes because some may have more of an effect on your customers than you realize. And quite often, something you might believe to be inconsequential or negative, could be a hidden asset that offers a valuable and unseen benefit to your best-fit customers.

It’s also important not to assume too much. For example, it’s one thing to say, we have a high customer satisfaction rating that is based on actual data, versus saying “our customers love us” which could be driven by personal bias.

Step #5: Establish each attribute’s potential value.

What benefit might each of your attributes offer to the customer? And what value does each of those benefits provide? For example, “willingness to travel” provides the benefit of the client not needing to travel and not needing to task someone with travel planning. The values to the customer could include more time with their family or servicing their own clients.

Once each attribute’s value has been established, try to group them into themes. For example, a research company that provides accurate and immediate customer feedback at the point of contact, could have several attributes that also offer benefits and value that could be grouped loosely into the theme of “helps the business to scale.”

Step #6: Determine who cares about these themes. 

Once you’ve narrowed down your value themes, look at your list of best-fit clients and determine who cares about those themes the most. Break your list apart into segments based on commonalities as they relate to the themes. And finally, create an audience or target persona based on the segments that have the themes in common.

Let’s say you are a hair salon that has several attributes that contribute to environmental sustainability. These could include “uses sustainable hair products,” “recycles all liquid material responsibly” and “uses solar power.” One of the value themes you’ve landed on might be “a guilt-free pamper session.”

You might look at your entire list of best-fit customers and discover that there is a much smaller segment within your list that really cares about that theme. They might be described as 30-something, professional women who shop locally, enjoy yoga classes, wear little make-up, have at least one child, are comfortable in social settings, speak their minds, wear natural fabrics, believe in their self-worth, and speak directly about serious topics.

This segment would likely be more interested in a “guilt-free pamper session” than a different segment who drives a large SUV and doesn’t recycle. They might still love a good pamper session, but they wouldn’t care whether they were helping to save the planet at the same time.

Step #7: Re-examine your market frame of reference.

Now that you’ve developed a better understanding of who cares about the unique value you provide, it’s time to revisit your understanding of the market in which you operate. Often, brands will misread their own market and try to convince their target that they are a square peg even though their market is a round hole.

There are a few ways to determine which market you best fit in. One way is to look at the market you believe you operate in and determine whether your newly created list of features, benefits and values fit that market. Another is to look at adjacent markets to see if perhaps you need to shuffle over a bit. You could also just ask customers how they view you. It’s important not to accept their opinions as fact, however, because they will usually try to position you in a market they are already familiar with, without considering there could be other, more appropriate markets.

As an agency that has gone through several evolutions over the past couple of decades, I can pull from our own experience to illustrate this idea. When we first started out in 2000, we believed we were entering the advertising industry and that our clients needed advertising services. Very quickly, we realized that our customers didn’t view us as an ad agency because we were not large and didn’t have the experience other, more established agencies had (even though we provided all the services a large agency did). We were viewed as a graphic design studio. Looking back now, it made sense. We were boutique (small) and provided a very specific design aesthetic. As we were very inexperienced, we didn’t understand the importance of positioning at the time, and we continued to fight against the current, trying to compete against larger agencies in a market that didn’t recognize us as such. Had we realized our market viewed us as a boutique graphic design shop, we likely would have intentionally positioned ourselves much differently, especially if we were armed with a better understanding of the value we brought to those who really cared.

Step #8: Put it all together.

Once you have a clear idea of the value you offer that your best-of-the-best-fit customers care about the most, and you understand the market in which you are truly competing, it’s time to put it together in a well-articulated statement. The format of this statement is less important than making sure the information in it is accurate. If it takes two sentences, great! If it requires more, that’s ok too. Sometimes it’s easier to put more in and edit it down afterwards. Getting a third party to help with the editing process can be helpful as it provides fresh eyes and they may challenge some aspects of the statement, forcing you to clarify and refine until it is perfect.

Nothing is ever perfect.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. Many things are in fact, pretty perfect: the perfect cup of coffee in the morning, the perfect sunset, the perfect night’s sleep that leaves you completely refreshed in the morning. And, your positioning can be perfect too, for a time. But it will change.

Positioning is not a “set it and forget it” exercise. It changes because the environment in which a brand exists changes. Trends come and go, and economies, tastes, priorities and goals change, so your positioning needs to change to stay relevant.

How often or to what degree it needs to change is dependent on the factors listed above and more. It’s the brand leaders’ job to diligently nurture and watch over the brand to ensure it grows and evolves with the marketplace.

What’s next?

Once you’ve defined your position and have it down on paper, test it. Look at the market and try to determine whether you can own the position you’ve created in the minds of your market. If yes, that’s great. If not, you may need to take a step back and re-evaluate.

We’ve created an easy-to-follow positioning criteria checklist to help you determine whether your brand can effectively own a place in people’s minds.

Assuming you are happy with the position you have established, we recommend moving on to the next step in the branding process: discovering your brand personality.

Your brand personality is what helps your brand connect with your audience on a more human level. Developing your brand personality is a topic for another blog post, but it’s worth mentioning here because it reinforces the idea that developing a powerful and effective brand is not a singular exercise. There are several elements, and when they are built out intentionally and with the right amount of effort, they all work together to build an effective brand strategy that will help you stand out like a diamond in a market of coal.

Callum Beattie