Putting Brand Positioning On Pause

Patrick HanlonJuly 18, 20223 min
Al Ries and Jack Trout

I once sat in an auditorium with a group of marketers to hear Jack Trout and Al Ries talk about their new book, “Positioning: The Battle For Your Mind.” They handed out a narrow orange (orange!) pamphlet that highlighted their ideas — I still have it somewhere.

In the 1970s, Positioning pushed forward the perceptive notion that by framing your product in certain ways, you “positioned” your product in people’s minds versus its competitors .

Since then, the “battle for your minds” concept of positioning has become a rote conference room discussion point. Over 40 years ago, I was a big fan. I’m still a big fan, really, but positioning needs to be re-positioned for marketing in 2022.

Why? First, because “Positioning” is a tool for a different era. It was built for top-down “push” strategies whereby hierarchical pyramid-shaped companies dictated how people should think about their products.

Today, we live in a bottom-up social world where people could care less what a company wants. They care about how their peers think about products and services — check the ratings, count the Likes, read the reviews.

(In fact, there may be times when the quality of your product doesn’t matter as much as the passionate affinity of your fan base.)

The voice of the customer (VOC) reigns.

“Positioning is the art of sacrifice,” explains innovation strategist Michael Perman, formerly at Gap and Levi’s. “Your brand needs to let go of trying to please everyone. Instead, be comfortable that losing affinity from some helps build love from the brand fans that matter most.”

Fifty years ago, quality and quantity were not assured. Features and benefits were essential points in the marketing mix. These days, consumers will find little difference between the 100s of pairs of jeans, drinks (from almond milks and smoothies to sodas), and beauty wellness products. And remember that rival brands sometimes are made in the same outsourced factory overseas. Exclamation point.

The point of traditional positioning was to differentiate products in the minds of consumers. These days, we have even more ways to differentiate not only in media, but in real life.

Are you available online? Are you purpose driven? Do you harm the planet? Do you harm your users or your employees? Does your package look snappy? Is your interface easy to use? Can I spot it on the aisle end cap? Can you personalize it for me? Do my friends like you? Do I like you?

The experiences desired by today’s customers are as deep as they are long. And very different from the bullet points the 1970s consumer was expected to choke down in a barrage of feature/function messaging.

“Positioning only, as delivered by single minded propositions or USPs will kill a brand or worse, make it feel old,” says chief strategy officer Lee Maicon.“Brands need to be everywhere all at once.“However, without the clarity and discipline brought by a single word equity, a brand or company runs the risk of trying to be all things to all people.”

The discipline of positioning helps us create ideas that adhere to one another. But we can’t imagine it’s 1979 and think that once we have distilled the positioning to its core we’re all done.

That focus must birth a thousand iterations for the brand.”

Which creates a paradox. Positioning is both wrong for today and vitally necessary.

Brand communities are not driven solely by theme lines, but a systematic pattern that pings rational and emotional nerve openings spread across social, digital and traditional media.

You stand up and see how many others stand up with you.

In the battle for our minds, positioning may still be a part of the conversation, but it won’t win the war.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Patrick Hanlon, Author of Primal Branding

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