A few weeks ago, at a positioning seminar we were running for a group of brand and market research managers, a young brand manager asked an interesting question: “How do we take positioning from the theoretical to something more tangible?”  The discussion that followed intrigued me because, for the first time in quite some time, I realized that she wasn’t the only person in the room who thought this way.  Maybe it’s because, at Brand Engineers, we spend everyday working on and thinking about brand positioning that we overlook the fact that some marketers understand the “idea” of positioning, but not the practical application of it. While we don’t have the room to cover every aspect of this topic in a single PositioningTip®, we will start with some of the underlying issues and principles and expand in subsequent issues.

The first step in unraveling this perspective is to unpack it a bit. Most marketers conceptually understand what positioning is and what it is intended to do for their brand. However, it seems that just as many lack confidence in the idea that committing to a singular positioning over time will create a brand that is more successful than one that lacks this level of direction. Maybe this is due in part to a fear of putting all of one’s eggs in a single perceptual basket. What if the basket isn’t the right one, or the biggest one, or the one that my target customer is looking for? These are all legitimate questions and maybe they get us closer to the heart of the original question. Maybe the root of the original question is actually: “How do I know I have the right positioning?”

The simple answer to this question is that there are likely multiple positioning options available to your brand. Each option will achieve different business objectives and determining which option is best for your brand is part of the challenge. Positioning is a strategic destination that you are driving your brand toward, and one that should have been selected from a number of options based on information about your product, market, competitors, and target customers. Any good positioning process should generate multiple positioning options and a framework for evaluating each based on the strategic, tactical, and financial considerations that choice will have on your brand.

Two fundamental questions to ask yourself that are necessary to be comfortable with the positioning you select for your brand are: how well do I understand my competitors and their perceptions in the market; and what are the insights I have about my target customers that potentially makes my brand interesting, relevant, and differentiating to them? The first question is necessary because it helps to define the business strategy at the center of the brand and the potential “open-space” that exists in the market. A strong competitive understanding enables us to make conscientious decisions regarding our willingness to take on a competitor directly, whether to focus on an un-served or underserved segment of the market, to influence when or how our product is used, etc.

As for our second question, understanding something about our target customers that our competitors either do not understand or are unable to address provides a basis for developing confidence in your selected brand positioning. Take the case of Southwest Airlines (we covered their positioning on our Positioning Blog which you can get to by clicking here), Southwest understood that many airline passengers were unsatisfied with the hidden rules and fees imposed by the big name airlines and that these customers just wanted to get to their destination without the extra hassles they perceived came with air travel. Southwest fashioned their brand as a “Challenge Brand” and set themselves apart by doing exactly the opposite of the major carriers. Southwest understood their target customer and exactly what this customer group found annoying with the major carriers, then Southwest delivered exactly what they knew would satisfy this target customer. Was there a risk in pursuing this strategy? Certainly there were, there are risks in all strategic decisions including playing it safe (which may be the riskiest of all). More than likely Southwest had other options, but because they understood their customer they were confident in moving the brand toward this positioning.

So the point is, setting a positioning strategy is the commitment to where you intend to see your brand in the market. By assessing your competitors and understanding your customers you are identifying the unsatisfied needs in the market and taking direct steps to place your brand in that space. The stronger your efforts in understanding the competition and the customer the more confident you will feel about your selected positioning and the clearer the implementation efforts needed will become.

In subsequent PositioningTips®, we will dive deeper into the level of understanding you should have about both your competition and your customers to generate a strong and viable positioning for your brand.

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