In our last PositioningTip®, we identified the increased importance of differentiating brands when competing in crowded and competitive markets. We reviewed how, in these situations, brand teams have a tendency to move toward a broader, less narrowly-defined positioning strategy in an attempt to widen their field of opportunity. This less-descriptive positioning often leads to a less interesting—and frequently under performing—brand. While our last tip outlined one potential solution: strengthening the positioning by more specifically defining the brand’s targeted customer, this tip offers an additional solution to help your brand outperform the competition in highly competitive markets.

In many crowded and competitive markets, customer needs are well established. Within these categories it is not unusual for multiple brands to have a positioning strategy that hinges upon satisfying the customer’s primary need within the category. For example, multiple laundry detergent brands have established themselves as the choice for getting your clothes the cleanest. In many cases, a new brand entering the market may feel that, in order to compete, they too must also claim a “gets clothes cleaner” positioning strategy. The thinking behind this choice is that customers want their clothes cleaner and, therefore, we need to deliver the benefit they are looking for. On the surface this thinking makes sense, but it doesn’t take into account that customers may be relatively satisfied with the level of clean they can achieve and that delivering “cleaner” clothes doesn’t entice them enough to switch brands. In fact, taking this positioning stance may cause your product to be somewhat “invisible” to customers due to the number of competitors occupying the same mental space. In situations such as this, the best thing to do may be the opposite of what seems obvious: identify another related but different problem that your brand can uniquely solve. Let’s go back to our laundry detergent example. For years, brands in this market focused only on the primary benefit of getting clothes cleaner. It became the requirement, every brand claimed it, every ad mentioned it; many brands compared their level of clean to the competitor’s level of clean. It became a virtual “clean” war. Over time, possessing the benefit of “cleaner clothes” was no longer unique enough to build a positioning strategy on. Instead, reaching a particular threshold of “clean” became the cost-of-entry every brand needed to possess to be considered a legitimate player.

So how do new brands differentiate themselves? For some brands, this means focusing on the way they clean clothes. Some brands highlight the ability to remove the most difficult stains, which may be more appealing to consumers with active children. Others focus on preserving the fabric’s original color when they clean, suggesting the product is less harsh for those consumers whose clothes may be more “gently worn”. By focusing on resolving a derivative of the consumer’s central problem (getting clothes clean), in a unique way, these brands are better positioned to differentiate themselves from competitors identified solely by the benefit of cleaner clothes. This perceptual separation resolves the central need while enhancing the benefit to resolve an important and related need many consumers still hold, creating differentiation for the brand.

Ultimately, the point of this PositioningTip® is similar to the last, being the fifth, sixth, or tenth entry into a market and attempting to resolve the same consumer problem as the brands before you with no significant difference in performance is a recipe for mediocrity at best and abject failure at worst. The suggestions in this Tip and the last may feel very counterintuitive and to some extent that is the benefit. Positioning your brand to resolve another consumer need not only helps you to differentiate your brand, it also helps reduce the competitive pressure on your brand. The goal of positioning is to make your brand stand out and encourage your target customers to choose it, which is nearly impossible when your brand and competitive brands are all saying and doing the same thing.

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