This tip has been on my mind for a couple weeks now. I started thinking about it after I received the second of three similar calls over a two-week period. For some reason things happen in threes and apparently so does ineffective advertising, who knew?

In each case the problem the brand or market research manager called to discuss were pretty similar. They each had been qualitatively testing some new ad concepts, but the responses they were getting from customers were poor. Not just “not great”, I mean really poor. No real connection, nothing differentiating, they weren’t getting the central idea the team were hoping the ads conveyed, they were basically missing on all the core measurements you look for in traditional ad concept research.

The intention of this PositioningTip is not to discuss qualitative research techniques and which measures should be used to determine the impact of a new ad concept. Instead, the purpose of this Tip is to discuss what happened a step or two earlier in the process. This is just a brief look at a one of two examples where ad concepts were missing the mark and a couple things for you to keep in mind if you’re faced with a similar problem.

In both of these cases the issue that seemed to be taking the concepts off track centered on how the positioning was interpreted and used to develop the creative brief. In both cases there were specific, fundamental problems within the brand positioning strategy that sent the ad concepts off course. Let’s take a look at just one of these here.

In this example, the brand is being studied for additional uses that will be available in the next few years. In order to gain a competitive advantage they wish to start setting the stage for these extended uses and begin shifting customer perceptions now in preparation.

Strategically the goal makes sense, yet after more than 5 rounds of creative concept development and 2 qualitative research starts, they are still unable to develop creative concepts that communicate the message they wish to get across or that engage the customer as fully as they’d like. It was at this point a team member felt they may be too close to the problem and asked me if I could take a look and give them an outsiders perspective.

After discussing the problem they were having, I wanted to see if there was anything in the guiding documents that may have been steering them in the wrong direction and that could be cleared up pretty easily. I asked for and reviewed the brand positioning strategy and the creative brief for the ad development to see if there was anything that may be getting them hung up. What I found were a couple issues, things that I’ve seen before and think many brands suffer from unwittingly.

First off, and probably the most problematic issue, was that both the positioning statement for the brand and the creative brief for this stage of execution were defining the problem to be resolved as an internal problem. The “need” as it was being defined was the problem the brand was having, but it was written in a way that made it feel like a customer problem. In my first read through it was easy to miss because the problem was described in a way that read and felt like a customer problem, but in scrutinizing it further, it became clear that it was really a definition of the problem the brand faced and not a customer “need” at all.

Obviously, this was a huge part of the problem they were having. If your customers don’t recognize a need or desire they have and are looking to resolve (a true need they have, not one we wish they had), your product will have no relevance to them. If it has no relevance it will create no interest and have zero opportunity to influence the perception those customers hold.

The second problem was associated with what we, as marketers, can expect from an ad. Ads are tactics, they are communication vehicles, and in the best case an ad communicates a single idea extremely well. An ad can shift the thinking of the reader and advance the brand’s strategic case. Like we discussed above, an ad can do neither of these things if it isn’t relevant to the customer and connected to a need or desire they have. Don’t get me wrong, an interesting image or a provocative headline may slow the reader down, but they quickly determine if the subject is relevant to them. If it’s not, they’re gone.

In this case, the objective of the ad was to resolve a problem and communicate the state of the brand that will not exist for several years. Not only is it a condition that isn’t identified by the target customer as being relevant, it is so far into the future that the customer cannot see the issue the brand is attempting to resolve even when it is explained to them.

Put another way, the perceptual change the ad is intending to effect is so steep and the idea so irrelevant to the customer at this time that it is all but impossible for the ad to be successful. Basically, the objective for the ad concepts was more than likely unachievable. In the best-case scenario, with a positioning strategy and creative brief that do not reflect the customer, the brand team may stumble upon a creative idea that nudges the customer toward their goal at the cost of significant advertising dollars. In the worst-case they will spend a huge amount of money and time in round after round of creative development and never achieve the result they’re looking for, wasting dollars that could be put toward other, more effective, tactics.

Keep these things in mind the next time you find yourself developing tactics that seem to be missing the mark. Ask yourself if what you’re attempting to achieve is clear and realistic? As I said earlier, this is not an isolated incident. If you are struggling to get customers engaged and get the right message across, step back a little and reassess the foundational strategies and documents guiding you forward, you’ll often find that the problem starts there.





If you want your product, service or business to win in a competitive market, your positioning strategy had better be more than a soft definition of your target customer and a somewhat generic benefit they get when buying from you.

Consider the fact that while you’re trying to get customers interested in your product or service, your competitor or competitors are trying to do the same thing. Worst of all, while they’re trying to convince customers to use their product they are also trying to convince them to not use yours.

So the negative effects of a soft positioning strategy are compounded because your product doesn’t exist in a world where the opposite of engagement is mediocrity. In the competitive markets where most of us compete, the opposite of engagement is obscurity.

The positioning you define for your brand creates a scenario made of the interaction of three entities, your product or service, target customers, and your competitors. The strength of your positioning will determine the competitive quadrant you exist in. Let’s take a quick look at how these quadrants are defined.


(1) Your competitor’s positioning connects with your customers and resolves their needs/problems/desires better than your product or service. In this scenario your product is seen as inferior and your growth stagnates or declines. This is the “Losing Zone”.

(2) In this second quadrant your positioning doesn’t connect with customers in any significant way. This scenario occurs when marketers generalize their target in an attempt to broaden their market potential. The result is most often a misalignment between what customers are looking for in a product or service and what they believe you can deliver. If you find yourself in this area, your business is stagnant at best and may decline rapidly if competitors make even a slight connection to target customers. This is the “Irrelevant Zone”.

(3) This scenario is not as dire as the two listed above. In this case you have created a positioning that relates to your target customer, at least somewhat, and so has your competitor. While your positioning relates to the target customer, it doesn’t connect deeply or create sufficient differentiation to provide a strong competitive advantage. When this scenario develops you fight tooth and nail with your competitor for every customer. You spend heavily on promotion with a very low ROI and market share barely moves; any gains are extremely hard fought and expensive. This is the “Battle Zone”.

(4) The last quadrant is the landing zone for engaging and differentiating positioning. When you’ve created a positioning strategy that has a clearly defined target customer with a need, problem, or desire that is uniquely satisfied by your product, service, or company you end up here. In this quadrant you create significant differentiation and customer engagement; sales grow, market share grows, promotional efficiency increases, and ROI multiplies. In this quadrant you develop market leadership even if you are not the largest player. A strong, differentiating positioning strategy is critical to reaching this area known as the “Winning Zone”.

As you assess your products, services, and company, consider where you fall in these four quadrants and what it will take to get into the “Winning Zone”. If it’s not clear how to get there, send me an email (click here) and we can set up a short call to discuss your situation. What do you have to lose, the email and call are free, but doing the same thing you have been may cost you everything.


Mature Brands Can Be Competitive Brands


Mature Brands Can Be Competitive Brands

At the end of last week, I was doing an interview for a marketing podcast. Near the end of the session, the interviewer asked an interesting question:

“When a potential client calls you, what is the main problem they call about?”

My mind quickly sorted through the hundreds of conversations I’ve had over the years and I came up with a list of three general areas covering a few of the major categories:

Scenario 1) the brand manager or business owner has a new product that is a little different from competitors in the market, but not what they’d consider to be different enough to make the strategic approach obvious. They want to know how to maximize the differentiation and carve out a sizeable chunk of the market to reach the sales goals they have.

Scenario 2) the brand manager or business owner has a product that’s been on the market for a relatively short period of time but isn’t as competitive and successful as they hoped. They’ve changed the messages and the creative, maybe more than once, but the impact has been limited and the product still isn’t performing the way they need it to.

Scenario 3) the brand manager or business owner is in charge of a brand that has been successful in the past, maybe even a market leader, but new market developments, technological advances, or shifting customer needs have moved the market out from under it. Today the brand is one of the pack, holding on to a piece of the market – although declining – generating some decent revenue, but not maxing out the potential it still has even as it nears the end of its lifecycle.

While the first two scenarios are obvious and continue to make up the majority of calls we receive and projects we work on, it was the recent uptick in calls and projects we’ve accepted related to scenario three that made me think this may make for an interesting PositioningTip®.

The Challenge of Mature Brands

In many cases these mature products or services have been highly successful in the past. Many were market leaders at some point. Company expectations are still relatively high, but new branded products garner most of the attention and generic competition is eroding the traditional customer base.

Sales are flat or declining and in spite of changing the messaging and creative to revitalize the brand, its impact has been negligible. Overall, promotional efforts that had been successful in the past also seem to have little effect and the customers we’ve successfully targeted before no longer see the brand as the best answer to the problem they have.

Potential Solutions

In many of these cases the team has taken the right steps but just needs a different perspective to realign the opportunity with the market that exists today. It’s a very natural course of action to stay with what has made the brand successful in the past. Even in cases where the team has considered shifting their perspective they frequently make incremental changes. This approach is completely understandable but doesn’t change the trajectory much, if at all.

Experience with brands like this over the years has exposed several common pitfalls. The most prominent is many “start at the end,” meaning teams try to shift the brand sales curve by changing the messages and creative execution as a first step. The assumption is that the product or service is still relevant to the target customer, but the messages aren’t resonating and the creative no longer catches their attention. We’ve worked with teams that have spent countless dollars and hours developing, testing, and refining new copy and creative with little to show for it. In the worst cases, teams have done this multiple times trying to get the “right” messages to move the sales needle.

The decision to change the messages and creative can be the right one, but instead of making these changes as a first step, we guide our clients to step back and reevaluate the target customer. Often, the historic target customer is no longer the customer with the potential to drive sales.

Does this mean scrapping everything that’s been done before? Sometimes. The answer lies in where the market is today in comparison to where the market was when the latest positioning strategy was developed. By stepping back to the beginning, determining what the product or service brings to the market in light of changing dynamics, understanding who the customers are today and which can be successfully targeted, and creating a positioning strategy that is relevant and differentiating, a mature brand can contribute significantly to the organization.

One last point, when reassessing the target and the positioning strategy the tendency is to broaden both with the hope that a larger target audience provides greater opportunity. We urge our clients, whether they’re introducing a new product or attempting to grow an existing one, to be more selective than less. In the case of mature brands, this adage is even more important; broad, non-descript targeting, and non-differentiating positioning strategy will leave potential customers even less interested in your product or service.

Admittedly, the opportunities for declining brands aren’t always easy to see. If you have been charged with maximizing a mature brand and would like another perspective, simply click reply and contact us today.


“The essence of strategy is …


“The essence of strategy is …

… that you must set limits on what you’re trying to accomplish.”  --Michael Porter

Few products are introduced that revolutionize markets. Most often, products are introduced with only marginal differences from competitors. Many marketers focus on trying to win over the same customers who are already using a competitive brand by convincing them their product is “better.” In many cases, these marketers spend a great deal of time and money making the case for why consumers need to change their habits, despite the product’s marginal differences. The truth is that most marketers lose the perspective of the customer and promote their product through the eyes of the marketer instead.

The thinking is that if I keep telling them how important the differences are, eventually they’ll see the light and switch to my product.

No, they won’t; at least not before you’ve wasted a boat-load of money and time. If your competitor is willing to fight for their position in the market, it may never happen.

It is far more strategic -- and often more lucrative -- to find customers interested in the benefits your product delivers, than it is to try and convince customers who don’t believe to believe. What does that mean? It means that your brand will do a lot better if you spend the time determining who the customers are that will actually benefit from the differences your product does offer and selling to them.

If your product isn’t an identical copy of your competitor’s brand, use your differences to find the customers that aren’t thrilled by the competitive offering. Show them how your product meets their needs better, then focus on growing your audience. If your product is the same, analyze potential customer groups, determine those that are underserved and target them specifically showing how your product can help them.

Successful marketers recognize where the opportunities lie and follow those paths. First, make headway in a market and then set out to take more and more customers. The best opportunities often follow the paths of least resistance, not the head on, full out battle with a competitor for their customers.

We talk about positioning strategy a lot, but the fundamental aspect of positioning that is most often skipped over is the one that makes the biggest difference. Carefully answering the question: “who is the customer that will find that my product solves their problem better than the products available to them now?” Find these customers first and use them to create the momentum you need to make your brand successful.


Do You Really Know What Your Customers Need?


Do You Really Know What Your Customers Need?

If you're like most business owners, the answer is "kind of," here's an example:

A couple days ago, my friend Tracy called. She owns a small business – about 20 employees – they make tech gadgets designed for moms.


To make a long story short, her company designed a device to be smaller and have better battery life than a couple competitors. They were very gung-ho and knew that the new device would give them a competitive advantage.

They got the device into production, started promoting it, and were expecting to see some significant demand. The problem was, they didn’t.

So when Tracy called the conversation went something like this …

“Hey Den – Tracy never uses my full name – you know we launched our new product a few months ago, but sales are pretty disappointing and I can’t figure out exactly why.”

“Can you be more specific?” I said.

Tracy went on to explain, “We released this new product. Before we developed it we knew from our customers and others that they wanted something that was smaller and had better battery life. We were able to work through some technical limitations, but finally figured out how to give them exactly what they wanted…The problem is, sales are decent, but not what we were expecting and I’m really not sure why, we know it’s what they want.”

My first question to Tracy was the question I ask all my clients, “Are you sure you’re targeting the right customers?”

A great irony in marketing is that one of the strongest marketing strategies is also one of the most feared: focusing your effort on some customers and not others. As markets become hypercompetitive and the innovation gap (the difference between the features and benefits of one product compared to others) disappears, failing to define a clear customer target for your product or service is a death sentence.

Successful strategy needs to clearly identify the target customer. It’s not necessary that the target group is small, just well defined and ownable. Many business owners and marketers struggle with the thought of limiting the number of potential customers out of fear that it will hinder their potential success.

In fact, not being super-clear about who your target customer is decreases the likelihood that potential customers will know you’re talking to them. One of the most powerful marketing strategies is defining your customer AND the need your product or service will satisfy for them. If your target audience is too broad, you will need to be more general about the benefit your product or service delivers, and this will leave every customer unsure if your product or service is actually for them.

So the very goal of appealing to a broad audience with the hope of reaching more customers often results in the exact opposite; less customers recognize your product or service is meant for them.

Go ahead and define your ‘ideal’ customer – hyper define them – know who they are, how they live, the types of decisions they make, what exactly their needs are, and make sure they know your product or service is meant for them. It may be uncomfortable, but it’s your best chance for success.