Commoditizing Product Categories

While we at Brand Engineers work across a variety of industries, we have very broad and deep experience working within the pharmaceutical industry, helping brand managers develop positioning for new products and repositioning existing products.  Even though you may not work within the pharmaceutical industry, this “Positioning Tip” may be worth your time since the concepts apply to brand positioning regardless of the industry or product category.

The greatest problem we see across many therapeutic categories is the relative “sameness” of product positioning.  It is this “sameness” that creates the strategic issue that most brand managers struggle to overcome, the commoditization of products within competitive categories.  The use of the word product above is purposeful because most of the positioning we see is limited strictly to the physical attributes of the product and does not reach deeper into understanding the customer and drawing the associations necessary to create a brand.

A true brand positioning seeks to create an association with a target customer that other products in the category have not or cannot create, to create a perception that provides these customers a path to understanding how your brand satisfies their needs in a way that cannot be satisfied by your competition.  It is at this point that we begin to create the differentiation that is the point of brand positioning in the first place.

Where does this lack of differentiation come from?  It starts in how the core components of the positioning are created.  Since most products within a category, even across categories, create these major components in virtually identical ways the end result is most often a positioning statement that relies on minute differences between competitors.  If you were to objectively evaluate many of these positioning statements you would be hard pressed to find any difference that is meaningful to the brand’s target customers.  Why?

Let’s look at some of the core components that most brand teams include in a positioning statement and see if we can help bring some clarity to this discussion.  First and foremost is the Target.  In most positioning statements this is treated as a throw-away component, we all know who our target is (or think we do), it’s the Primary Care Physician or the Cardiologist or the Oncologist; generally the Target is defined by the sales rep call plan and is identified in sweeping generalities.  The target in most positioning statements is overly broad as in All Primary Care Physicians treating high blood pressure.  This target identifies everyone as a core target for the brand and shows no insight as to what need these customers may have or how our product may uniquely be able to satisfy it.  This target definition shows little understanding of the customer which is crucial in creating the next positioning component, the Benefit.

Ultimately, the reason anyone uses a brand is for the benefit they obtain by that use.  Be it a reflection of their self-image, having cleaner laundry, or a brighter smile, selecting a specific brand often implies a Benefit that the customer wants to receive.  Implicit in defining a Benefit is identification of a compelling need that the customer has or one that you make them realize they have.  So identification of a need really reflects back on to the Target discussion we were having moments ago and provides the opportunity to help us develop a unique Target for our brand.  Once we have defined a unique Target and identified a need that the Target has, we can begin to define the Benefit our brand delivers.  This is where most brands face the greatest difficulty.  Benefit in the pharmaceutical industry is most often defined functionally; in our example, the benefit for the high blood pressure medication may be something like “Product X is the only product that can safely lower blood pressure in a once-a-day dose with a lower incidence of upset stomach”.  Not only are these benefits likely to be cost-of-entry benefits, but the support behind each one is often superior to the competition in such small degrees that they are either non-evident in a physician’s practice or unrelated to any real need the customer may have and therefore is a meaningless differentiator.  As marketers, if we better understand our target customer we can more appropriately define a Benefit that is meaningful to them.  Most consumers make product choices that are more heavily based on the emotional benefits brand provide them rather than on purely rational ones.  Don’t be afraid to explore the emotional and attitudinal side of brand positioning, this is where many of the strongest brands today have secured their place it the customers’ mind.

This leads us to the Reason To Believe in our positioning statement.  Whether the Benefit is functional or not, it is important to strive to define a differentiating Reason To Believe.  Within a therapeutic category, most products have been developed and tested to answer the same questions in the same way.  This is a result of standards within a category as much as extremely caution in the development process.  Therefore, every product within a category has nearly identical clinical data often with differences around the margins.  Within the development of positioning (and this needs to be seen as separate from the regulatory process by which promotional messages are approved) a brand team must look at ways to support the product benefit that continue to create differentiation between them and competitors.  Each facet of the positioning statement should build on the uniqueness of the brand and how different it is from its competition and the Reason To Believe is no different.  If we have given serious consideration to the Target and the Benefit we will have established a pathway to defining a unique and differentiating way to express the Reason To Believe.  If, however, we have followed the route of “sameness” then our Reason To Believe will likely support it.

These goals of positioning development are not easy to implement and take a great deal of hard work to create, but the value to the brand and the organization when it is done right can be measured in dollar sales and market share.  So really ask yourself the question, “Is this positioning statement really differentiating from the competition, or am I just hoping it will be?”


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