Jonathan emailed me a meaty little question a couple of weeks ago. In essence, is brand positioning useful? Is The Ries and Trout model out of date? Should they be static or fluid? And is it any use taking clients through the pain of one?
It's really good to ask fundamental questions like this - you start answering, thinking it's going to be easy, and you find your logic unraveling right there in front of you. A bit like when someone asks you discuss the importance of brands. So thanks Jonathan, it's good to ask yourself hard questions like this sometimes.
Here's how I responded. It's not edited, since I quite like watching where my train of thought went. (And by the way if you want another, more, ahem, succinct take on positioning, ask the ever generous and brilliant Rob Campbell)
"Can’t resist this damn you.
Taking it bit by bit........positioning is a bit of a dirty, and misused word. Maybe only second to the word ‘brand’. Many people use the word ‘positioning’ for very different things.
In essence, I think it’s still occupying a place in your category that someone else does not. But in an age when most stuff is pretty much the same, that place is in the MIND (and maybe it always was). That’s what Ries and Trout was about, and it’s still relevant. Thanks to the complications in media planning and engagement now, it’s doubly so.
And to be honest, I find market mapping is still the best way to start this. Sometimes, just mapping where people fit in the category is enough... ..........
...........but once you have that logical start, by and large it’s better to map it according to what people actually think about the brands in that category and what they like, dislike about them. That means that you position yourself, but you’re also positioning the type of customer you’re after and what they really think and feel.
This also allows you to decide to focus on strengths, or work on your weaknesses. Alfa Romeo’s work on the 159 right now is great. They know the brand is loved by some for its sheer Italian style, but some won’t buy because of reliability issues. A brand with that heritage cannot reject it overnight, so they play to strengths by talking about how reliable the car is, but acknowledging that you’ll only use that as a justification, you’re STILL just buying its sheer beauty...........
That’s why I find your question about GQ or Ipod or anyone else having a positioning is so valid and so important. If you ask anyone outside the marketing bubble where these brands are positioned in the market, they couldn't’t tell you. If you ask them why they LIKE them, that would be different. Just like if you ask someone where the Simpsons is positioned in the TV market, they’ll struggle (sitcom cartoon for adults AND kids?), but they can tell you how much they love the fact the whole family enjoys it. Or people will say they love the way their Ipod looks and how easy it is to use. You need to follow THEIR logic and work outwards from there.
That can take you beyond both rational ideas, and the emotional brand image/emotional brand essence stuff people are seeing through these days. That stuff isn’t worth the effort.
Occupying a place in people’s heads is still the goal, but even an emotional place isn’t quite enough. Once you have this area, that’s where you start to apply some cultural magic, and here’s where I’ll bring in some examples.
Like Yakult. There’s young family, fun brands like Muller, some based on flavour, some based on science, even a Mumsy one. On a basic level Yakult is the one with the history and the heritage. But really, it’s positioned on a deeper cultural idea. They’ve realised that the proliferation of all those brands is confusing to the average punter, just as health in general is a bloody minefield. So Yakult is really positioned on down to earth sense and simplicity. The fact is that it’s the bacteria that matters, the idea is something that makes fun of all that needless, overblown complication.
Take Lurpak. On the face of it, it’s positioned as a quality ingredient. But the idea is much bigger. Life is complex, time is precious. Healthy eating isn’t simple either. Nor is cooking well. Nor is ethical, organic living. There is so much advice out there, you don’t know where to start. Lurpak makes things easy for you by championing good quality food, and ingredients as the blindingly obvious solution. It’s THAT easy. Even losing weight is easy in Lurpak world........don’t sacrifice taste, it’s easy, just have slightly smaller portions.
Some work I’m doing with a small independent coffee chain just needs to be a smaller alternative to a Starbucks or Cafe Nero. On the face of it, it’s about a more personalised service, but the real brand idea is about recognising the importance of small communities. Our audience tends to dislike the way their high streets have become plastered with the same brand names – and like stuff to be more local. They know, and so does the brand, that the best way to look after yourself is to look after others first.
All of these brands have a clear raison d’etre. But what makes them work is strong cultural idea. They have clear position in the category, a clear spot in the consumer brain - a clear vision.........and they get there with a strong cultural idea.
The cultural bit, the voice is hard. How do you make it instantly relevant and likable? Much of that is doing it through lots of little ideas that add up to one big one, held together by an authentic voice........just like every episode of Corry has it’s own little story, amidst a much bigger plot that evolves and changes over time.
Take Heroes – that US TV series I seem to have fallen in love with. You can see that it was sold in as something totally new in the market – ‘comic book stories for adults’, with all the realism and complexity they’re used to thanks to Lost et al. But real people just decide if they like it or not – and if they don’t, they’ll switch off, or watch something else. A positioning works BEHIND what people see, think and do. That’s the voice.
Thinking about brands, people don’t buy a status symbol image anymore, they buy into a set of values..........that HAVE to be authentic. Just like Heroes, or Corry have characters and situations they can relate to, so do brands.
(Just as an aside, I think much of the confusion in our industry lies with new clever terms that don’t really mean very much at all. Brand journalism, mantras, connection ideas, wikis blah, blah blah are usually very clever ways of illustrating a clear brand vision, or doing basic channel planning. Naturally, the rules of engagement have changed, so how we engage needs to change, but the basic tools are really not that different). _
Positioning is useful if it’s done right, but don’t confuse it with a brand vision, promise, voice or whatever else you want to call it.
Market maps in the traditional sense are okay, but it’s better to map what’s going on inside people’s heads and hearts. A friend of mine calls this working out the ‘emotional logic’.
Then you work out the brand voice.........and I would base it on a cultural idea, but it depends on the type of client you have.
I delve right into the company. I Drill into the consumer culture, and find a strong connection. You know you’re onto something if you can connect two things that exist in people’s heads in new ways. Like connecting beds with the need for ‘me time’, or Nike connecting technical sports equipment with personal empowerment.
All that brand journalism, connections planning stuff is really a clever way of saying you need to strong, flexible voice that can work across lots of media and objectives. Something meaty. I use three methods. Each is a useful ways of bringing clients into the process.
- Create a brand book, full of observations and sentiments, things the brand would do, or say in given situations on different subjects. Involve the creatives, involve the client if you want. If you get this right, you’ve got all the flexibility you need. For presentations before it I get reference, lots of it. Pictures of the kind of people you want to influence, sentiments and images of people and ‘things’ that represent what the whole idea of about. I’m working on an online appliance retailer, that makes the whole experience quick, simple and easy. The observation in that people don’t care about these things until they break down, and want to go back to worrying about other stuff. It was sold with a picture of a kettle and what happened when it broke down here (70 people without their first cuppa, nasty).
- Some clients don’t have the vision for this stuff. But you still need something meaty. Most models are bollocks and just get in the way, but I find a brand footprint scientific enough for clients and flexible enough for good, flexible work. Based on the marriage of consumer and business insights...........
Public is Public means
Doing what we say Genuine
Getting the job done Energetic
Being true to yourself Open
- A ‘most ambitious goal’ is brilliant catch all that captures position, vision and even the beginnings of tone all in one. It’s a sentence that describes what would happen if the brand ruled the world. Like IBM’s ‘A PC on every desk’. Because you’re always working to it, and it’s virtually impossible, it’s never out of date. The goal of strategy is to work out what you need to do NOW to get there.
In the end, the usefulness of something long term is that strategy becomes easier. Instead of re-inventing the wheel every time, it becomes , ‘How can we use this long term brand to solve this problem we have right now’.
And one final point. Static, limiting brand ideas are a waste of time. I’m into economic theory big time, and most economics they teach is wrong. It’s the same with marketing. There’s this mad assumption that you should stick rigidly to an idea and it’s just not like that!. Markets are always in flux, culture always moves on, so should your brand. Brands are used well when they have clear voice, when that voice, that philosophy can adapt as it markets, cultures and people move along. When you get that right, it’s well worth the effort.
If you stick to a rigid brand onion, or gap in the market that has no relevance to the people who buy from it, it really isn’t.
Hope that helps. Sorry it’s long, but you didn’t pick a simple subject!
This is a good subject, I may blog on this!"
So I did.............