Positioning is dead! Long live positioning!

Positioning a brand—the process of identifying and “owning” a unique mind space in your target customers—has been a staple of brand management and marketing since at least Ries and Trout’s 1980 eponymous book.

More recently, some prominent marketers (e.g., Larry Light) and marketing scholars (e.g., Don E. Schultz) have claimed that “positioning is dead.” Their argument goes something like this:

Marketers no longer determine what perceptions customers have of their brands because the internet and social media have wrested communications power from brand owners and given it “to the people.” That has made the notion that a brand owner can “position” a brand in customers’ minds futile and irrelevant.

But is this really so?

Well, only if one were to view positioning as a one-dimensional activity limited to communications. But good positioning is a strategic exercise that drives ongoing business behavior, including marketing. And as such, positioning is as essential today as it was in the past, if not more. Let’s explore this in more detail.

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Proper positioning involves two activities:

First, the brand owner must identify what the brand can “own” (now and in the future) that makes it simultaneously appealing to one or more target audiences and different from other brands in the space. That difference can be an attitude or purpose (e.g., Nike or Apple) or an emotional benefit (e.g., Porsche or Mayo Clinic) or a social signal (e.g., Rolls Royce or Cartier), among many options. By definition, positioning involves specialization (i.e., sacrifice) versus appealing to the maximum possible audience. But positioning does not end with identifying what makes (will make) the brand different. It’s just the start.

Second, the business must internalize the position and actually “live it” through marketing, specifically, and business behavior, more generally. In other words, the brand (and business) must walk the talk. Strong brands understand what they stand for and behave accordingly. Good positioning is about being authentic. Nike is unlikely to eschew taking a stand with athletes over being diplomatic or politically correct, just as Porsche is unlikely to offer a low-cost and boring commuter vehicle just because the business opportunity exists.

With this definition, it is clear that positioning is still relevant and worthwhile. The benefits of strong positioning include pricing power, advocacy and loyalty from both customers and employees as well as increased economic value of the brand.

With proper positioning, the internet and 24/7 social media coverage of the brand by the people is not to be feared; rather, it is to be appreciated as the megaphone that it is for the strongly positioned brand. In other words, positioning is more valuable than ever.

Don’t listen to people who might try and tell you positioning is passé and “the old way.” Positioning is like building a reputation and has all the same advantages. That said, it is also a continuous work-in-progress that the naysayers will try and devalue while they try and sell you on some quick-fix alternative.

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Frank Schab
An experienced marketing and branding strategist, Frank has been helping clients optimize the value of their brands through insightful analysis and effective strategy for more than three decades. Along with holding positions at General Motors and Pfizer, Frank served as a Managing Partner at Interbrand New York and VP of Global Brand Research at Opinion Research Corporation before co-founding Six Degrees. His brand-building work in various sectors including hospitality, medical device, pharmaceutical, automotive and technology has taken him to 17 countries on four continents. Frank holds a doctorate in psychology from Yale University and speaks fluent German.

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