Brand Positioning: The Approach I Take

I'm writing this to crystallize the approach I take to brand positioning, mostly to use as a teaching tool and guide within the agency I work for. I could just write this as an agency document, but I like to own my IP (sorry bout it). Hopefully some of y'all find it useful, or you can usefully (to me) tear it apart and show me how wrong I am.


Brand positioning is stimulating and impactful, and it's something that I think tends to be approached the wrong way. Here's (roughly) how I see the order of operations and focus go for most positioning exercises at most agencies: 1. The business, 2. The in-category competitors (mostly this), 3. The competitive space, 3. The people, 4. Positioning.

I'm going to explain to you why that is wrong. Here's (also roughly) how I do it, and (also also roughly) how I think it should be done: 1. The business, 2. The people, 3. The business, 4. The people, 5. The competition (in-category or out-, but especially out-), 6. The category, 7. Positioning. You'll notice that my process has more steps. I think it's better. Let's talk about this.

Note: I'm not here to define or argue what "brand positioning" is. It matters, but that's not the hill I want to die on today.

1. The Business Start with the business. Duh. Learn their story, what the folks behind it think is important (and dig into why they think that's important). I jam with David Taylor's Grow the Core principles here - but start with knowing the Core. Know who you are on a human level. Start your brand by being human.

I like to imagine that your business is my business, and that I met someone at a bar who wants to learn about what I do. I'm a few beers deep in this scenario, so wonky jargon and flowery bullshit are out the window. Explain the business and what's unique about it, why you started it, and what you hope it will do for people. Tell the story that you've got so far. This should take a few sentences. That's about it.

Quite frankly, you don't need to fully understand the ins and out of the business' mechanics. There's a time and place to become an expert to that degree, to be sure. But I see a lot of folks who dig too deep into the finest points about the workings of a business - I think they do it because it's accessible, tangible, and safe. It's doable, and there's false hope that the secret to a great brand position lies somewhere in the unique workings or offerings of the business alone. Sorry, Charlie. That's not really what's useful to establishing a brand. You need to find what matters from the business side, your narrative and story. Start there. But who might that matter to...

2. The people. Who's going to buy what you offer, and why? Who's going to care? Why might your brand matter to people? What about it will matter? Answer these questions. Focus on what matters to people in the category. Why do they buy shit like what you sell? Why don't they? Why might they? In a time when agencies and brands like to say that they're consumer-centric, you'd be surprised by how little time gets spent on, well, understanding the consumer well. I presume that it's because it's less readily available and requires real leg work and elbow grease. Do whatever it takes to understand people in the space. Talk to people, observe people, look for quant data, dig through forums, blog comments, and Reddit (if applicable).

Find out what matters. And see if you can find an angle to matter to more people. Don't be myopic in your focus. You'll see too many folks built their brand positioning based on what the brand offers now. But the products they start with may not be what they always make, if they can tap into a broader cultural vein. Find what about your brand can really matter to their lives beyond just the product you make.

People buy shit to create better versions of themselves, whether they're consciously aware of it or not. More-er versions of themselves, if you will. I'm a firm believer in the need to understand consumers' goals and emotions - what they want, and how they want to feel in relation to achievement of those goals. What will buying and using what you offer help them achieve, both explicitly (on the surface) and implicitly (on a deeper level)?  I'll reserve examples from actual work I've down for folks inside my agency for now. But if you wanna talk, hit me up. It all comes down to having a really good understanding of people. You need a base of knowledge. Check out my post on my 6 core consumer insights if you haven't read it. I use them all the time.

So now you'd expect me to say to turn to the competitors. Nope, double down on understanding what people want, and finding what in your story lines up with what they want. So 3. The business and 4. The people. Dig and refine. Reshape. I hate making the 2x2 tables, the competitive landscapes quartered by x- and y-axes, the brand pyramids. I just don't do it. They aren't useful. Why not? Because real people don't think about brands in 2x2 tables or on attribute spectra. No one thinks like that, so you shouldn't either. If you're trying to figure out what about your brand will matter to potential consumers, you need to approach everything from the consumer's perspective. Look, I get it. The tables, the diagrams, the attribute lists: they've been done for ages, they're familiar, they don't feel wrong. But they are. I don't want planners I work with to make them; I want them to be able to convincingly articulate why they aren't useful. Stop making them. They're a waste of time and energy.

This is not useful to you. Kill it with fire.

This is not useful to you. Kill it with fire.

I'm not done yet. Do you really think that consumers think about brands in the space on the same imposed criteria that you do as a marketer? Do you really even think that consumers think about all the brands in your category, or even really think about your category that much? No. Remember: people don't care about your brand or your competitors all that much - only when it suddenly becomes important to them. Brands and how people think about them are everchanging, and are contextual. They're based on actions, perceptions, and the changing swirl of culture, behavior, and meaning. Do not try to grab a handful of flowing water and paint it as a static 2x2 table. You will be wrong.

Alright, 5. The competition. This stems from really knowing your consumer. What's the real competition? If I'm WD-40 and I want to market to Millennials who don't really care about the plethora of uses for penetrating oils under their noses, who are my biggest competitors? I'd argue that my biggest competitors are apathy - ignoring problems and opportunities for use - and, sometimes, a handyman or fix-it app. Maybe their landlord, too. WD-40's in-category competitors do matter for other audiences, but not this one. If you know the consumer, you can generate a truer understanding of who your competitors for dollars and give-a-shitness really are, and you can better understand what they need to think about your brand to care about and notice it.

 6. The Category. Focusing too closely on the category's competitive landscape leads to two traps: you put the cart before the horse and find positional 'space' that your brand can occupy that's different from every other brand in the category. Aha! No one else is this, so we can own that! But does anyone give a shit about tha? You've found a place for the brand to be different before you've ascertained whether or not people actually want that type of difference. Maybe they do? But you're much better off being exactly what people want than simply being different than your competitors. Oh no, there are other brands that (roughly) make the same shit! That’s fine; that’s normal. Be distinct. Don't be different to be different, but say what matters in a way that will stick. Don't overcomplicate things.

7. The Position. Once you know what matters to people that you can offer, and you find what your business is really about, you're ready to whittle down to your position. I start from a story, and cull it down to a minimum. A sentence, a few sentences. Whatever. Get what matters down, and nothing more. This is about being a good writer, and having a keen sense for what's important and what's not. Practice. And keep practicing.

To recap:

1. Start with the business and work to understand what it does, what's unique about it, why those who started it did so, and what they hope it will do for people. Start to isolate the business' narrative and its 'why.'

2. Turn to the people and figure out what's important to the folks who might buy what the business offers, why they'd care about it and its story, and what the business and its product/whatever will do for them. Dig beneath the surface beyond the obvious - find out what people really want that this business helps to solve for. 

3. Refine your understanding of what matters about the business to 4. the people. Dial into what matters most to the most people for whom this brand can be appropriate. Your ideal goal is to understand exactly what people want that this business and its offerings can account for.

5. And take a good look at who the competition really is. You'll have competitors from across multiple categories, along with inaction as a a dark horse. Find out who you're really competing with for attention and dollars. This comes back to the people.

6. Now you know what the people want that you are poised to provide the answer to. Take a closer look at the category to see where they stand. Some might be pretty good - or just as good - at providing a solution to the same problem. Have no fear! The last thing you want to do is do some different for the sake of being different. Different=/=What People Want. Find an angle in your position and messaging to stand out and be distinct, even if you aren't different. Be memorable, get a foothold, and get going.

So I guess that's that. I hope that that's instructional enough at this point.

Appendix because I'm not done ranting about positional branding: By focusing on the positional spectrum and competitive space, you're setting yourself up to be succeeded by someone else. Let's say you find an angle that people do care about. And you're more of it than anyone else. Softer. More environmentally friendly. Faster. Whatever. With a little success, you'll signal to the rest of the world what works, but if you're only -er or more of that key attribute, someone else will come along and beat you at it. Suddenly, you're only pretty soft, fairly environmentally friendly, reasonably quick. That's an unstable position that can't build a lasting brand upon. Secret weapon of mine: Check out Contrarian Branding. I really vibe with its thesis. Look for a positional angle that overshadows the rest of the space, and puts everyone else in a corner.

Hey Google, what's the future for voice assistants and personified AI? More questions than answers

Six Core, Real [Depressing] Consumer Insights