The 8 Most Common Mistakes When Positioning A Brand

First-The-Trousers helps organizations of all sizes and shapes in both Europe and the U.S. develop compelling brand positioning platforms and engaging brand stories. Along the way, I’ve encountered over and over the 8 most common mistakes organizations make when developing their brand positioning platforms. I hope you’ll find this list valuable and inspiring.

1. A poorly defined business problem to kick-off the project. We all know this quote by Charles Kettering, “a problem well-stated is half solved” and yet only few of us actually apply it systematically when developing a positioning platform. “We want to grow market share or grow the business” while being a relevant objective doesn’t provide the guidance on how to do it. Defining and then re-defining the problem on the other hand does (and there are several tools and techniques to help you do just that). In fact, each problem statement has some built-in assumptions that often limit the ability to identify a truly novel and relevant solution. Also, each problem is also usually stated within a specific context (market situation, corporate culture, etc.) that also put a major constraint on your ability to identify novel solutions. I learned very early in my career that the single most important question you can ask in business is “what is the objective?” (you’d be surprised how often people aren’t able to answer this very simple question, try it in your next meeting).

2. An obsessive focus on what the audience wants. The “benefit” is obviously an important element of any brand positioning statement. And in some rare instances, a brand benefit is so compelling that it creates enough traction and appeal for the brand on its own. But this is usually the exception rather than the rule. What is often more important is for your audience to understand how the brand uniquely delivers on the benefit and why. A “great tasting product made with wholesome ingredients” will be described as being highly appealing by focus group respondents but it is generic and true to any food product. Including this in a brand positioning statement does not provide the guidance a brand positioning platform is supposed to provide.

Based on our analysis of over 1200 case studies of effective brand building, there are three ways to make a benefit statement more impactful:

By the way you frame it i.e. the context in which you present the benefit. I would argue that this is the single most important decision a marketer can make to grow a category and yet this step is often just skipped. Using your consumer segment as frame of reference (which is often the case) isn’t usually enough. Our research shows that there are 10 ways to effectively frame a brand.

By the way you connect the brand to its audience. The common practice consists in defining a benefit in terms of “rational” and “emotional”. Our research, however, shows that there are actually different 9 ways to talk about a benefit and connect with people, the right approach being usually determined by the context in which the brand operates.

By the way you “support” the benefit, the story you tell to demonstrate how your brand uniquely delivers against the benefit. Here our research uncovered 10 relevant “angles” on how to “romance” the product in a way that enhances the appeal of your brand.

3. A focus on consumers, rather than “people” when creating your brand positioning platform. I once spent a whole afternoon in a focus group facility where the moderator’s sole objective was to try to get consumers to decide whether “bright teeth” is a more appealing wording than “white teeth” (I have to add, I was attending as a guest and had nothing to do with the design of the research). You could literally see the pain in the respondents body language. People have a lot on their minds and the chances that your brand and product are part of their top priorities and concerns is almost equal zero. As such, it is important to understand the life circumstances people live in, the overall self-image they have of themselves and even the social and cultural context in which they use your category and brand when developing a brand positioning platform. This simple shift in perspective will enable you to speak about your brand in a way that connects and is relevant to people and their lives and will make a huge difference in your positioning. It will also allow you to identify ways to speak to your audience that actually resonate with them.

4. A lack of insight and a lack of an “idea” in your brand positioning statement. Good brand positioning statements capture an idea that is either based on a unique insight or that resolves an inherent tension (Brand, People, Culture). Weak positioning statements usually capture an “ideal” but boring summary of everything the consumer desires (that is often based on focus group learnings). Yes, moms want their kids to be happy and also eat their vegetables. Yes, moms have a chaotic life. And yes, Millennials want to do good. Those are not insights, those are generally accepted truths not specific to your brand that everyone has known ever since cavemen started to have babies and market researchers started to ask Millennials about “doing good”. The concept of “insights” is often misunderstood so I’ve written a post about the “8 Immutable Truths About Insights!”

5. The expectation that “differentiation” will “happen” in the way the brand positioning platform is brought to life, i.e. in its execution. This is often the default answer to justify a weak and generic positioning platform (see the previous point) or positioning platforms that are the result of group compromise. It’s lazy, because it delegates the responsibility and pressure onto the design or creative team while making their job so much more difficult. And frankly, it is irresponsible. And yet I’ve seen this often enough to add this to this list. A strong and powerful brand positioning statement captures an inherent tension that guides a creative solution and is already interesting, exciting and energizing in itself.

6. A lack of diverse and divergent perspectives or what is called “the Drunkard’s Search effect”: The “Drunkard’s search effect” (also called “The Streetlight Effect”) is a type of observational bias that occurs when people are searching for something and look only where it is easiest or the most familiar. Companies usually have their established models and frameworks (which are basically assumptions on how the world works) and more senior marketers usually have a couple of methods that have worked for them in the past that they use over and over again (which doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll also work in a changed environment). This behavior is completely normal but also extremely limiting as it leaves out a lot of relevant “perspectives” on how to solve your business problem. This problem is further amplified by the drive in the marketing world to always come up with new buzzwords that promise to make marketing easier. “Cultural branding” and “Brand purpose” are two such examples. And while both “perspectives” can be extremely effective in a specific situation they will be completely useless in many others. Our own research shows that there are 26 different ways to look at a business problem. Adopting the POV that “cultural” branding or “brand purpose” is always the cure for all business problems means that you’ll be leaving out 96% of potential solutions to solve your business problem.

7. Ignoring the importance of creating alignment within the organization. Brand positioning statements are pointless if they are not embraced by the organization and by all the constituents and stakeholders within the organization. You can have a killer positioning platform but if your R&D team, your sales team or your international (or local) marketing teams don’t buy-into it and get excited by it, it’s worthless and its implementation will fail. In “politically driven” organizations or organization with decentralized P&Ls the easy way-out (which I see a lot) is to try to 1. develop a brand positioning platform in a silo (away from all distracting influences), 2. get a senior officer to approve it and to 3. then try to socialize it within the organization. This approach is the path of least resistance but will fail 9 times out of 10. It is therefore way smarter and effective to allow for input from the different key constituents (and thus create a sense of collective ownership) that will have to implement this brand. The solution is not to settle for the lowest common denominator (that never works) and, we for example, use a set of tools and techniques to achieve the best possible outcome in environments with different and sometimes conflicting point of views. This has allowed us to align regional differences (for global projects) but also divergent internal perspectives (for organizations where engineering for example dominates).

8. Writing the brand positioning statement in a workshop. This last point is more executional but equally important. I’ve witnessed countless workshops where the facilitator tries to get the group to actually write the brand positioning statement and agree on every single world in the document before leaving the workshop. The hope, I guess, is that everyone involved can then be held responsible for the document (“Hey you agreed to to it, you helped write it”). At First The trousers, we never write the brand positioning document in the workshops we facilitate. Instead we get the group to agree on the core ideas and elements of the document and then finalize it with a smaller group (usually the project team) and often with the help of a writer after the workshop. Doing so saves you a lot of time and headaches.

I hope that raising awareness for these issues represent the first step towards change and to better, more effective positioning platforms. Our methodology Positioning-Roulette (and the process we use), which is based on the analysis of over 1200 case studies of effective brand building around the world, allows us to avoid many of these mistakes and come up with relevant solutions faster than any other methodology I’ve experienced out there.

You can find more information about our positioning development methodology here. We’ve successfully used this methodology to position a wide range of brands, from start-ups to global brands operating across several geographies, both in the B-to-C and B-to-B sectors.

Please check out my new book, The Brand Positioning Workbook: A Simple How-To Guide To More Compelling Positionings, Faster“,  available on Amazon around the world as Ebook, Paperback and Hardcover.

Mark Jenson, lecturer at the University of MInnesota Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication describes it as hands down the best book on brand positioning since Ries & Trout introduced this concept many years ago”.  Jill Baskin, CMO @Hershey’s says This book is packed with easy-to-follow exercises that guarantee a compelling brand positioning. Lots of helpful examples and blessedly free of marketing catchphrases. Highly recommend”.