A Successful Brand Positioning Relies On The “HOW” Not The “WHY”! Sorry (Not Sorry!)

As a savvy marketer, you know that every successful brand positioning needs to be able to provide a compelling answer to the following three questions:

  1. What is the frame of reference in which you want consumers to perceive your brand?
  2. How should you connect with your audience and at what level?
  3. What makes your offering different from everything out there and allows you to uniquely support your brand benefit (in your chosen frame of reference)?

The brand framework you or your organizations are using might ask slightly different questions but for a brand strategy to be successful and provide the direction it has been created for, those three questions will have to be answered, one way or another.  

Knowing the questions is one thing. Knowing how to answer those questions, is a completely different ball game. In fact, that’s where I believe the magic happens. That’s where you’ll start to differentiate between an average strategy and an outstanding brand strategy.

In fact, my premise of this blog post is that HOW those questions are answered will determine the difference between a business building and inspiring positioning platform and a generic one everyone involved feels good about but with no traction in the marketplace.

Let’s go through those three questions in details and look at how they are typically answered versus how they should and could be answered:

  1. The frame of reference:

The typical answer to this question is “the immediate competitive set”. If you sell a yogurt, your competitors are typically defined as the other yogurts out there.

And that appears to make sense, at first. In fact, people tend to group and memorize objects based on similar characteristics (it’s called categorization), leading to a “oh yes, that’s a yogurt. We also tend to process new information (or input) by connecting it to what we already know (or think we know) and believe. But being categorized as something the consumer already knows, without further processing, is the worst thing that can happen to a brand trying to be meaningful and stand out. That’s the difference between brand familiarity and brand knowledge. 

Instead, purposefully changing the frame of reference in which the brand is presented and presenting it in a broader and slightly unfamiliar perspective is a much more powerful approach to get noticed and stand out. Doing so allows you to speak about your brand in a way that gets consumers to reconsider your brand and yes, even the category you’re in.

Our own research shows that there are many proven successful options to frame a brand besides the immediate competitive set.  In fact, the frame of reference could be “the usage context”, “a “consumer Ideal or gold standard”, a “consumer ritual”, ‘the brand’s own history and equity built over time”, an “unresolved category paradox”, the “cultural context” in which the brand operates and so on.

Each of these perspectives gives you the opportunity to “frame” your brand in a more compelling way and get your consumers to re-think and re-evaluate your offer.

2. Connecting with your audience (Benefit or reward):

The typical way to answer this question is to focus on the benefits consumers tell you they are looking for. And while that’s useful to know, it is often not enough to differentiate your brand. Also, consumers are often not able to verbalize the real reason why they are buying your brand. That’s why they claim to own a Porsche for economic reasons or a Tesla for environmental reasons.  

Brands, to be successful, need to provide intrinsic or extrinsic value to their consumers. Brands to be successful also need to be able to relate and connect with their audiences. While this sounds obvious, I am always amazed at how few brands actually do so in their communication.

The most common mistake most companies make here is either to focus too narrowly on the functional product benefit (when you are a producer) or too much on a lofty emotional benefit  (when you are a communication agency). The second most common mistake I see companies and agencies make is to focus on the generic consumer benefit (a food brand needs to “taste good”, “or help you indulge and escape”, Duh!), or as of lately to assume that every brand, product, and service out there need a “purpose” to be successful and buying it will lead to ultimate happiness. It doesn’t. 

A much better approach again would be to understand the depth and richness of options available to a brand to connect with its consumers. This connection can indeed be functional, emotional, social or psychological, but it can also be around shared values, or sensory experiences, or defined by the type of role a brand plays in people lives. This connection can also be created by understanding the core drivers in people’s lives and the corresponding archetypes that appeal to them and that can be embodied by the brand. A hero brand will interact with its consumers in a much different way that a Sage brand. Again, marketers have an array of options at their disposal that they are generally not taking advantage of.

3. What makes your offering different?

The third question to answer when positioning a brand is basically about the uniqueness of the offering. Research shows that when you provide a reason to a request, people are more likely to comply. Obviously, in marketing, this reason needs to be linked to the overall brand promise and help set the brand apart.

The most common mistake I see when trying to answer this question is that it either gets completely ignored (the old “no one really cares about what the product does” – which is not true) or it becomes the only answer the brand provides to its consumers – without framing it properly or without tying it to something meaningful to consumers (the connection). This happens a lot in the world of corporate communication where it is often unclear what the company actually does.

There are so many ways to tell an interesting and differentiating story about any given product or service that I often wonder why marketers and their agencies don’t take more advantage of this opportunity. In fact, a brand could talk about its origin or its creation story, romance the way the product works or is made, highlight a specific and distinctive product attribute or even provide meaning to a perceived weakness of the brand. Again, so many potential options that are not taken advantage of.

To conclude:

The questions to be answered when positioning a brand or when crafting a brand story are fairly straightforward and simple. Answering them, however, is not. And yet HOW these questions are answered will determine how compelling and differentiated a brand positioning platform will be and how much traction the brand will gain in the marketplace.

It’s not rocket science, and yet I don’t see many companies applying the required rigor to come up with truly differentiated and genuinely engaging positioning platforms.

A word on the “Why”:


Over the last few years, the industry has obsessed with the notion of Simon Sinek’s concept of “Brand Purpose”. The notion being that if consumers understand “WHY?” you are in business (the assumption being that you’re in business to do something “good” for humanity) they will naturally gravitate towards your brand and become loyal customers for life. And this is actually true in some very rare instances where the company or brand really is on a quest to improve the world. But there are at least two issues with this type of thinking: 

  1. Most people over-simply Sinek’s model by reducing it to the “why”. As long as people know “why” I want to make the world a better place they’ll buy-into my offering. But as often happens in marketing we’re over-simplifying the idea to make it buzz-worthy (all Millennials are experience seekers too, right? And all moms care about are their children, correct?). But the “why” is only the starting point in Sinek’s Golden Circle, the one he initially emphasized because he felt this was the part that was missing.
  2. The strategic obsession with “brand purpose” is also extremely limiting. As limiting in fact as the obsession with “functional benefits” or “cultural branding”. Those are all strategic approaches that can work under specific circumstances and to deliver against specific business objectives but they are not -as often described and applied- universal, one-size fits all solutions to all the business problems out there.

In fact, our own analysis of over 1200 case studies of effective marketing shows that any of these approaches are only one of 26 potential and proven successful positioning approaches.

In other words, obsessing about your “brand purpose” (or “functional benefit” or “cultural branding” only) means that you are leaving out 96% of potential proven effective solutions to position your brand. You wouldn’t accept this type of selective analysis and approach from your doctor, your financial advisor, your real estate agent or your lawyer and yet you’ll accept it from your communication agency and marketing team.

My advice to you is don’t. Or if you do, hope that your competition is using the same approach.    


First The Trousers Then The Shoes Inc. (First The Trousers or FTT for short) is a brand strategy and innovation boutique dedicated to helping brands compete and grow in today’s always evolving attention economy. We help uncover fresh and actionable insights that trigger action, identify innovative ideas to stimulate brand growth and inspire fresh perspectives on businesses and categories. The words our clients use to describe us include: experienced, passionate, terrific, insightful, elevating the thinking, helping us to think differently, highly collaborative, responsive and very recommendable.  Wonder if we can help you solve your business problem, help you facilitate strategy workshops, help train your teams and if might be the right fit and partner for you? Contact us to find out.

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