Uncensored Thoughts on a Moving Planet: A FRESH LOOK AT POSITIONING

Positioning a brand is not unlike trying to be conspicuous in a crowd. You want your customers to spot you immediately. But they need to know where to look. Hundreds of distractions are vying for their attention, and the view is constantly changing.

Uncensored Thoughts

on a Moving Planet:




Positioning a brand is not unlike trying to be conspicuous in a crowd. You want your customers to spot you immediately. But they need to know where to look. Hundreds of distractions are vying for their attention, and the view is constantly changing.

In the grand scheme of a marketing campaign, the role of an advertising agency is to transmit information to potential (sometimes current) customers for a given brand or product. Successful marketing campaigns, however, require more than inventive agency partners. They are most likely to succeed when an actionable positioning idea combines with vibrant messaging efforts.



When things click, all the media “transmissions” for a brand are in-line and on-topic — they are related parts of one cohesive whole. For simplicity, and to sidestep the more elaborate topic of positioning brands versus products, I use “brand” and “product” interchangeably throughout this article.

Qualitative positioning and messaging research is relatively inexpensive to conduct, yet it provides the cornerstone of any brand’s overall marketing strategy. Done well, it also generates some of the best ROI that a brand team will ever realize from its market research dollars. Optimal results are most likely to occur under the guiding eyes of a market research partner who has a dual ability to keep a brand team’s expectations down to earth and to keep agency partners closely focused on what is most likely to help the brand over time.

This article, the first of two, will focus on the role of positioning in marketing a brand.

The second installment will explore the role of messaging.


Positioning I: Uncensored Thoughts

Distilled to its core, positioning is how customers think and feel about a brand in their uncensored thoughts. Favorable positioning is typically unique (marketing mavens call it “ownable”) and provides a sturdy, robust, differentiating image to construct messages around, both at launch and over the life of a brand.

Think of Harley-Davidson, Coca-Cola and Apple, to name a few. Immediately, you know what products to think of, what the brands aspire to be and how they match up against others in their respective markets. Even if Coke and Pepsi do taste the same to some consumers, their relative positionings are distinct.

Hundreds of books that describe product positioning are now in print. For simplicity, though, consider the 1990 film Crazy People. Dudley Moore portrays an advertising man who has a nervous breakdown and enters a mental hospital, only to emerge afterward with newfound passion for “truth in advertising.” With the help of his fellow mental patients, he devises a series of ad campaigns that startle the public with their candor. One is a spot for Volvo that describes that brand’s selling proposition as follows: “Volvos — They’re boxy, but they’re good.” Streamline that a bit further, to “Boxy but good,” and you have an archetypal positioning.

Research to identify a brand’s market positioning tends to involve use of quantitative methods, because its overriding goal is measurement (i.e., the extent to which positioning is entrenched) rather than deeper understanding of how that positioning came about or might be changed.

A brand’s market positioning is a snapshot of its positioning at one point in time — in a sense, taking the brand’s temperature. Despite a company’s best efforts, however, positionings often run afoul of the high hopes (and large budgets) that shape them. The “uncensored thoughts” of the marketplace are sometimes not pleasant to hear.


One can be sure, for instance, that “Boxy but good” would not have been among Volvo’s favored positioning ideas for its brand. Had Volvo been asked directly to describe its own positioning in 1990, when Crazy People was released, an official reply would likely have included Volvo’s traditional safety positioning and maybe something new added on — a hint of higher performance, perhaps. “Exciting to drive and keeps you alive,” or ideas to that effect. That hoped-for positioning, the perceptual space that a brand intends to occupy, is often called aspirational positioning because it represents the ideal image that a company hopes its brand will attain in the minds of customers — what it aspires to, in other words, even if that aspiration is too ambitious.

Over the course of decades, however, public perceptions of Volvo evolved in the direction of “Boxy but good.” And, for reasons unknown, Volvo’s messaging efforts fell short of transforming it into something more affirmative.

Of course, Volvo’s positioning could have been worse. For instance, the sales implications of “Boxy and bad” or “Boxy and quick to rust” are all too easy to imagine. As an owner of multiple Volvos over the years, I might add another: “Boxy and treacherous in snow.”


Positioning II: “Believably Wonderful”

Positioning is a high-stakes, time-intensive business. The ability to influence a customer’s thoughts about a product tends to peak early in awareness cycles, when he or she has limited experience with it. As with so many things in life, first impressions count. Later impressions matter too, of course, but human beings inevitably compare what they see next with what they saw before.

I find it helpful to think about a brand’s positioning as a large cube of modeling clay. When first exposed to open air, the clay is highly malleable and can be twisted, tugged and coaxed into a multitude of shapes and textures.

The possibilities seem endless. The fact of being in the open air, however, means that the clay will rapidly lose moisture and harden. For a time, it is possible to restore its suppleness by adding water or mixing it with fresh clay. Eventually, however, molding options grow limited to where nothing can be done but to decorate the façade of the hardened block itself.

Positioning is similar in that once a brand is in the public mind (or simply on the market), the “positioning clock” is ticking. There are ways around this reality (a soft product launch in test markets, for instance), but as a general rule, the goal with brand positioning is to establish a meaningful “base” from the onset. This is when a company will typically commit its greatest resources to a brand, with its promotional gears oiled and ready to turn.

In the pharmaceutical sphere, where I do primary research, the average cost of bringing a new product to launch is over $500 million. (Recent estimates from the Tufts Center for Drug Development place the cost at over $1 billion.)

As a result, virtually all brand teams come to the research table with some “approved” positioning ideas to test. Given that first impressions are key, and that the positioning “clay” will dry and harden quickly, it is no wonder that brand teams are reluctant to leave positioning to chance. Most of the corporate clients in my experience embark upon positioning research with very specific ideas about what they want from research and what they expect to hear from the market.

It is possible, of course, to attempt repositioning if initial efforts go substantially awry of hopes. Exceptions to the hardening clay analogy abound, and they may even be induced via thoughtful bouts of market research and media spending. These initiatives are endemic to the political arena, most brazenly during a presidential election cycle. (Politicians are forever repositioning themselves, often switching personas dozens of times in one day of campaigning.)

A seminal example of the politician’s repositioning mindset appeared over 30 years ago on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.” In one sketch, Dan Ackroyd played a post-Watergate Richard Nixon desperate to regain public favor and revive his demolished political career. With an admirable lack of self-doubt, he devised a slogan for his new, improved self — a repositioning challenge worthy of the Olympics. His chosen image? “The New Dick.”

One singularly challenging aspect of this process is that, for positioning to catch on and truly stick, it needs to resonate with a customer’s own experience of the product. Positioning the first Volkswagen Beetle as “Rocketship on wheels” might have worked for a while — but only until a person drove around in one. When the marketing day is over, any brand positioning needs to be “believably wonderful” — nothing more or less.

Positioning III: An Ever-Moving Target

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of positioning research is helping to remind clients — all the brand’s internal stakeholders — that positioning is always a work in progress. There is no endpoint per se for a positioning campaign until a brand is withdrawn from the market, at which point new positioning efforts are apt to be desired for the company itself or for newer brands in the pipeline.

This perpetual quality of brand positioning can hardly be overemphasized when setting expectations for market research clients. More often than not, an effort to do qualitative “positioning research” is really an attempt to determine which among several tested attainable for the brand. Also useful is ensuring that clients remember what positioning is and is not. Amid the infectious energy that is so evident on brand teams, there is often a desire to make a product’s positioning complex, as if layering product features one on top of another were evidence of a product’s virtue or character. This belief, though, runs counter to the reality of buying decisions, where as a rule, simpler is better. In our modern world, so jammed with distractions, it is far preferable to stand out unmistakably at once.



According to astronaut Ed Lu, who served as Science Officer on Space Shuttle Expedition Seven a few years ago, the use of binoculars in the Shuttle’s orbit (125 miles above Earth) makes it possible to see a variety of manmade objects from space: cities, roads, dams, airports, the Pyramids at Giza, even contrails from highflying jets.

Wikipedia describes the Great Wall of China as the largest human-made structure ever built, in terms of surface area and mass, as well as the longest (approximately 4,000 miles). Years ago, I read that the Great Wall of China was the only manmade object visible from space. Apparently, however, if you look in a certain way at a specified set of places, all manner of human projects are visible from orbit. The Great Wall is also part of the landscape, but not as one might expect. “You can see the Great Wall,” Lu said, “but it’s less visible than a lot of other objects.

And you have to know where to look” (www.space.com, October 6, 2003). On a rotating planet, as in a changing market, being the largest and most massive player in the game means nothing if your positioning is not up to snuff.



Double Helix Development • tkern@doublehelixdevelopment.com



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