Why brands need identity and positioning

A brand’s positioning is a key concept in its management. It is based on one fundamental principle: all choices are comparative. Remember that identity expresses the brand’s tangible and intangible characteristics – everything that makes the brand what it is, and without which it would be something different. Identity draws upon the brand’s roots and heritage – everything that gives it its unique authority and legitimacy within a realm of precise values and benefits.

Positioning is competitive: when it comes to brands, customers make a choice, but with products, they make a comparison. This raises two questions. First, what do they compare it with? For this, we need to look at the field of competition:what area do we want to be considered as part of? Second, what are we offering the customer as a key decision-making factor?

A brand that does not position itself leaves these two questions unanswered. It is a mistake to suppose that customers will find answers themselves: there are too many choices available today for customers to make the effort to work out what makes a particular brand specific. Communicating this information is the responsibility of the brand. Remember, products increase customer choice; brands simplify it. This is why a brand that does not want to stand for something stands for nothing.

The aim of positioning is to identify, and take possession of, a strong purchasing rationale that gives us a real or perceived advantage. It implies a desire to take up along-term position and defend it. Positioning is competition-oriented: it specifies the best way to attack competitors’ market share. It may change through time: one grows by expanding the field of competition.

Identity is more stable and long-lasting, for it is tied to the brand roots and fixed parameters. Thus Coke’s positioning was ‘the original’ as long as it competed against other colas. To grow the business, it now competes against all soft drinks: its positioning is ‘the most refreshing bond between people of the world’, whereas its identity remains ‘the symbol of America, the essence of the American way of life’.

How is positioning achieved? The standard positioning formula is as follows:

For … (definition of target market)
Brand X is … (definition of frame of reference and subjective category)
Which gives the most … (promise or consumer benefit)
Because of … (reason to believe).

The target specifies the nature and psychological or sociological profile of the individuals to be influenced, that is, buyers or potential consumers.

The frame of reference is the subjective definition of the category, which will specify the nature of the competition. What other brands or products effectively serve the same purpose? This is a strategic decision: it marks out the ‘field of battle’. It must not under any circumstances be confused with the objective description of the product or category. For example, there is no real rum market in the UK, yet Bacardi is very popular. This is because it is perfectly possible to drink Bacardiwithout realizing that it is a rum: it is the party mixer par excellence.

Another example illustrates the strategic importance of defining the frame of reference. Objectively speaking, Perrier is fizzy mineral water. Subjectively, however, it is also a drink for adults. Seen in the light of this field of reference, it acquires its strongest competitive advantage: a slight natural quirkiness.

As we can see, the choice of the field of competition should be informed by the strategic value of that field: how big, how fast growing, how profitable? But it also lends the brand competitive advantage through its identity and potential. Perceived as water for the table, Perrier has no significant competitive advantage over other fizzy mineral waters, even though this market is a very large one.

However, when viewed in relation to a field of competition defined as ‘drinks for adults’, Perrier becomes competitive again: it has strong differentiating advantages. What are its competitors? They include alcoholic drinks, Diet Coke, Schweppes and tomato juice.

The third point specifies the aspect of difference which creates the preference and the choice of a decisive competitive advantage: it may be expressed in terms of promise (for instance, Volvo is the strongest of all cars) or a benefit (such as, Volvo is the‘safety’ brand).

The fourth point reinforces the promise or benefit, and is known as the ‘reason to believe’. For example, in the case of the Dove brand, which promises to be the most moisturizing, the reason is that all of its products contain 25 per cent of moisturizing cream.

Positioning is a necessary concept, first because all choices are comparative, and so it makes sense to start off by stating the area in which we are strongest; and second because in marketing, perception is reality.

Positioning is a concept which starts with customers, by putting ourselves in their place: faced with a plethora of brands, are consumers able to identify the strong point of each, the factor that distinguishes it from the rest? This is why, ideally, a customer should be capable of paraphrasing a brand’s positioning:‘Only Brand X will do this for me, because it has, or it is …’

No instrument is entirely neutral. The above formula was created by companies such as Kraft–General Foods, Procter & Gamble, and Unleveled. It is designed for businesses that base competitive advantage on their products, and works perfectly for the l’Oréal Group which, with its 2, 500 researchers worldwide, only ever launches new products if they are of demonstrably superior performance. This fact is then promoted through advertising.

There are cases where the brand makes no promise, or where the benefit it brings could sound trivial. For example, how would you define the positioning of a perfume such as Obsession by Calvin Klein in a way that clearly represented its true nature and originality?It would be wrong to claim that Obsession makes any specific promise to its customers, or that they will obtain any particular benefit from the product apart from feeling good (a property which is common to all perfumes).

In reality, Obsession’s attractiveness stems from its imagery, the imaginary world of subversive androgyny which it embodies. In the same way, Mugler appeals to young people through its inherently neofuturisticworld, and Chanel stands for timeless elegance.

What actually sells these perfumes is the satisfaction derived from participating in the symbolic world of the brand. The same is true of alcohol and spirits: Jack Daniel’s is selling symbolic participation in an eternal, authentic untamed America. To say that Jack Daniel’s is selling the satisfaction of being the finest choice would be a mere commonplace, like the tired old cliché that customers are satisfied at having made a choice that set them apart from the masses (a classic benefit stated by small brands attempting Stephanie their advantage over large ones).

Faced with this conceptual dilemma, there are three possible approaches. The first of these is to define positioning as the sum of every point that differentiates the brand.This has been Unleveled’s approach: the 60-page mini-opus known as the Brand Key, which explains how to define a brand across the entire world, starts with the phrase:‘Brand Key builds on and replaces the brand positioning statement …’. There are eight headings to Brand Key:

  1. The competitive environment.
  2. The target.
  3. The consumer insight on which the brandies based.
  4. The benefits brought by the brand.
  5. Brand values and personality.
  6. The reasons to believe.
  7. The discriminator (single most compelling reason to choose).
  8. The brand essence.

Fundamentally, therefore, this collection forms the positioning of a brand. However, the concept that most closely resembles positioning in the strict sense of the word is referred to whereas the ‘discriminator’. McDonald’s also adopts similar reasoning (see Figure below). Larry Light defends the idea that positioning is defined when this chain of means–ends is completed(this is a parallel concept to the ‘ladder’ –moving from the tangible to the intangible):

Two tools are needed to manage the brand. One defines the brand’s identity, while the other is competitive and specifies the competitive proposition made at any given time in any given market. This is the brand’s unique compelling competitive proposition (UCCP).

Thus the tool called‘brand platform’ will comprise, first, the‘brand identity’, that is to say, brand uniqueness and singularity throughout the world and whatever the product. Brand identity has six facets, and is therefore larger than the mere positioning. It is represented by the identity prism. At its Centrex one finds the brand essence, the central value it symbolizes.

Second, the brand platform comprises‘brand positioning’: choosing a market means choosing a specific angle to attack it. Brand positioning must be based on a customer insight relevant to this market. Brand positioning exploits one of the brand identity facets. Positioning can be summed up in four key questions: for whom, why, when and against whom? It can be represented in the form of a diamond, the ‘positioning diamond’.

In positioning, the brand/product makes proposition, plus (necessarily) a promise. The proposition may additionally be supported by ‘reason to believe’, but this is not essential. Marlboro presents its smoker as a man – a real man, symbolized by the untamed cowboy of the Wild West. No support is offered for this proposition; no proof is necessary. It is true because the brand says so. And the more often it is repeated, the more credible it becomes.

In this way the brand’s proposition, which forms the basis of the chosen positioning at given moment in a particular market, may befuelled by various ‘edges’ contained within the brand’s identity:

The McDonald’s positioning ladder

  • a differentiating attribute (25 per centrist cream in Dove, the smoothness and bite of Mars bars, the bubbles of Perrier);
  • an objective benefit: an iMac is user friendly, Dell offers unbeatable value for money;
  • a subjective benefit: you feel secure with IBM;
  • an aspect of the brand’s personality: themystery of the Bacardi bat, Jack Daniel’s is macho, Axe/Lynx is cool;
  • the realm of the imaginary, of imagery and meaning (the American Wild West for
  • Marlboro, Old New England for Ralph Lauren);
  • a reflection of a consumer type: successful people for Amex;
  • 'deep’ values (Nike’s sports mentality, Nestle’s maternal love), or even a mission
  • (The Body Shop, Virgin and so on).

A few introductory remarks should be made at this juncture.

What is the connection between identity, essence and positioning? Clearly, for existing brands, positioning derives from identity. But it exploits a specific aspect of identity at given point in time in a given market and against a precise set of competitors. Consequently, at the level of global brands, unified identity can generate various angles of attack for different markets.

For example, Bacardi favors its Carta Blanca white rum product in Northern Europe – a market that consumes very little rum – and thus places its confidence in the party spirit that surrounds the Cuba Libre cocktail drink. However, in its Southern European market it chiefly promotes its mature brown rums, with an almost gastronomic promise.

For 50 years, Mars was little more than chocolate bar. The essence of Mars is energy;its positioning is as a meal substitute in the UK and as a revitalizing snack in Europe.

It is this degree of freedom between identity, essence and positioning that enables brand to change over time while still remaining itself. Thus, over time (40 years), Evan has changed its slogan and baseline on several occasions, symbolizing a change in its angle of market attack: for indeed, the market itself has changed. It has become increasingly saturated with competing brands, the original consumers have aged, and low-cost brand shave carved out a significant share.

On each occasion, these changes have led to a re-examination of the most compelling advantage, the angle of market attack. There has thus been a shift from ‘water for babies’ to the purest of waters, water from the Alps, well balanced water, and now the water of youth(this time round, the campaign is worldwide).However, each positioning has remained true to the essence of the Evian brand, which is more than any other water distinguished by its origins, its composition, its first campaign(babies) and so on. Evian is about life itself.

What is the connection between the positioning of the brand and the positioning of its products? It is true that today’s brands are increasingly based on multiple products:Dove was born as a soap in the United States, but now encompasses shampoos, shower gels, moisturizing cream, deodorants and so on.

The essence of Dove is ‘Femininity restored’.But Dove is being launched in a market via one or more products that have to fight for their own space amid a host of competitors:hence when Dove soap was launched, its positioning was: ‘Dove is a premium beauty bar for the mature women, worried about their skin, which won’t dry your skin like soap because it contains one quarter moisturizing cream.’

This example is a good illustration of how the product’s positioning promotes a consumer attribute or benefit, while the parent brand specifies the ‘terminal value’ that this attribute and benefit enables the consumer to reach.When a brand consists of multiple products, care should be taken to ensure that the irrespective positioning converges on attaining the same core value (that of the parent brand). If this is not the case, either the product requires repositioning, or the question should be asked whether it is part of the right brand at all.

Table below illustrates the link between the essence of the l’Oréal Paris parent brand and the positioning of its products such as Eleven Studio Line.

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