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Positioning: What it is and why it matters

Positioning is the beating heart of every brand strategy.

It answers three questions: Where will you play? Whom will you serve? How are you different? It articulates what distinguishes you from your competition in the minds of your employees, stakeholders and customers—and differentiation is the key element of any successful brand strategy.

As the word suggests, positioning refers to the place your brand occupies in the minds of your customers. Imagine for a minute that the human brain is like a warehouse packed with millions of ideas and concepts that each have their own spot on a shelf. Your job as a brand is to jump out before anyone else does. The category you are in is filled with lots of other brands that don’t look that much different from one another, so customers need help finding you. That is what positioning is for.

The brand positioning statement

The concept of positioning has its roots in the fundamentals of strategy. Strategy assumes you are in a field with competitors and that it is your job as a marketer to stand out from this group in order to win. Since branding is essentially the art of perception management, the brand strategist must isolate the company’s key value proposition—the thing that makes it different from everyone else—and then shape communications and customer experience using both words and actions to reinforce it.

This is most commonly done with a brand positioning statement: a mental model that articulates the key elements of your brand strategy in a single sentence. It identifies what you are, what category or industry you play in, who your target customer is, what emotional and rational needs or desires your brand aims to satisfy, and why anyone should believe you. It is more important to have the right ingredients than it is to sound pretty. If you are working with a creative partner, it’s their job to turn the positioning statement into something accessible, compelling and memorable.

The template for a typical positioning statement looks like this:

For (your target customers), (your brand) is the (service or product/category) that provides (unfulfilled functional need) that (key differentiating benefit) because (proof, or reasons to believe).

An example of a brand positioning statement

Let’s say you have just invented a new industrial version of the Roomba®. It’s lighter yet more powerful than any other product on the market and is AI-enabled. Let’s call it Vacutron. Your statement might read like this:

For time-starved and cash-strapped facilities managers, Vacutron is the industrial-grade vacuum that covers more square footage and cleans more deeply than any other device on the market, relieving the stress of constantly having to do more with less, because it weighs less, is self-navigating and is AI-enabled.

It’s not exactly poetic, but it does convey the key ingredients of the brand, and can be used to produce key messaging and guide all customer experience design. Creative partners can take this very awkward but accurate statement and use it as the raw material for communication, content and media strategies.

The statement should reflect the insights you gleaned from your customers and the knowledge gained through your competitive audit. And it should authentically reflect your company culture (see the Three Cs of Brand Development). It is supported by your purpose, your principles and your proof. And, in turn, it informs your promise and your personality.

Put people first

The principle of positioning was codified in the late 20th century in books like Competitive Advantage by Michael Porter and Positioning by Al Ries and Jack Trout. Because the ideas about positioning in these books were so strongly associated with 20th-century manufacturing, the product was always at the centre of the brand universe. But that has changed. Like everything else, branding has been disrupted. Many of the key principles still apply—you need to be different and you need to strive for uniqueness—but instead of starting with a product, you must start with a customer. Putting people at the centre of your brand means beginning with human realities, not marketing fantasies or competitive look-alikes. And putting real people at the centre of the branding process produces authentic insights that lead to unique opportunities to create brand experiences that can be almost impossible for competitors to replicate.

Some things haven’t changed. The more brands there are, the more they get lost in the minutiae of indistinguishable features and implausible claims of emotional benefits. In a market where customers have far greater influence and endless products are “good enough,” smart brands are more concerned with how they fit into people’s lives and culture than where they fit in the competitive landscape.

Exercise: Crafting a positioning statement

Above, we saw what a classic positioning statement looks like. Let’s unpack that a bit to demonstrate how you “fill in the blanks.” Remember our fictional vacuum cleaner:

For time-starved and cash-strapped facilities managers, Vacutron is the industrial-grade vacuum that covers more square footage and cleans more deeply than any other device on the market, relieving the stress of constantly having to do more with less, because it weighs less, is self-navigating and is AI-enabled.

The customer Based on information gathered from customer research
The brand Product or service name
The product What kind of product it is and what category it is in
Rational need (benefit) How the product will benefit the customer in a practical way
Emotional need (benefit) How the product will relieve emotional pain points
Proof These are proof points embedded in the product or service that provide evidence for the claims and promises you are making

Once you have crafted a draft, look at it through the lens of your purpose, principles and promise. If anything you claim in the statement is not supported by these three things, then you need to revisit the draft. Also check it against your competition. The last thing you want to do is replicate what other brands are doing.

Once you are able to check all these boxes, congratulations! You have a positioning statement.

Read more in this series

Read more about the 6Ps of branding, including: