Position or Perish: Positioning Your Brand to Thrive


To stay relevant, brands require constant tending. Successful brands continually evolve.


By Laura Bates and Karen McSteen


Defining a truly unique and compelling positioning is the most critical foundation for creating a strong brand. We call it position or perish. Think of all the brands that have failed to carve out a unique proposition, that have failed to keep up with changing consumer trends and have thus died or are in the process of dying.  The list is rather long, unfortunately: JC Penny, Radio Shack, Blackberry, Oldsmobile, Kodak, Blockbuster, Borders, Chi-Chi’s, Howard Johnson’s and Boston Market.


Positioning drives everything

Positioning your brand is not just a short-term marketing exercise. It is a long-term, business-building proposition. Positioning guides a wide range of important strategic decisions for a business, including customer segmentation, brand identity and messaging, service culture, environmental design (your store, your restaurant), strategic partnerships and more.


The four “E”s of marketing

For years, we’ve all heard about the Four P’s of marketing: product, price, place and promotion. But that concept has run its course. It was developed with more of a consumer-packaged-goods, manufacturing mind-set and in a world where communication was from brand to customer. Today, a more relevant model is what we call the Four E’s:


Experience: In the old model, the focus on features, functions, specifications, formulas and technological superiority was maniacal. Yes, you have to pay attention to these things, but what a customer experiences is a synthesis of product and service. Experience is multi-sensory, physical and virtual, immersive, emotional, storytelling, and art. It is not just a product on a shelf. People seek out a Starbucks store for the experience as much as they do for the coffee.


Economics: In the old model, brand managers focused on establishing the right price for the stock-keeping unit to move cases. Today, you have to think of the entire business or economic model. How can you compete effectively to offer customers the greatest value when the lowest price does not always represent the greatest value? Customers who pay $1,200 per night at the Four Seasons Bali have such a wonderful experience that they think they got a good value.


Engagement: No longer do we simply promote the brand with 30-second commercials or $2-off coupons. Persuading is not our business. We are in the business of engaging. Our brands have to create emotional engagement with customers. We must prove we are trustworthy, truly deliver on deep customer needs, engage with customers beyond the typical purchase cycle, ask them to innovate with us, and give them unexpected value so they fall in love with our brands and can’t imagine a world without us. Domino’s has evolved and innovated, completely changing their recipe based on consumer feedback, engaging customers in the making of and delivery of their pizzas, and now, re-designing their stores in a way that invites customers in. That is a long way from promotion.


Employees: A dimension completely missing from the old model – people! Our employees must be empowered to act as ambassadors of our brands. They must be experts and empathetic, responsive, and resourceful. They must act with a spirit of generosity. Southwest Airlines actively seeks to hire people with a “warrior spirit, a servant’s heart and a fun-loving attitude.” Nurturing customers is critical to your business, but nurturing employees into becoming ambassadors of your brand deserves just as much thought, planning and resources.


Evolution, revolution or disruption?

When thinking about positioning or repositioning, the first step is to determine what problem you are trying to solve:


  • Is the perception of your brand stale or not what you want it to be?
  • Is your core customer aging out of the market?
  • Is there a new consumer opportunity with great financial potential?
  • Are you losing market share?
  • Is your brand losing relevance?
  • Are more competitors coming into your space?
  • Are your performance indicators no longer trending upward?
  • Or, more likely, is your business experiencing some combination of these types of problems?


Answering these questions will help you determine how dramatically you will need to change. Minor positioning changes, which are somewhat easier to implement, may seem like enough. But, as you might expect, they may not have huge marketplace impact. These repositioning efforts are evolutionary.


Major repositioning efforts require big shifts. Consumers have to be willing to accept how you change your product or service offerings, and you have to invest significantly in your brand to deliver the promise of the new positioning. These repositioning efforts are revolutionary. 


If you are launching a new brand, you are either seeking a white space opportunity or creating a new way to think about the market. In this case, you may be looking to create disruption in the market.


Ingredients for sound positioning strategy


  1. Define the best customer opportunity. This requires digging deep to learn everything you can about existing customers’ and potential customers’ needs and desires, sizing the opportunity and identifying an audience that you can truly win with.


  1. Find the open market space, or even break category paradigms. Identify where your brand can uniquely solve your core customers’ problems or address a unique customer need. Gain a keen understanding of the competitive marketplace, trends and even businesses outside of your category. Look at how the competition conducts “business as usual” and think of ways to defy the ordinary and create the extraordinary.


  1. Develop a unique and compelling brand promise. From the knowledge you have gained by identifying the best customer opportunity and the open market space, articulate from the heart the promise your brand is making to the customer you are targeting and the values you will live by to take care of them. 


  1. Define the three or four critical “proof points” that support your brand promise. Identify the distinctive ways your brand will consistently deliver the promise you are making, whether it is through product or service attributes, unique experiential elements, or proprietary offerings.



Successful brands


To stay relevant, brands require constant tending. Successful brands continually evolve. Positioning, not a “once and done” exercise, needs to be continually assessed and fine-tuned. Customers’ needs change, competitors do not stand still, and new industries continuously alter the game. In today’s world, treading water isn’t enough. Treading water really amounts to sinking. 


Keep your positioning fresh, or your brand, and your company, just may perish.


Laura Bates and Karen McSteen are partners in Brand Verve, a consulting firm that helps organizations grow their brand value through strategic positioning, engaging customer experiences, and innovative products and services.