Gary Baker and Gail Brackett discussing Brand positioning

At the core of any compelling brand lies a relevant, distinctive positioning. Our CEO and President, Gary Baker, recently sat down with our brand strategist Gail Brackett, to demystify brand positioning. In this conversation, we discuss what brand positioning is, how it relates the overall brand platform, how you uncover a good positioning and some of the benefits.

Gary: I can’t assume that everybody that will be reading this will understand brand positioning. Let’s define brand positioning.

Gail: Brand positioning is the idea you want to own in your target’s or customer’s minds. And the strongest ones come at the intersection of being relevant and distinctive. When that comes together, ultimately it helps to maximize brand value. So it’s the core idea. It’s “What idea do you want to own in people’s minds about your business and your organization?”

Gary: Let’s talk about the relationship of positioning and the brand platform.

Gail: A brand platform is a complete framework around the brand positioning or that core idea. You can think of the brand positioning as the center of that platform, which is another way to say strategy. It’s a fully comprehensive framework for a strategy around the brand.

The brand platform contains all of the strategic and tactical elements required to support the brand positioning. It includes details like your credentials for delivering on the core idea, the personality of your brand, and importantly, the values of the organization. It answers the question, what allows you to deliver on the core idea?

From those types of things, like credentials, for example, you can message out to people about why they should believe what you’re telling them, and why they should think about you in a certain way. It helps bring marketing and messaging priorities into focus.

So really it’s that all of the elements that support the core idea are the brand platform. At the center of it is the brand positioning.

Gary: I like to think of the platform as a very foundational element that you’re going to build up from, message from and create great experiences and touch points that are aligned.

Gail: Yes.

It’s a guiding framework. And over time as a business evolves you may revise and change the different elements of the platform as your business grows, as long as it’s still in support of the core idea.

Gary: So what are the most effective ways to get at a good positioning?

Gail: Well, I guess I’ll start by talking about how we approach it and the process by which we approach it. It starts from a fundamental belief that a positioning is a viewpoint that we believe we stand for and deliver.

Essentially we go through a discovery phase of our client’s organization, the marketplace and the competition, taking an inside-out approach. As that process goes along, we form a hypothesis or hypotheses. We get ideas about what we think that company’s viewpoint should be, “what ideas should they own in the minds of their customers and constituents.”

So through the process, we’re looking to either support, refute or refine these hypotheses. And in the end, we know we have a strong idea if, as I mentioned before, it comes to the intersection of distinction and relevancy. We also want to ensure that it’s credible, it’s own-able, it’s defensible, and most importantly, it’s scalable for a business over time.

Part of the process involves understanding not only where an organization is today and where the marketplace is today, but what their vision is and their plans for the business are in the future. And this idea needs to be scalable for that and help guide that growth and that vision.

Gary: Describe some techniques that we like to use in getting at what’s behind a positioning. Is there any secret sauce to this?

Gail: Well, I’d say overall, the secret sauce is knowing where to look and how to ask the right questions and then carefully listen to the answers.

Gary: So that is not only from within, the internal people, but externally as well?

Gail: That’s right. In our experience, we have found that inevitably the ideas come from the people within the organization. They represent and live that brand every day. If we’re asking the right questions and they’re giving us the right answers, we’re able to crystallize and articulate for them what already exists in the organization. I would say that’s ultimately the secret sauce.

If we believe that the strongest positioning comes from the intersection of relevancy and distinction, it has to come from within the organization. It will not be relevant if it isn’t delivered by the team. And if we cross it with what does the marketplace or what do customers want and need from you, that is the homerun.

It’s a shared left-brain and right-brain process. There’s a lot of research and data generated in the course of developing a brand positioning. However, we have found that the strongest, most insightful things come from the qualitative and talking to people and understanding the organization from the inside out.

Gary: How does what competitors are doing and what’s going on within the industry, with the business environment, get factored in?

Gail: It’s what I was referring to when I mentioned hitting a home run – crossing your relevancy and distinction with what does the marketplace or what do customers want and need from you in the marketplace. It’s what’s going on in product or service development in your industry. It’s what’s going on in the competitive set. It’s what going on regarding talent. And how you’re able to get it and support it in your organization. It’s ultimately about how you’re able to support your growth. It’s all of those things. It’s a 360 inside-out view.

Gary: Talk about the benefits of a strong positioning for a company.

Gail: Well, if you start by understanding the world we live in and the world that businesses and brands are competing in, there is a limitless choice and certainly a lot of overload and a lot of confusion in the marketplace. I think a single biggest benefit of having a clearly defined, well supported and articulated brand is just the fact that it helps you stand out from the crowd. There’s just an advantage of being known. The next step up is to be a brand that is known for something. But that’s the lowest bar. With relevancy comes the aspect of being known for something our target cares about.

When you continue to support it and grow as a brand, then you become known for something that your target not only cares about, but also values, and places a premium on. Ultimately that’s how we get to building preference and loyalty in the marketplace.

So the strongest brands create strong preference and loyalty, which translates directly into higher margins and stronger business sales. When you look at some of the most powerful brands in the world, it’s the perceived value that they create versus another that makes them so successful. If for instance, you look at the crowded world of consumer electronics, people will go in and pay a premium for Sony versus another because of the strength of that brand. So, broadly, I think that’s the biggest benefit of a brand. More tactically, a strong brand will certainly help drive marketing strategy and help you to get it right the first time. You know where to focus your efforts and how to be efficient and how to be effective. It will indeed shape all the messaging around it. So you’re saying the right things, getting the right messages out to the right people. It will direct, in some ways, a competitive strategy: How are we going to go against and compete in the marketplace; where are the opportunities; where are the challenges? A clear brand positioning will help you figure that out.

It will help shape a lot of different value propositions. And I think, importantly, one that it helps shape is those for employees who are going to deliver the brand. How does the brand shape the promises we make to the employees? What do we need from the employees to help deliver on that brand? And, in turn, that impacts a culture. And that’s a real business asset — your culture, your people, and everything you build into it. The brand definitely directs that. It’s a big part of that.

Gary: It’s a big part of it. You should be hiring the right people to deliver that brand, right?

Gail: Yeah. The last thing I would say about a strong brand is at the highest level it starts to inform business decisions. Let’s take Disney for example. It’s a very strong brand, with a hugely diverse portfolio of sub-brands. How their brand strategy and their core idea about “creating magic for families” directed them over the years is very clear. When they evolved their business into areas that make a lot of business sense for them but no longer were supportive of that idea, they spun it off and had sub-brands like Touchstone Pictures.

When they created their cruise line, the brand positioning clearly informed that business. What kind of cruise line are you going to create that’s a Disney product beyond the obvious around for kids? Would you have gambling on that, for instance? What would the entertainment be like on a Disney cruise line? A very simple example of how a brand when it’s working for a company, begins to guide the business and decision set you’ll make over time.

Gary: Excellent. People have a hard time understanding the difference between a brand positioning and a brand expression, where the brand positioning is just the core idea, but when you bring it to life, it’s going to sound a little something unique unto itself based on that core idea.

Gail: Well, the easiest example I can give is one that most people know and understand, which is Nike. Their positioning is “activating athletic excellence.” And that’s where they started. And their tagline is “just do it.” The expression of the idea isn’t always the same for the external tagline as the internal positioning line. Sometimes it is. There have been times when we have done this work where the expression of the internal idea, the positioning, winds up working beautifully as a tagline. But taglines are more transient. They are more timely if you will. They can evolve and change over time depending on where the business wants to put their focus on the brand at a given point in time.

An example of that is UPS. Their business has evolved from being largely a shipping company, starting with the tag “we run the tightest ship in the shipping business,” to “moving at the speed of business.” Then it was “what can brown do for you today?” as their business evolved to a much broader offering around logistics. The taglines changed to reflect the changes in the business, without really needing to do a wholesale change to their core idea.