In these digital infatuated times, brands too often overlook the criticality of positioning. It seems quaint somehow. Just another marketing term beginning with ‘P’, it’s even given equal weight as the others. When the narrative in the press, and even respected marketing titles, asserts that people, in their revulsion against big corporates, don’t want brands anymore, and that Millennials are somehow radically different from all the other 18-34 people who have gone before (and from everyone else), and that adverts in ‘traditional media’ no longer work (only ‘content’), well, unless you take a check-step, you may actually believe it. Because, be clear: it’s all nonsense. It’s fake news.
Yes, our times are different. Yes, we have information and digital technology empowering and changing our society and lives in new ways. But in our responses, are we any different to those in the 1830s onwards, when confronted by the revolution of the railway and effective mass transportation? Or the 1700s when confronted with the revolution of organised industry, or before that technology on agriculture? Underneath it all, we are human and respond in fundamentally human ways; we have the same needs and desires. Yes, the manifestations of our needs are in response to new inputs… but why should they be different?
Feminism, consumerism, the growth of youth culture, the explosion of mass culture, the destruction of manufacturing industries, the decline of traditional institutions such as the church – all these and many more have helped transform Britain, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.
Kenan Malik 4th Feburary 2018
The structures of our society are going through radical change. And as a consequence, there’s never been a time when brands are more important navigators for people. Brands continue to fulfil needs and desires on so many levels. These may be purely functional or they may be about our self-identity, but brands remain a constant for everyone in our society, rich or poor. Critically, brands remain a cornerstone for how we navigate life – sometimes actively, more often in the background – but a consistent presence nonetheless. And of course, we leave some brands behind, yet we discover and adopt new ones – since the introductions of brands as we understand them now in the 1800s, it was ever thus. Just because of artisan products from small producers at places like Borough Market, or craft products are sold on Etsy, doesn’t mean brands are dead – the space expands and frankly, it just gets more interesting. Nick Johnson, co-owner of Mackie Mayor a new artisan food hall in Altrincham, Cheshire says, “All our vendors are passionate and independent. We are originators. It’s an antidote to brand mentality”. But he’s wrong. If you look at the craft movement, those that are commercially successful, that scale-up (to a reasonable level to ensure their continued survival) are the ones that create brands. Some protect their independence and grow, some take the money and sell out. If you’re of an ‘artisan’ mentality’ it may make you uncomfortable, but consumers still want brands as much as ever. They may start differently, look different, they may have a different ownership structure or long-term ambition; they may have a different experience, but they are brands nonetheless.
Whilst competition exists, brands exist. And so long as we want to express ourselves through what we consume, brands will exist.
So to treat brand positioning casually, to assume it is less important today, is perhaps the greatest mistake of anyone running a brand. As new methods of manufacture and retail are devised, as new brand launches proliferate in response, the act of setting yourself out differently from current and potential competitors becomes the single most important task you have.
There are all sorts of brand positioning models and structures: onions, pyramids, keys, eyes. Worrying about the layout is missing the point. A great brand positioning has four, distinct, parts: it defines the target consumer and what connects them to the brand; it defines the brand itself, the offer it makes, the benefits it gives; it is clear about the relationship it has with you, it’s beliefs and behaviours, and finally it is unambiguous over visual gateways it owns – symbols, signs, sounds, by which people recognise it by.
At the heart of this is the positioning pitch. What does the brand give me, what’s the benefit, why can this brand make this claim? And given the digital marketeers focus on shares, pokes and likes, it’s perhaps ironic that at the heart of a great brand positioning is an unlike.
This isn’t the act of removing your preference for something. Rather it is being totally clear on who you are unlike.
Unlike Gilette, shaving with Harry’s is cheaper, funkier, more convenient and just as smooth.
Unlike any other form of transport, Brompton cleanly revolutionises your city transportation.
Unlike any other ice cream, Ben & Jerry’s is packed full of chunky indulgent bits.
It’s time to unlike this faddish love of digital marketing and get back to positioning like a pro.
David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that finds the direct route to success for categories and brands. Get in touch with David at firstname.lastname@example.org / +44 (0) 1283 246260. You can follow The Crow Flies on Linked In (http://www.linkedin.com/company/the-crow-flies-ltd?trk=company_name), on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/thecrowfliesltd). © The Crow Flies, 2018
Not that long ago I was asked by a client to review different brand positioning models with a view to taking best practice and my, as a marketeer, what an illuminating way to spend a few days it was. Whilst it was no doubt a lesson in metaphors and also surprisingly educational about amusing fruits, body parts and long-forgotten polygonal shapes, what was particularly striking were the commonalities (or lack of them): what great brand positioning statements need to have and where they slip up. Here at The Crow Flies we call this the ‘2 Wings and 10 Feathers’. But we would, wouldn’t we? The important point is that firstly, there are 5 critical building blocks of a positioning – the structure of what’s important to construct a compelling and consistent brand, and secondly there are 5 watch outs to ensure the way the positioning is constructed is sharp, meaningful and clear.
Wing 1: the 5 building blocks
Clarity of purpose: too often, ‘purpose’ is treated as a mandatory corporate tick box exercise (see here) and too often it’s confused with commercial goals. Being clear on what you want to be, for whom, by when is important – but not here. That’s for your plan. Purpose is something else, higher level, heart-felt. It’s why your business does what it does, or in this case, why your brand does what it does. It’s crucial – arguably the most crucial aspect of your brand positioning – because it provides guidance. It cuts off the options. It forces choice and sacrifice. It defines what you won’t do as much as what you will.
Defining who the target consumer is and their connection to your brand: it’s staggering how often the brand positioning models reviewed made no reference to the target consumer. None. Or perhaps a blunt socio-demographic description and a few random comments on what media ‘Jules’ likes to consume. Clarifying who the target is, in a way they would recognise, and more importantly what the problem is they want fixing, the need they want met or the simple desire they want fulfilled is a cornerstone of a great positioning.
Defining what the brand is and what the benefit is: your brand exists to fulfil a need. Your brand is in some way bought as a reward for fulfilling the needs, desires or fixing your targets’ problems. So of course, being clear on what your brand offers functionally and what reward it meets emotionally is critical. Identifying the underlying truth of your brand that matters is essential too – but you can only define this if you’re clear on who your target is and what they’re looking for. There’s a virtuous circle that both keeps you honest and helps you make great decisions.
Defining how it is recognised: great brands are instantly recognisable. Great brands own many mental pathways and one of those is a bundle of visual and semiotic cues. Colours, shapes, words. These ‘anchors’ can be a curse if your brand has to change, but your greatest asset if you’re in good shape and looking to accelerate.
Defining the nature of the relationship: ultimately a strong brand is more than a product. It builds a friendship relationship with its consumers. Yes, it delivers something functional in a way that a product does, but how it communicates, and how it does so consistently over time, means that a relationship is built that is beyond transactions.
Wing 2: the 5 ‘watch outs’
Confusion – this first point builds on the foundations. What does each element do, why? It’s incredible how many of the positioning models reviewed bandy phrases around. Positioning, proposition, promise. Values, Principles, Traits, Personality, Tone of Voice; Essence. Lots of elements, but no order, no clarity.
Duplication – of words, sections, phrases. It’s a personal bugbear, but the repetition of phrases in multiple locations in a brand positioning is a clear signal that it’s not fully understood. Precision is key.
Compounding – why have one benefit when you can have ten? It’s so tempting –because your brand can offer many benefits, doesn’t mean it should. In fact, let’s not beat around the bush, it definitely shouldn’t. As consumers, we are impacted by thousands of pieces of data every day. Our brain is effectively a big filtering system, and if it can filter something out, it will. Don’t try to be everything to everyone. Your goal, your aspiration, is to be single-minded.
Fluffiness – whilst it’s tempting to unleash the inner poet or lyricist, most positioning statements suffer because, like a member of TOWIE, there are too many fillers, and not enough power. Don’t be tempted to crack your positioning in a day. Draft it. Write contenders. Get input and constantly, constantly, distil; which leads nicely on to…
Over-elaborate – as Albus Dumbledore so notably said, words have so much power they can become magical. It’s easy therefore to be tempted to scribe five words when one will do. Celebrate simplicity.
Great brand positionings? It’s a matter of two wings and no prayers.
David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, brand strategy and innovation company that helps discover the direct route to success for brands and businesses. If you’re looking for brand positioning help, drop a line to email@example.com; +44 (0) 1283 246260
© The Crow Flies, 2017
At the start of the year, Coca-Cola went public with a piece of brand architecture work that will impact their whole range – what they are calling their ‘One Brand’ strategy. All brands will be united under a strategic sign off of ‘Taste The Feeling’. This is not a branding revolution – far from it in fact. Many companies when starting out simply don’t have the financial resources to market multiple brands. Creating a single meaning is logical, commercially sensible and often quite desirable.
What’s unusual in the Coke example is that often, companies move away from this single ‘architecture’ approach over time as they wrestle with multiple sub brands sharing a single meaning. How can a low fat, full fat, high taste, low taste, large size, small size, for the young, for the old range cohesively sit together. It’s not impossible, but it creates strain. And of course, Coke are not lacking in the funds to adopt a brand by brand approach – which is why over many years they haven’t. Coca-Cola brands – original / diet / diet Caffeine free / Zero have been connected by shared values and iconography, but have ploughed, very successfully separate furrows. Separate furrows in the same field, but separate nonetheless. Off the back of this, Coke Zero has been an incredible launch and Diet Coke – well, in overtaking original Coke has been a phenomenon. So why change?
Potentially, it’s competitive pressure. Coke can’t move without Pepsi or another challenger matching it; or indeed leading and putting them under pressure to respond. More likely, it’s pressure from outside soft drinks – from other drinks categories. But surely this is a matter of ensuring that the Coke range remains fresh, relevant and contemporary? How does making each brand share a single meaning help that – versus keeping each brand sharply targeted and focused on key needs, attitudes and consumer segments.
Perhaps then it’s Governmental pressure? Soft drinks are an easy target for obesity campaigners and the UK Government’s new ‘sugar tax’ is evidence of targeting the low hanging fruit. But again, how does a single brand architecture help?
So then, surely it must be the changing media environment? The fragmentation of channels and increasing personalisation of viewing and ownership of content by consumers. But again – it doesn’t wash. The whole point of our media landscape now surely, is that we can build more specific brand positionings for more specific audiences and needs? If anything, wouldn’t Coke be doing the opposite? Making individual brand positionings even more refined?
The confusing factor in all this is that as consumers we buy brands, not companies. Oh, there’s no doubt that how companies set up their mission and their principles casts a discrete halo on individual brands – but that’s different from owning a single minded thought in the mind of your target consumer. I may buy Diet Coke, but I wouldn’t buy original, yet when I want full flavour I may choose Pepsi Max. I love the flavour intensity of Taylors of Harrogate’s Hot Lava Java, but occasionally I just need the convenience of Kenco Millicano. Different needs, different occasions, same consumer.
Which makes the whole ‘One Brand’ approach a worry. If it’s not a response to competitive pressure, Governmental pressure or changing consumer usage habits and needs then it can only be one thing: intellectual neatness. It’s more like city planning – idealistic but difficult to deliver. Coke will find it tough precisely because they did such an amazing job building their individual brands and I suspect, it will quickly unravel (as reports suggest). Intellectual neatness is not always the commercially neatest thing to do.
David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that helps discover the direct route to success for brands and businesses. firstname.lastname@example.org; +44 (0) 1283 246260
© The Crow Flies, 2016
The latest John Lewis advert is good old-fashioned advertising. ‘Old-fashioned’ in the sense that it’s a 60” advert with a 30” cut down; it’s got a heavyweight media plan, which in turn is heavy on ‘terrestrial’ TV channels and most importantly, like great adverts of old, has got people chattering. Is the old guy in need of sympathy or help? Is the little girl caring or interfering? And why, oh why is no one reporting sentient life on our nearby orbiting moon?
Yet the John Lewis advert is also wise counsel for marketeers. There’s this new paradigm which attracts the column inches: that ‘digital’ has / is revolutionising the marketing task, that somehow, today everything has changed; we all need a new skill set, new knowledge, to release our inner-coder. But it’s a paradigm with shaky foundations. This advert counsels doggedness, patience, getting a differentiating position, owning it and sticking with it. No, more than that: not just sticking with it, but also sticking it squarely, firmly, robustly into the mind of your target consumer. And what better way than a blockbuster TV ad on ITV and Channel Four? (Note: I’m no Luddite; they’re doing digital stuff too, and clever with it – but it’s being treated for what it is, another set of interesting and interactive channels to communicate the central positioning and creative idea). It’s cut through so quickly that another retailer has already spoofed it.
There’s another message though, one less obvious but just as stark. The real triumph of the John Lewis work, whether you like it as a marketing output or not frankly, is the fact that yet again, there is consistency. Consistency of direction. Consistency of positioning. Consistency of purpose. It is all too easy to jump on the bandwagon when brands are on the up and there’s the risk of beatifying aspects of a brand that are actually suspect under the microscope… but not here. John Lewis is, in a way, reaping a reward of its colleague ownership: it takes a long-term view and treats its brand with studied respect. It recognises the pressures in the changing competitive context but responds in a way that is not only true to its brand, but that builds it too. The latest advert is, along with every touch point in the John Lewis experience, a lesson in brand stewardship, not brand management. It’s starkly evident that the brand is too precious to be meddled with. New ‘brand managers’* in the role to bolster their CV, won’t get to widdle on the crown jewels. The real revolution in marketing is coming from those who dare whisper that there isn’t a new paradigm. It’s coming from those who dare whisper that finding, landing and stewarding a clear positioning through changes of personnel and ownership with steely resolve and determination – that’s the revolution.
*and by ‘Brand Manager’ here, I mean anyone who can meddle with the brand from the CEO down!
David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that helps find the direct route to success for brands and businesses. And no widdling allowed. email@example.com; +44 (0) 1283 246260
© The Crow Flies, 2015
Discussions sometimes seem to weave through time like long strands of gold, looping, intertwining and crossing at the most unusual and surprising times. It’s a reminder that rarely is their original thought but rather a repurposing of an old idea, or theme, into the current context. Indeed, this isn’t an original thought itself: I doff my cap to the late and truly great Terry Pratchett; in fact his character, Granny Weatherwax in ‘Witches Abroad’, “This is called the theory of narrative causality and it means that a story, once started, takes a shape. It picks up all the vibrations of all the other workings of that story that have ever been. This is why history keeps on repeating all the time”.
So it was recently when an ex Ad Agency suit who I worked with years back reminded me of the ‘concept’ of ‘Mass Niche’ which I had coined, apparently. Well, I wasn’t about to do myself the disservice of denying it and actually I do remember it. It was born out of a desire to develop the brand we were working on with a seriously distinctive point of view, tone of voice and stand out from our immediate competitors. It was a desire to be brave and go where the bigger, more institutional brands couldn’t or wouldn’t…. but with scale. Hence, ‘mass niche’.
Mass niche. Yes, it’s an oxymoron, that’s where the appeal as a construct lies. But is it a paradox: can it be solved? Is it a useful way to think about what brands need to achieve distinctiveness and engagement? Essentially, can a brand deliver a ‘mass niche’ positioning – for this is what my colleague was searching for?
We played verbal table tennis. Which brands are mass niche? Pret á Manger perhaps: operating in a seriously crowded and competitive market, yet idiosyncratic with strong brand integrity. Mini? A car with bags of cheeky personality. Waitrose, or Aldi, clearly standing for something different – both from one another and also the middle of their market. We hotly debated Peroni: a brand which so successfully established its ‘niche’ by partnering with Italian restaurants, but has pushed out and beyond since then, whilst staying true to its stylish Italian roots.
But the truth is, these just felt like well positioned brands. Recognisable, built around a product truth, distinctive in some way with their positioning.
Is there a difference then? Well a ‘niche’ is either a nook, cranny or recess – something that offers shelter – or it’s a position of great fit: round peg, round hole, that sort of thing. No definition implies ‘small’ although this is often assumed. With this in mind, niche brands do seem to have a number of points of difference.
Firstly they create the niche. They lead, back a hunch or belief early on. Sustainable, defensible niche brands have the knack or serendipity of getting behind a trend before it becomes dominant, mainstream. Or put better perhaps, they often help a trend in belief or behaviour emerge. Brompton bikes are a great example: they didn’t invent folding bikes, but their founder Andrew Ritchie saw not only the poor design of existing folding bikes (they fold but were difficult to carry or poor to ride) but also the potential of the folding bike to contribute towards revolutionising personal transportation, particularly in urban environments. Interestingly, despite their profusion in London, most Bromptons are exported today. This is all fine in retrospect, but it’s it worth remembering that it takes serious belief, luck and capital (or at times, lack of): the Brompton story started over 30 years ago.
Secondly, niche brands have more than functional defence built in to their make up. Critically, they are founded off, publicise and stay true to their founding beliefs, particularly and especially later when they become fully or part purchased by a new owner. In the U.S. Anchor Brewing Company was a pioneer of today’s craft brewing movement. The owner, Fritz Maytag was fresh out of college, finding his feet and wondering what to do with his life. He bought Anchor because he liked it and heard it was closing. And it was brewing the sort of beer he liked to drink and unlike the beer brewed by the major corporations. Those principles remain true today (with a new owner since 2012), and in fact Anchor remains proudly (and deliberately) a relatively small business.
Thirdly whereas many brands, including those deemed strong by most consumer measures generally have a look that is instantly recognisable, niche brands seem to treat their design with much more reverence and sensitivity. Not that long ago, a long established bric-a-brac store shut down in a nearby town when the owner retired. In the closing down sale was an old Colmans mustard sign, by the look of things, probably from outside a shop or railway station. The yellow, although with some patina of age, the bull and the logo are just as recognisable today. This brand of course, remains the benchmark in feisty English mustard and very much an English fabric brand.
But, the lines between these points and simply well positioned brands are slight. No, the true ‘nicheness’ comes from the way the brand controls the agenda of ‘the battle’. If you’re in a niche then attack is difficult except from the front: and that’s where the mass niche brand is strongest. A bit like the Rohirrim holing themselves up in Helms Deep in The Lords of the Ring, The Twin Towers. Fight OK, but you will fight on my terms.
Apple own stylish technology that fits with everyday life. Benefit Cosmetics own glamour. Agent Provocateur owns sexy femininity. Chicago Town own deep pan pizza.
So what is mass niche? Well positioned, yes. But narrow in their focus too with deep, deep principles. It may seem a slight difference, but it’s a niche worth fighting for.
David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that helps brands find a direct route to long lasting success. firstname.lastname@example.org; +44 (0) 1283 246260; www.thecrowflies.co.uk; @crowflieshigh.
In these frenetic, pressured times it’s increasingly common to see businesses pushing to do more, more, more. A leader in one of my old businesses called it “the power of and”. Oftentimes, this multitasking ability is painted as a virtue, a desirable trait. Bold leaders, macho businesses, taking on more, broadening scopes of responsibility, acting like superheroes. It is a shorthand: leaders who take on more are leaders that achieve more. It’s likely that this sounds familiar to you. Perhaps this describes what is expected of you in your role.
Alas, it is a load of old conkers.
The more I work on brands, helping businesses decipher what drives their brands, their business and what the priorities are, the more I realise that the desirable trait in a leader, the desirable trait in a brand in fact, is the ability to understand that landscape and prioritise. No, more than this, to sacrifice. Eminent business strategy ‘guru’ Michael Porter, he of ‘The Five Forces of Competitive Strategy’ wrote, “the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do”. He was referring to business strategy, but the point still holds.
In fact, ‘and’ is pernicious, dangerous. Helping a client with brand planning recently we reached a great place. Throughout the session there was committed agreement that with limited and tightening budgets, the brand had to do significantly less in order to cut through. In fact, the brilliant news was the brand would focus on just one major activity in the calendar year, hunkering down tightly on a single target group, devoting its total resources to one time period and leaning all the investment against it.
But in the weeks that followed it unravelled. An alignment meeting with the senior team was the root cause: one sales director had asked for more to support a competitive threat in his channel. The marketing director had asked why they weren’t putting some effort into another, slightly older demographic; the trade marketing controller pushed for greater category investment. Ultimately, the plan was more focused than the previous year, but ‘and’ had done its damage. A brand with a chance to cut through won’t now do so.
Of course, this isn’t a call to restrict your agenda such that it is so narrow you lose your competitiveness. Rather, it is about finding your agenda – for example, your brand positioning or your corporate purpose or your people strategy – and then asking ‘or’ questions around it. What if we were to focus our investment on these two activities? Or what if we were to put everything behind one? What if we moved all our media online from traditional sources for a year? Or, what if were to put it all into an experiential programme. ‘Or’ focuses, ‘and’ dissipates.
The promise of the ‘next big thing’ leads us into temptation: ‘we can do this as well” or ‘look how cost effective the new widget is, we can add it to our mix’. Truth is, what marks winners out is the ability to focus and sacrifice. Find your agenda, keep it tight and watch out for the weakening effect of ‘and’.
David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that helps brands find a direct route to long lasting success. email@example.com; +44 (0) 7885 408367; www.thecrowflies.co.uk; @crowflieshigh.
© The Crow Flies, 2015