Noah Brier | November 1, 2022

The Brand Positioning Edition

On strategy, purpose, and emotional resonance (or lack thereof)

Recommended Products

How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don't Know
How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don't Know

A book by Byron Sharp that has taken the marketing world by storm, arguing that brands should focus on salience over positioning.

Re-running a Brier classic. Back tomorrow. -CJN

Noah here. For a while now I’ve used “your strategy is showing” as a shorthand for a marketing campaign that feels a bit too on the nose. You know the ads I mean. Instead of interpreting the strategic direction of the campaign, the whole thing feels like it is simply repeating a strategy line that was originally written in the brief. Since briefs aren’t meant for public consumption when you hear or see one of these things it can feel particularly jarring. Taglines are a frequent victim of “your strategy is showing”-itis, with companies opting to simply repeat their internal positioning for outside consumption. The end result is unsatisfying and unmemorable, but at least the CMO and CEO feel good that it jibes with the expensive brand positioning they just went through.

In our current universe of every brand wanting to lead with “purpose”, it feels like this happens even more than before. So many of those anthemic ads we see feel like someone just took a brief and pressed record instead of hiring a creative team to find a way to say it without saying it. Maybe that’s fine and it works, but I really doubt it. Too often the end product is an anonymous ad with a voiceover that looks like it came from Nike if they slashed production budgets by 90%. If advertising has one job it’s to create or strengthen an association with the brand. This could be a color, product, or logo and is why there’s an ongoing joke in the advertising business about clients asking to make the logo bigger. When you make marketing that looks and sounds like everyone else, that becomes impossible.

Why is this interesting?

Purpose, love, positioning, and emotions are big topics of conversation in the world of marketing. There’s a lot of advice out there that marketers need to appeal to something larger than themselves and create an appeal that goes beyond their products. Experts excitedly point to brands like Apple and Nike and Patagonia over and over and over again as evidence of what’s possible instead of recognizing that they are exceptions. Today, every brand, no matter how bad it might be for people or society, has a self-stated aim to make the world a better place. 

My favorite recent example of this has to be this recent ad with Lebron James (well covered by Ethan Sherwood Strauss). Do yourself a favor and watch it in its entirety—ideally while avoiding the brand who made it.

Byron Sharp, whose How Brands Grow book has taken the marketing world by storm over the last decade, has some relevant things to say about purpose and positioning. Specifically, he argues that brands should shift away from positioning—thinking about how they line up against competitors—and towards salience: the “propensity to be noticed or come to mind in buying situations.”

The problem with positioning, as explained by Sharp and his crew at Ehrenberg-Bass, is that it limits a brand’s potential reach by cutting down the possible universe instead of thinking about how it can appeal as broadly as possible. Every brand and product competes with everything else that may be taking up the time, attention, and dollars of a consumer. McDonald’s doesn’t compete with only Burger King and Wendy’s, it also competes with anywhere else a person might eat, including making their own dinner at home by way of ingredients they bought at a grocery store, farmer’s market, and corner store. Brands can’t appeal to everyone, but they should try to appeal to the largest group that might realistically buy their product.

The one main critique I have with the idea that positioning doesn’t matter isn’t about consumer behavior—I think Sharp is right that people don’t really care what brands say they care about. Where positioning does matter, though, is with employees. People come to work, at least in part, for purpose and positioning. They want to believe they’re working for the winner and doing great things. The messages that resonate with consumers are totally different from the ones that work with employees. And that’s not surprising: consumers buy a $3 bar of soap while employees commit to spending much of their waking hours with the brand. To this end even a marketer who believes all the ideas of How Brands Grow still needs to maintain a dual mindset where they talk salience strategically and positioning internally. A CMO needs to convince their charges that while positioning doesn’t matter for selling, it still matters deeply internally.

Not leading with purpose doesn’t mean a brand doesn’t have any, as nicely articulated by Mark Ritson:

Choosing not to position on purpose does not mean your organisation is evil. Indeed, there are plenty of companies quietly operating with purpose while opting not to position explicitly upon it through their marketing. For two decades, Pret a Manger has quietly taken unsold sandwiches off its shelves and, rather than discounting or dumping them, distributed them to shelters and food banks. Pret doesn’t talk much about this at all. It continues to position on fresh, handmade food instead.

Getting back to those terrible purpose-led, strategy-showing ads. It’s possible they’re working and that they’re successfully tugging on the heartstrings of consumers and causing the kind of emotional resonance that drives successful advertising. I doubt it, but maybe. But if they’re not also delivering “salience,” which I can’t imagine they are since they all look and sound the same, they’re still falling flat. There’s a lot of truth to the old advertising joke about making the logo bigger—if an ad fails to deliver the basic association of brand with message it doesn’t matter what you’re saying or how you’re saying it. (NRB)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) 

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