Back in the early 1980s, a friend of mine in the printing business loaned me a book that I never gave back. The book is the now-classic, Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind by Al Ries and Jack Trout. I didn’t give it back because I didn’t want to. I felt like I had to hang onto this simple volume that so profoundly changed my point of view (as well as a half-million others). One reviewer said, “If you can grasp the simple truths in this book, you’ll understand what 90% of marketing people don’t: it’s the customer, stupid”.
What Trout and Reis pioneered 20 or 30 years ago is now a universally accepted (and most would say, the most important) discipline in brand strategy. Brand positioning literally means to “position” your brand in your customer’s mind. The spot you want to find is the strongest position you can claim relative to your competitors. Finding that position means you must, of course, understand who your customer is—your target market—and how they behave.
In business-to-business marketing, it can be difficult for a large, complex, multi-product, multi-service company to find a common denominator. It’s easy to find companies that failed the effort. Just read their position on the home page of their Web site. Is it more than empty phrases? Is it just a lot of “hot air”? Even more enlightening may be to read the position of one of your competitors. Does it sound a lot like your own?
In Marty Neumeier’s book, Zag, he asks “What makes you the only…”. He says complete this sentence: Our brand is the only _____________ that ____________. In the first blank, put the name of your category (sign company, reading glass distributor, medical clinic). In the second blank, describe what makes you different (that has multiple offices in the West, that combines fashion with function, that is locally owned). If you can’t keep it brief and use the word “only”, then you don’t have a “zag”, or a defendable position.
Once you’ve figured out your position, you don’t change it. It’s not like an advertising campaign or even a tagline that might change every few years. In the words of Philip Kotler, in B2B Brand Management, “A brand can only have one true position. An effectively positioned brand communicates its core values to all stakeholders, internally and externally. Positioning a brand is not a tactical activity but rather a strategic process aimed at creating a sustainable competitive advantage.”