Most Brands Are Unpositioned
Positioning…and that would mean what?
Years ago, my partner Peter Krieg and I were at a client meeting in the Boston area, and during a break one of the executives, a guy in his early fifties, asked, “Did you see the Patriots’ game the other night?” We said we had and he said “Okay, here’s a trivia question for you. What’s the name of the stadium they play in?”
We said, “Gillette Stadium.”
“Okay, here’s the real question. What was the name of the old stadium long before Bob Kraft built a new one and re-named it Gillette Stadium.
We said, “Sullivan Stadium. Sullivan owned the team.”
“Very good; not many people know that.”
We said, “Here’s one for you. What was the name before Sullivan Stadium?” He didn’t know there had been an earlier name, so we answered the question for him; “Schaefer Stadium.”
“Schaefer Stadium? Where did they ever get the name Schaefer? Who’s Schaefer?”
We said, “It was built with money from the Schaefer Brewing Company when Schaefer was the number-one brand of beer on the East Coast.”
“No kidding. I didn’t know that.”
We said, “Do you remember anything about Schaefer beer advertising?”
Schaefer beer…I haven’t seen Schaefer beer for years. Do they still make it?”
We said, “Yeah, they do, somewhere.”
“Schaefer beer advertising…Oh my God, I do: ‘The One Beer To Have When You’re Having More Than One.”
We walked back into the conference room, where 15 people were waiting. Peter said to the group, “I’ve got a question from Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Kevin’s going to hum some music from a TV commercial. Don’t say anything but raise your hand if you know what he’s humming.”
Kevin began to hum, and the next thing we know, five guys were singing “Schaefer is the one beer to have..when you’re having more than one!” We found this amazing. We asked, ”What’s the message here? What was Schaefer trying to communicate about the brand?:” The whole room went into a buzz, discussing Schaefer’s strategy. Since Schaefer had not run that campaign in decades, we were bowled over.
Then we said, “Okay, now tell us something about Budweiser or Miller advertising today. If Schaefer was the one beer to have when you’re having more than one, what is Miller? What is Budweiser?
Confusion in the room. “Well, Budweiser, I remember lizards and frogs and horses in snow.” Miller Light “Tastes Great, Less Filling.” “In the old days, weekends were made for Michelob.” “And now Corona is using “Find Your Beach.”
We said, “Tell me something about Bud other than frogs or horses.” More confusion. “I don’t know.” “I think they’re back to ‘The King of Beers.’” “August Busch used to own the company.” Somebody said, “Isn’t Miller the Champagne of Bottled Beers?”
We said “You guys are in a time warp. Forget the past, what do Bud and Miller stand for today? What’s their positioning?”
More bewilderment. No answers.
Thinking of beer we were watching the Patriots play the Denver Broncos and saw a number of Coors commercials. “Coors the Banquet Beer.” Now what the heck is a banquet beer? Are there 57 people in America under 40 who even know what a banquet is? They might as well have positioned it as a Bristol beer (another arcane term no one knows today) for all the good it’s going to do.
Schaefer’s “The One Beer To Have When You’re Having More Than One” is an illustration of great positioning! Bud, Miller and Coors are examples of terrible positioning. What is a wonder is that today so few brands have a clear positioning. Did brand managers skip the class in their MBA program?
What a Positioning Is . . . and Does for You
Marketers and advertisers define positioning in a number of ways. To paraphrase the classic work on the subject by Al Ries and Jack Trout, it’s the unique perceptual image that consumers carry in their minds about your brand that sets it beneficially apart from competing products and brands.
Or it is: “The story you want to plant in people’s minds about your product and why it’s better (than competitors and alternatives).”
Or it is: “The bundle of attributes and benefits you want to tell people about, or simply, your unique selling proposition—the reason why people should buy your product rather than someone else’s.”
In plain English, it’s the sales message, the elevator pitch designed to motivate someone to buy your brand. At the most fundamental, it’s the brand’s essence, its raison d’être, its reason to be. Common to all definitions, however, is the idea that brands truly achieve positioning when the benefit-providing solutions and promises meet the category preferences, needs, and expectations of the target consumer in a way that makes the brand appear compellingly unique among alternatives. In an advertising context, positioning is a motivating, persuasively communicated message that gives prospective customers a positive reason why they should think of and remember the product as having a unique-among-alternatives capacity to deliver benefits that satisfy their needs and desires.
Unfortunately, through a customer’s bad experience, negative word of mouth, or inattention, you may also be positioned negatively: the brand is too expensive, too cheap, too complicated, shoddy, tasteless, unsophisticated, ugly, gets poor gas mileage, difficult to use, to find, to repair. The list of reasons not to buy a product or service is endless.
A positioning must be a few words, phrases, or sentences about your brand that you want to fix in the minds of your target prospects. Our longest positioning was for Green Mountain Energy: “Clean, green power made from the raging rivers of North America, the prevailing winds, and the sun.” The shortest was for Universal theme parks: “Universal’s Escape.”
The statement should be so clear, so succinct, and so powerful that once launched, it leads to a powerful brand. Examples include 3M’s, “Innovation”; Coke’s, “Authentic, Real, Original”; General Electric’s, “Imagination at Work”; Mobil’s, “Fast, Friendly Service”; Federal Express’, “Overnight Delivery”; BMW’s, “German Engineering”; Wal-Mart’s, “Low Prices Everyday”; Target’s, “Style and Quality at Reasonable Prices”; Disney’s, Wholesome Family Entertainment”; and Visa’s, “Accepted Everywhere.”
When the product and communications do not address a serious consumer problem—which, sadly, covers 99 percent of all brands—they have no impact on brand equity, modest effects on sales, and a negligible return on the investment. There is no impact beyond the present.
Many marketers today argue that a strong product-based positioning strategy is a thing of the past. It worked, they say, back in the 1950s and 1960s when marketing and advertising were new, brands were relatively few, and positioning possibilities were unlimited. The view seems to be that image-based positionings were born out of necessity in the 1990s and that they can be as effective as the traditional “product difference/reason why” approach popular decades ago.
To this we usually say “perhaps” or “maybe,” but we’re tempted to say “nonsense.” True, competition is tougher today, but for many brands in many product categories there are still important differences the marketer can communicate. Moreover, on average, these strategies are stronger—work better—than their modern image-oriented counterparts.
The table suggests that only about 1 in 20 companies/services/products/brands employs a clear, powerful, preemptive product-based positioning strategy and that most—perhaps 6 out of 10—represent ethereal fun. This in our view is highly ineffective advertising that diverts scarce resources the company could use to better advantage elsewhere. Nevertheless, if you’re inclined to believe that an image campaign may work in your category, the research approach we describe later in this chapter will help you evaluate product (tangible) versus image (intangible) positionings long before you’ve invested the total advertising budget in another image campaign.
When business-to-business or business-to-consumer product and communications are designed to address a serious consumer problem—the other 1 percent of companies and brands—they can have a dramatic impact on brand equity, a substantial effect on sales and profitability (a return on investment, or ROI, of 250 percent or more), and the word is spread by trendsetters. All this, of course, affects the quality of life of consumers and business decision-makers, positively impacts corporate reputation and equity, has strong word-of-mouth effects, and has carryover effects for a generation.
Unfortunately, as with the beer industry, too many companies promote the wrong positioning or advertise a weak or confusing positioning. Three years ago, we undertook a research and development study for which we hired the late Dr. David Lloyd, a content analyst, to examine more than 400 different prime-time television commercials that we taped off air and provided to Lloyd to study.
He found that only 7 percent of these commercials communicate a clear and compelling selling message, which is why so few consumers can say anything about the two leading brands in the 50 largest product categories that one could begin to call positioning. As Philip Kotler points out, “One of the tragic flaws in General Motors’ car lineup is that it designs cars without distinctive positionings. After the car is made, GM struggles to decide how to position it.” Consider Chevy’s “Chevy Runs Deep.” What in heaven’s name does that mean?
If advertisers are not communicating a clear positioning, either by accident or on purpose, is it any wonder that brand equity scores in most product categories are declining the way we outlined in Chapter 1 of our last book. We’re continually surprised when a corporation like Coke, which has not communicated a clear positioning for its brand in a quarter century, seems surprised when both brand equity and sales have been flagging for years. We are always asking chief marketing officers (CMOs) why they would expect sales or equity to be growing when they are not giving consumers a clear reason to buy the brand?
Some marketers respond by saying that positioning is an outmoded concept: “It’s not relevant anymore.” Larry Light, former CMO of McDonald’s has argued that so-called brand journalism has replaced brand positioning. By brand journalism, Light means that you don’t need a single positioning strategy; you need a different story to communicate with different targets. McDonald’s, for example, has five main market targets. Light could be correct about positioning in the rarified world of companies that spend $200 million-plus on communications in the United States. If you have a giant budget, perhaps you can afford to target different groups with different positionings. Perhaps. Our own sense, however, is that McDonald’s would be more successful and its equity would be improving if it could only figure out what it wants to be and imprint that in the heads of every American.
Over the years, any number of marketers have said, “We have to educate consumers on our positioning.” For twenty years, the motor oil industry has tried to educate consumers that synthetic is good and actually makes a better lubricant. It produces a higher quality; it produces purity, more consistency, and better protection. All these are benefits.
But they keep using the word synthetic, which means nothing to most people and is negative to the rest. For ten years we’ve been saying that nobody understands that synthetic is good, our evidence being the unremarkable sales of synthetic motor oil. Call the stuff “HyperSlick,” or come up with a name that people understand. The marketers say they want to call it synthetic, and they will just have to educate consumers what it means. But consumers generally don’t want to be educated.
In contrast, we worked with a bottled water company and suggested it position its product as “Purified.” “Absolutely not” said the brand manager. He was convinced that purified was a bad idea. His gut told him people didn’t like that word on their bottled water. What was the evidence? Other water brands: Evian, Natural Spring, Poland Spring, Mountain Spring, and the like. We did some work and found that people loved the idea of purified. This brand was the only one that was in fact purified, and the word gave this brand–Aquafina–a major competitive positioning advantage. After three or four years, with the purified positioning, the brand rose to #1 on the charts.
To those who say that positioning is dead, we say look around. Remember that advertising has a negative ROI. Brand equity is in a broad decline. New product failure is at record levels. Marketers who think brands don’t need a strong positioning sales message are reasoning from their guts, not from their brains. So how do you develop strong, positive positioning?