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Adventure Guide: The 4 Critical Building Blocks of Great Brand Positioning

Brand positioning doesn’t have to be difficult

Those who spend all of their time thinking about brands and brand positioning can make the subject seem incredibly complex. Before you know it, these experts will fill you up with so much marketing jargon and so many impressive-sounding positioning principles and rules that your head may end up exploding from the pressure.

Yet the best-executed positioning won’t always come from these sorts of experts. Great positioning is often developed by the people who know the brand best, the people who are closest to the brand, when they are allowed to play a key role in the positioning process.

So where many experts may attempt to convince you that positioning is a complex process best left to people like them, our goal in this adventure guide is to show you basic brand positioning is simple, can be done by anyone—with or without marketing and advertising experience.

While any person in any organization can help create great brand positioning, whether they have a high tolerance for marketing-speak or not, to do so they must first understand some basic concepts.

We’ve attempted to simplify the jargon down to four key principles we believe form the foundation of solidly constructed brand positioning. We call these principles the four building blocks of brand positioning. They are:

1. The competitive frame of reference

2. Points of difference

3. Points of parity

4. The brand mantra

Don’t get hung up on the words

When it comes to positioning terminology, we sometimes get questions like “what is the difference between a brand mantra and a brand essence?” or “is a point of difference the same thing as a key differentiator?”

Our answer? Don’t get hung up on the words… it’s the concepts that matter.

For the sake of clarity, we’ve standardized a set of terms that work for us and have become comfortable for us to use in our positioning projects.

But often, we’ll be working with a client who approaches positioning from a slightly different point of view, and when this happens we always gravitate toward the words that are most comfortable to them (they are the client!).

The exact terms aren’t important. What really matters is whether we agree on how to articulate brand meaning and understand what makes the brand stand apart.

Using this terminology to describe your brand positioning won’t automatically make it good brand positioning, and some of the best-positioned brands were probably developed by people who had never heard of a point of parity.

Our advice? Use whatever words you like, but seek to deeply understand the concepts behind them.

1. The competitive frame of reference

Where does your brand compete?

This may seem like a very simple question with equally simple answers, and it can be.

If you run a furniture store, you probably compete with other furniture stores. If you run a tattoo parlor, you are up against other tattoo parlors vying to attract the same customers as you.

Great brands can’t be positioned in a vacuum, they must be positioned in context. The competitive frame of reference provides the context for positioning, and it is a fancy way of describing the market or context in which you choose to position your brand.

The furniture store and tattoo parlor are pretty cut-and-dried cases. But have you ever stopped and wondered to yourself, “exactly which market am I in?” and realized that you are really competing in a market or context that is not initially obvious?

The competitive frame of reference is a fancy way of describing the market or context in which you choose to position your brand.

Let’s look at one example of a less-than-obvious competitive frame of reference.

What market do you think Starbucks is in?

Most people would say Starbucks is in the coffee market because the primary product Starbucks sells is coffee. In the coffee market, Starbucks competes with grocery stores, convenience stores, fast food restaurants, and other coffee shops. The coffee market is tough, and in many of those places the profit margins are pretty slim.

In the coffee market, Starbucks isn’t usually competitive on price. In fact, the company managed to convince the world that coffee that used to cost 50 cents a cup was actually worth two dollars or more. Starbucks may no longer be the most expensive coffee in the world, but there are definitely plenty of places you can find coffee cheaper.

When it comes to taste, Starbucks doesn’t have a huge advantage either, despite what their marketing folks might tell you. Only hardcore Starbucks addicts would tell you it is the best coffee out there. Everyone’s tastes are different, but most of us probably wouldn’t have too much trouble finding a cup that tastes better to them.

Convenience is pretty important in the coffee market simply because many people are in a rush to grab a quick cup on the way to work. And Starbucks stores

are nothing if not ubiquitous. But the only thing as ubiquitous as Starbucks is a line at Starbucks. So even though you can find Starbucks stores everywhere, after standing in line, it’ll still probably take you 10 minutes or more before you have your coffee in hand.

So in a market where price, taste, and convenience are all very important, Starbucks doesn’t look like a strong competitor. Yet Starbucks has over 16,000 stores in 50+ countries around the world and does over $10 billion per year in revenues. Almost makes it hard to believe that Starbucks could have grown this big by simply competing in the coffee market.

Well, in addition to competing in the coffee market, Howard Schultz has been known to say that Starbucks is competing to be your “third place.” According to him, the third place is the other place you want to hang out besides your first place (your home) and your second place (your work).

In the competitive frame of reference of third places, Starbucks has a whole different set of competitors, only some of which are coffee shops. Starbucks competes with bookstores, bars, restaurants, parks, libraries—all of the places you might want to hang out and spend your time away from and work.

For years, Starbucks has been differentiating itself not just on its coffee, but also on the experience and environment it creates. That’s why Starbucks spends so much time with the music, ambiance, and wacked out drink names that make you feel like you are reciting chants when you order them. It is all part of creating an air of comfort, relaxation, familiarity, exclusivity, and all of the other things that you look for in your preferred hang out spot.

Every time you go into a Starbucks, you see tons of people who have their laptops open, or are reading newspapers, or meeting with friends or business associates. That and $10 billion in revenues per year says there must be a lot of other people who are in the market for a third place like Starbucks. Small business owners, salespeople who work on the road, people who need to get out of the house—clearly the Starbucks positioning in the third place frame of reference must be working or there wouldn’t be a Starbucks on every corner.

Multiple competitive frames of reference

In all likelihood, you’ll decide that you have one primary competitive frame of reference where your organization will spend the majority of your positioning energy. But hopefully the Starbucks example opens your eyes to the possibility that you may want to position your brand in more than one frame of reference. By looking beyond the obvious competitive markets, you may even uncover new business opportunities or ways to broaden your horizons to include people who may never have considered your brand before.

Be open to the idea that you may want to develop different positioning for each frame of reference, or that you might choose to highlight different elements of the brand as you present yourself in different frames of reference.

2. Points of difference

If you’ve ever been around anyone who talks about positioning, you’ve probably heard them talk about points of difference, differentiation, or the concept of key differentiators.

A point of difference is a something about the brand that makes it different from other competing brands. But a good point of difference won’t just revel in its different-ness—it must also be something your customers would value.

Let’s look at an example highlighting examples of good and bad points of difference.

Who wants Mexican?

Who doesn’t love Mexican food? You can go anywhere in the United States and find a Mexican restaurant. But even though there are probably lots of people out
there who love Mexican food, our guess
is the Mexican restaurant business is pretty tough.

There is a lot of competition, and many
of the restaurants tend to look (and often taste) alike. So if you wanted to open a new Mexican restaurant, how could you ensure it’d stand out?

If you were thinking in terms of creating solid points of difference, you’d probably start by thinking about what customers would value in a Mexican restaurant. For some fans of Mexican food, the list of things they value might look something like this:

1) cleanliness

2) freshness of ingredients

3) tasty salsa

4) good carne asada

5) price

Say you happened to be opening this restaurant in a place where there were many other people who shared this idea of what is important in a Mexican restaurant. Let’s also say that there were a lot of Mexican restaurants already open in the area competing for the attention of people who valued price, quantity of food, and good margaritas.

To stand out, you might consider cleanliness, freshness of ingredients,
and tasty salsa as three things you want to focus on as points of difference for your restaurant brand. By focusing on these three things, you could make your restaurant very different in a way that potential customers would actually
value. Victory!

By starting with what your potential customers value and then thinking about what makes you different, you have a better chance for success than if you start with just the things that make
you different.

Here’s another example to highlight this point. What if your claim to fame is that you know how to make an incredibly good, incredibly authentic Mexican posole (a stew) featuring pigs’ feet? In fact, it is widely known that no one in the entire world can make a better pigs’ feet posole than you.

You should be very proud. But you shouldn’t for a second believe that your great posole is a good point of difference for your restaurant. Why? Most Americans aren’t that crazy about pigs’ feet, and no matter how good your stew is, they probably won’t buy it from you. Your posole is certainly different, and probably very tasty (at least to those into that sort of thing), but it is not something your customers would value, so it is not a good point of difference. Get the idea? Or are we just making you hungry?

3. Points of Parity

Now you are probably beginning to think about, and maybe even feel good about, all of the points of difference that make your brand stand out. But while you’ve been busy thinking about how to make your brand stand out from your competition, your competitors are also busy developing points of difference that make them stand out from you. This is where the idea of a point of parity comes in.

Most simply, a point of parity is a point of difference a competitor has over you that you need to counteract. Sometimes points of parity are “table stakes”—characteristics you need simply to enter or compete in the market.

Other times points of parity are advantages that competitors have been able to gain that are highly valued by customers.

A point of parity is a point of difference a competitor has over you that you need to counteract.

It takes a strong person to admit to their weaknesses, and strong brands must admit their weaknesses too. This is why great brands use not only points of difference to show where they stand out, but points of parity to show where they are trying to be as good as their competition.

But highlighting a point of parity doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to turn it into a key strength for your brand, or that you need to beat your competitors at it. You shouldn’t feel like you need to turn all of your brand weaknesses into strengths.

In fact, one of the key things to understand about points of parity is that they don’t represent places where your brand needs to be the best. Instead they highlight places where your brand must simply be good enough, so that, given the amazing points of difference you have in other areas, a customer will still choose your brand over its competition.

Well-played points of parity are among the strongest branding positioning tools. They are the jujitsu maneuvers of brand positioning, with the amazing power to nullify the strengths of opposing brands, while focusing energy back on the differences that make you stand out.

Points of parity highlight places where your brand must simply be good enough, so that, given the amazing points of difference you have in other areas, a customer will still choose your brand over its competition.

Make sense? Let’s look at an example.

Walmart vs. Target

Walmart is one of the most intimidating competitors in retail. Over the years, they’ve developed a key point of difference around everyday low prices that is almost impossible for competitors to match. Their enormous size and efficient operations give them incredible pricing power with the ability to beat the prices of almost any competitor. Walmart has used this strength to become, based on annual revenues, the largest corporation in the world.

Faced with a massive competitor like Walmart, many companies would curl up in a ball and prepare to die. Yet Target, the second largest discount retailer in the United States, has actually prospered in this tough environment, ranking #30 in the Fortune 500 in 2010.

How has Target done it? A large factor in their success is the combination of a very strong point of difference around design and fashion, coupled with great execution on a point of parity around price.

Is Target always the cheapest? No—it’s pretty difficult to always beat Walmart on price. But are Target’s prices “good enough” that, given how much better designed many of their products are and how fashion forward much of the clothing is, many people in certain demographics choose to buy from them instead of Walmart? Absolutely.

Target is not trying to beat Walmart on price. They are simply trying to create enough parity around price that their point of difference around fashion and design becomes the deciding factor for many consumers.

It is a great example of using a point of parity and point of difference well together, and a 1-2 punch that has worked very well for Target.

Current vs. aspirational points of parity and points of difference

One additional thing to consider is that you may decide you need to develop points that the brand currently owns today and points that you hope to be able to achieve in the future. Brands shouldn’t feel like they can only define themselves by what they are today.

By choosing points of parity and points of difference that describe who you are today and who you want to be down the road, you’ll ensure the brand is not only well positioned today, but has room for future growth.

4. The brand mantra

The final brand positioning building block is the brand mantra, which some refer to as the brand essence and others call a brand promise.

A brand mantra is short (usually 2-5 words maximum), and encapsulates the competitive
frame of reference, the points of difference, the points of parity, and everything else about your brand into one thought. A brand mantra is to brand positioning what triple distillation is to liquor—they both remove the impurities, refining and simplifying to an essential form.

A brand mantra is not an advertising slogan or tagline, and, in most cases, it won’t be something you use publicly at all. Great brand mantras can change everything. They become rallying cries that define everything a brand is and will ever be. But, because they are part purification process and part poetry, they are also incredibly hard to make well.

A brand mantra is a short, 2-5 word encapsulation of everything about a brand.

According to brand expert Scott Bedbury, the term brand mantra was coined during his time at Nike. The Nike brand mantra, Authentic Athletic Performance, is probably the most famous example, and Bedbury discusses it at length in his book A New Brand World.

From the book:

“Nike’s brand mantra put a particular emphasis on maintaining authenticity, by which we also meant integrity and purity, front and center… All products and activities associated with Nike likewise had to be athletic, not leisurely… Finally, every Nike product had to exude world-class performance and meet the demands of the world’s finest athletes, even though such athletes represented a microscopic piece of Nike’s total business… “Authentic Athletic Performance” was a simple idea, but like so many simple ideas, its execution and implementation could be complex, not to mention challenging, daunting, — and even painful, when it came down to forgoing revenue-generating activities because they violated these accepted core values.”

When used in its proper context, a good brand mantra is not simple sloganeering. If you asked most people to name Nike’s brand mantra, they’d probably say “Just do it.”

But “Just do it” is a tagline, not a brand mantra. It is an externally-facing manifestation of Authentic Athletic Performance (and a pretty darned good one). It’s a wonderful example of how great advertising can be built on the back of a solidly-constructed brand mantra.

Still, if the brand mantra is simply used as a building block for advertising campaigns, it is not living up to its true potential. A brand mantra is at its most powerful when it becomes a deeply resonant piece of the DNA of the company and is used as a touchstone to return to when making difficult decisions.

What businesses should we be in? What businesses should we not be in? How should we handle this crisis we’ve gotten ourselves into? How do we make this painful choice? The brand mantra can be your guide.

The best brand mantras are the rock stars of the positioning world. For people who don’t have the patience for understanding competitive frames of references, points of parity, and points of difference, a poetic, authentic brand mantra makes everything else fade into the woodwork. It encapsulates every important point of difference, maybe an important point of parity, and even the competitive frame of reference, into a few short words.

Brand mantras are poetry. They are art. And they are powerful tools, not just for building brands, but for building organizations. Yet, great brand mantras are very difficult to achieve, and some positioning exercises never uncover one.

Thanks so much for reading this guide.

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