Marketers have lost control of certain aspects of brand communication - it is no longer enough to identify and communicate one brand position. Brands now target specific groups of consumers to ensure their message is relevant, compelling and motivating. One of the most important steps is using customer input, as described in this article.
MYTH: Positioning is no longer relevant—marketers no longer have any control over what people say and think about their brands.
TRUTH: Giving brands a reason for being is more important than ever.
Because “marketers don’t control enough of brand communication to develop a ‘market position,’ and certainly not enough resources to maintain a viable position once it is in the marketplace,” to even try to put a value proposition out there has become an exercise in futility, laments Don Schultz in his piece, “Transformational Branding,” for a recent edition of Marketing Management. Among other ideas Schultz puts forth in the article is this one: positioning, “the most important marketing concept of the twentieth century, is probably no longer relevant.”
He’s by no means the first person to make this contention. When he was CMO of McDonald’s a few years ago, marketing genius Larry Light made the pronouncement that “identifying one brand position, and communicating it in a repetitive manner is old-fashioned, out of date, out of touch.” Much better, he says, to “explain a brand to consumers by telling targeted stories,” based on the demographics and other preferences of different groups. To think there’s such a thing as a single message marketer’s can use to make a case for their brand to his way of thinking is “brand suicide.”
In the case of a giant global brand like McDonald’s, we could see that there could—and we emphasize could—be inherent difficulties with having one multinational reason-to-buy message. And certainly there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the way many brands have been positioned isn’t working too well for them. A recent McKinsey and Ernst & Young study found the number of branding failures, many based on "positioning," exceeds 90%. Most people are hard-pressed to name what could be considered a positioning even in the loosest definition of the term. One study we did in the last few years found only about 8% of brands had one. Besides, adds Don Schultz, these days, current and potential customers, “through social networks, blogs, and Twittering—tools marketers have yet to understand, much less master” will define what a brand means no matter how much marketers try to put other messages out there.
Hey, hold on there! Let’s not write off the whole concept just yet. There's more to this story.
The anecdotes and stats above don't necessarily indicate that the concept itself isn’t pertinent to marketing anymore. Even Schultz agrees that brands should still stand for something. In fact, there are other explanations for poorly performing positionings, problems with solutions that could get the concept back into working order.
Many positioning detractors point out that the very notion of marketers dictating to current and potential customers what a brand could and should mean to them won't fly in this day and age. We suppose if a company did run with a reason-to-buy message they’ve come up with themselves with little input from actual customers, there's a good chance it won't fly. If the message marketers put out there doesn’t resonate with the intended target, well of course they aren’t going to pay attention to it! They’ll go on about their business and talk about something else.
This reaction has nothing to do with whether it makes sense any more to try to have a positioning—it has to do with whether the positioning message the marketer chose is relevant, compelling, and motivating to customers.
As an alternative to guessing, another way to find out what really is relevant, compelling, and motivating is to ask customers about what problems or unmet needs they have with products and services currently offered in the category or industry. Start with customers in the first place, figure out if your brand can deliver a solution consistently and profitably, and marketers will give themselves a much better shot at hitting the right spot.
Another problem marketers often have is effectively communicating a positioning. It could be the media and promotional weight put behind a campaign, the different media and promotions, and/or the creative executions themselves aren’t getting the positioning message across. If the message marketers put out there doesn’t get through to the intended target, they aren’t going to know anything about it. And they’ll go on about their business and talk about something else.
Again, this reaction has nothing to do with whether it makes sense any more to try to have a positioning. Nor does it have to do with consumers revolting saying, “you can't tell us what to think about your brand!” It has to do with how well the positioning message itself gets through.
As for the "control" marketers may or may not have over what people think about their brands, customers do talk about and share a lot of opinions and information on-line. That's true. It spreads a lot further, a lot faster than it used to when folks were just chatting up an ad or sharing a poor customer service experience around the water cooler. Certainly analyzing search data and listening in on the online buzz on social networks, blogs, and Twitter to get a sense of the problems and issues people are having with products and services in a particular category or industry could be a good thing to do. Here's a case in point.
According to a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, a handful of marketers including IBM and Microsoft “scan the web for key words to find out what consumers are—and aren't—saying about their brands.” Importantly, these companies then incorporate this information “into their more-conventional research” for further guidance on branding strategy decisions, including positioning.
IBM, for example, discovered that promoting its technologies in and of itself wasn’t helping the brand’s products stand out from competitors. Potential customers wanted to know what the technologies could do for them. [If we didn’t know better, we might say these folks were asking for a positioning—“What problem will your brand solve for me?”] IBM switched directions and shifted to more solutions-oriented reason-to-buy messages. These sound more like efforts to understand what customers need and want and try to influence what people think about a brand, rather than further evidence of the irrelevancy of positioning.
We’re just not sure at this point marketers could or should conclude that they’ve pretty much lost any and all control over how people talk and think about their brands, so it’s not worth even trying. Yes, if a brand doesn’t consistently deliver on the value proposition it has put out there, it’s anybody’s game as far as conversation goes online. Yet given all that we’ve said before about how firms sometimes develop a positioning without much in the way of customer input and/or under-communicate what the brand stands for, we think there’s a lot more marketers could be doing to give some guidance and direction to what people know about what their brand stands for.