The role and expectations of brands has changed dramatically over the last 10 years, yet most marketers continue to use the same positioning framework designed for corporate business strategy from the 1960s. You may recognize it as a variation of this:
For (target consumer) who (consumer insight), (brand) is the (product category) that (key benefit) because (point-of-difference/reason to believe).
Branding and marketing were simpler then. All you had to do was tell consumers why and how your product was better than the competition, and you were on your way to building a successful brand. At least, in the short term. Now we have consumers who make fewer purchase decisions based on point-of-difference, and more based on a brand’s values and beliefs.
Those values and beliefs must be the foundation of a brand positioning in order to make their way into a brand’s marketing. A brand must be more than an image, or a promise, it must be a living, breathing organism with thoughts, feelings, and a strong point-of-view. In short, it must be human. In order to create a more human brand, the positioning needs to exude human qualities, grounded in the values and beliefs that consumers have come to expect in their interactions with brands and the companies behind them.
Smirnoff: Democratizing Night Life
While craft spirits were trending up, Smirnoff’s biggest weakness was that it was a mid-shelf, basic brand. At the same time, they saw that a major shift was happening within the culture of their audience – a celebration of diversity. So they turned this perceived weakness of being a basic brand for anyone and everyone, into a strength: a brand for anyone and everyone. They continue to celebrate the diversity of nightlife in a way that hasn’t been done before.
Airbnb: The Power of Belonging
When Airbnb first launched, they completely disrupted the hotel industry. As they grew, they started to realize the impact they could have on culture. They understood that one of our basic needs as humans is a sense of belonging, and that staying in an Airbnb isn’t about getting a good night’s sleep for a good price, it’s about feeling a sense of belonging wherever you go in the world. That positioning became their North Star and impacts the decisions they make, not just about messaging, but about the operation of the company itself.
Dreyer’s/Edy’s: Finding Intention in the In-Between
Edy’s Ice Cream was a client of ours for 15 years. And while ice cream is highly emotional in terms of consumption, it is very rational in terms of shopper behavior. People look for the flavor first, then compare prices. There’s a lot of switching based on price and not a ton of loyalty. When they asked us to develop their social media content strategy several years ago, most of the content they were creating was focused on flavor, price and seasonality, exactly the same as everyone else in the category. We helped Edy’s transcend price wars and flavor parodies by thinking about how their brand could impact culture. We learned that for moms with young kids, there is a culture of chaos happening. Moms are constantly planning the next big event or milestone: birthdays, piano recitals, championship games. These are the big things that people focus on. And because she is so busy getting from one milestone to the next, she’s missing out on all the magic in between. The sound of a giggle while they’re watching TV, the way they run to her when she comes home from a long day at work. These are the small things that matter just as much. So we developed a content strategy designed to help mom slow down and celebrate the little things. We called them “in-between moments.” All of our content was meant to create, remind or celebrate the small stuff in life.
When you come from this place of cultural consciousness, your content is limitless. But if all you’re talking about is your product features and benefits, you quickly run out of things to say.
Harvard Business School professor and psychologist Amy Cuddy talks about the first two things people judge you on immediately: Can I trust you, and can I respect you?
The same is true for brands. People want to know that the products and services you offer are legitimate/quality/effective but now they also want to know that they can trust your motives. Think of these as Intention and Competency. Intention and Competency are the foundations of the new brand positioning, the yin and yang that turns a brand from a product with features and benefits to a person with values and beliefs.
Intention is the brand’s desired impact on culture. It is based from an insight or tension that transcends the category and competition. A brand’s intention is not a tagline or a message or a campaign. It is an internal purpose that drives the vision, decisions and principles of the organization and, thereby, the brand. Intention doesn’t last a year or two then disappear into the campaign graveyard. It is a North Star that can never truly be reached, but guides both stakeholders and agency partners in their efforts to build the brand over time.
The other bookend to a strong brand positioning is competency. Competencies are the things the brand/company is good at. This is where the product or service attributes come into play, from product features to customer service to the historical credibility of a brand, along with all those points-of-difference and reasons to believe. A brand without strong competencies can’t survive in a highly crowded and competitive marketplace. But competencies should always be reevaluated in order to ensure that they continue to be innovative and relevant. For example, it used to be that great product design could warrant a higher price point for a commodity product. But now, thanks in part to Target, who played a large role in democratizing design, a well-designed product is now table stakes, even for private label.
Examples of intention-based positioning
Logitech G is a gaming peripherals brand that saw a need for a new entry level line of products for casual gamers. The majority of their consumers are serious, competitive gamers who are willing to spend more on top-of-the-line products. But 90% of gamers don’t self-identify as gamers at all, and don’t feel welcome in the gaming community. In order to make the product launch relevant, we had to rethink how the brand talks about gaming as a whole. We helped Logitech G redefine gaming as “play,” and tapped into the inherent universality of play among all consumers. By becoming more inclusive as a brand, they were able to open up the community, and the category, to millions of new consumers through the new product line.
FC2 Female Condom
In the 20 years since its initial launch, the FC2 female condom has saved countless lives through its global distribution in the public sector. However, awareness of the female condom in the U.S. is extremely low, and has remained a culturally-rejected form of birth control. Women make fun of its appearance and question its ability to stay in during sex. Veru Healthcare (parent company of the FC2) wanted to raise awareness for the FC2 female condom and make it a socially acceptable option for safe sex, so that women would ultimately ask for a prescription from their health care providers. Research showed that most women were not likely to try the FC2 because of its appearance (size and shape), and they questioned its ability to stay in during sex. We knew that in order to become part of the conversation, we had to be part of the joke. So we positioned the brand with a no-holds-barred, NSFW digital video that unapologetically embraces every flaw, every quirk, and every benefit of the FC2 female condom, turning everything the audience knew about safe sex, well, inside out.
How to find your brand’s Intention:
Bioré had been going against the grain of the skincare category since its launch 20+ years ago; its products had always worked differently than the competition. This competency was a springboard to a “Do Different” Intention that inspires young women to not just own their uniqueness, but to do something meaningful with it.
For brands that have been on the market for a significant amount of time, looking to its most loyal consumers can often illuminate something in the brand that even longtime stakeholders hadn’t noticed or capitalized on. ZYN is a tobacco-free nicotine pouch that was launched to give tobacco users a cleaner alternative. When it came time to uncover a deeper brand Intention, we interviewed loyalists and learned that the product had completely transformed their lives, freeing them from a habit that was weighing them down.
When Logitech wanted to rehaul its global brand positioning, the CEO and CDO had a vision of a Design-led company where each product didn’t just fill a need, but created a new human opportunity. We evolved the brand from “device peripherals” to “human peripherals,” speaking to the ways the brand added new possibilities to people’s lives.
Beware of “Woke Washing”
The most common misstep for brands venturing into a more purposeful existence is making purpose a message strategy, rather than ongoing, authentic company behavior. In December of 2017, Patagonia announced that it would pursue legal action against the White House due to the administration’s order to shrink two of the country’s national monuments. Visitors who came to purchase outdoor gear from Patagonia’s site were met with a site takeover that directed them instead to learn more about the issue and take action. They could have created a piece of content that talked about their stance in story form, but instead they did something about it, proving their commitment to our natural resources, and even demonstrating that they are willing lose money over their response.
We use these filters to determine if an intention is right for a brand’s positioning:
Clarity: Is it easy to understand and focused enough to keep everyone on the same path?
Relevancy: Does the brand intention resolve a relevant problem or tension that the target audience cares about?
Ownability: Is the territory unique in the category? Will it give the brand an ownable platform to build on?
Credibility: Do we have a “right” to be in this space? Can we authentically live into the intention through product competencies, behaviors and internal culture?
Longevity: Does the intention have the ability to stand the test of time? Can we continue working toward it for years to come?