Successful Brand Positioning Approaches

By Bill Chiaravalle, Barbara Findlay Schenck

In some ways, branding is like a construction project. Before you can build, you have to select and prepare the site. That’s the role positioning plays in the branding process. Following are the most common positioning approaches.

Fulfill an unaddressed interest or need

This is the find-an-itch-and-scratch-it approach. You study your customer, see a need or desire that isn’t addressed by an existing product or service, and move quickly to beat competitors to the solution. The result? An offering that slides into an available slot in the customer’s mind — as long as you seize the position before anyone else stakes claim to it.

WeightWatchers is a great example of fulfilling an unaddressed need. Founder Jean Nidetch turned a conversation about how to lose weight into a brand that’s now 50 years old and known around the world for its weekly support group meetings that help customers shed weight and keep it off.

Challenge the status quo

Challengers take on market leaders and business category norms with innovations ranging from new forms of distribution to innovative pricing and promotion approaches. By presenting themselves as torchbearers for the next generation, challengers disrupt norms and win interest and followings that result in marketplace upheaval and, sometimes, market leadership.

EasyJet, now the United Kingdom’s largest air carrier, set out to revolutionize air travel by announcing flights priced “as cheap as a pair of jeans” and catering to cost-conscious, plan-it-yourself travelers with self-proclaimed “cheap flights” on “the web’s favorite airline.”

Another example: Airbnb now fills more room nights annually than all Hilton Hotels combined, without owning a single room of their own. Instead, by playing matchmaker between travelers and owners of spare rooms, boats, and even castles, Airbnb has become a prime player in what’s called the “sharing economy” — and racked up a brand value estimated at $10 billion-plus dollars along the way.

Specialize to serve a new market niche

Rather than trying to compete with the pack, specialty brands serve a narrow segment of the market — winning interest and followings within a market niche and sometimes achieving market leadership as a result.

Be wary of becoming a copycat brand. You don’t want to become a me-too brand. A me-too brand is one that offers exactly what another brand offers with no distinctive attributes other than the fact that it’s presented by a different marketer.

If you try to slot your brand into a position already taken by a competitor, you face a tough uphill battle. First, you have to convince customers to move away from their current choice. Then you have to convince them to move toward your offering. That’s double the marketing work with half the assurance of marketing success. After all, telling customers that what they believe is wrong is a slow way to influence perceptions.

An equally bad idea is trying to leverage off someone else’s brand. By likening your brand to someone else’s brand, you cast a spotlight on a competitor while pointing out your own second-string position.

Instead, find your own position by filling an unfilled need, innovating valuable new-generation offerings, specializing to serve a market segment or niche, or creating an all-new solution.

SPANX is a good example of a specialty brand. In owner Sara Blakely’s own words, “My footless pantyhose idea evolved into a super niche product category: new-and-improved and comfortable footless pantyhose with super control and body-shaping support.”

Transform an established solution

This is the evolutionary approach to positioning. Examples include the transformation of computers into laptops into tablets, cars into electronic or hybrid or self-driving machines, American coffee shops into upscale European-style cafés, and — on the horizon — package deliveries into doorstep-drops by unmanned drones, to name a few.

Creating a transformational solution takes enormous insight into popular culture and plenty of marketing power to get the word out. It also takes plenty of money — both to create innovations and to promote new products with such velocity and strength that you can lay claim to the first position in the category before competitors have time to leap into the arena.

Introduce an all-new solution

Product discoveries come from innovators who see the same problems everyone else sees — or who notice problems no one else notices — and who move on their insights to come up with never-before seen solutions. Some solutions involve altogether new inventions; others transform existing solutions into new product categories.

Recent examples of innovations include fitness bracelets, cloud computing, language-learning apps, and the Segway Human Transporter, introduced to “transform a person into an empowered pedestrian.” Older examples include car radios, TV dinners, and Saran wrap.

Gaining awareness and adoption for a brand-new idea requires patience and a massive marketing investment. After all, you’re not just introducing a product, you’re introducing a whole new paradigm for which the market may or may not be ready. Prepare your nerves — and budget — in advance.