Brand positioning

Brand management in highly competitive and dynamic markets, will only be effective if the brand itself stays close to its roots of uniqueness and core values, focuses on specific market segments and captures a competitive positioning in a specific market. The two brand management tools that could fulfil that role are brand identity and brand positioning. Brand identity and brand positioning need to be connected within their own specific functions; brand identity to express the brand tangible and intangible unique characteristics on the long term, whereas brand positioning a competitive orientated combat tool fulfils on the short term. Positioning communicates a specific aspect of identity at a given time in a given specific market segment within a field of competition. Hence positioning derives from identity and may chance over time and/or differ per product (Kapferer, 2007:95-102).

Brand positioning is the sum of all activities that position the brand in the mind of the customer relative to its competition. Positioning is not about creating something new or different, but to manipulate the mind set and to retie existing connections (Ries & Trout, 2001:2-5). Kotler and Keller define brand positioning as an “act of designing the company’s offering and image to occupy a distinct place in the mind of the target market.” The objective of positioning is to locate the brand into the minds of stakeholders; customers and prospect in particular. A recognizable and trusted customer-focused value proposition can be the result of a successful positioning without doing something to the product itself. It’s the rational and persuasive reason to buy the brand in highly competitive target markets (Kotler & Keller, 2006:310). Therefore it is essential to understand and to know the position a brand owns in the mind of a customer instead of defining what the brand stands for. To position a brand efficiently within its market, it is critical to evaluate the brand objectively and assess how the brand is viewed by customers and prospects (Ries & Trout, 2001:193-206).

Positioning the brand in highly over-communicated B2B environments could easily fail when the minds of customers and prospect obviously get confused. Trout suspects that people discriminate information to access their mind as a self-defence mechanism. For this reason, management needs to understand five mental elements in the positioning process, to position the brand successful in the mind of customers and prospects (Trout, 1995:3-8):

  1. Minds are limited 
    • According to social scientists our selective process has at least three rings of defence: (1) selective exposure, (2) selective attention, (3) selective retention (Trout, 1995:11-12).
    • “Learning is simply remembering what we’re interested in” (Trout, 1995:13).
    • The mind accepts only (new) information which matches its current mindset, every mismatch will be filtered out and blocked. (Ries & Trout, 2001:29).
  2. Minds hate confusion
    • To avoid confusion emphasize simplicity and focus on the most obvious powerful attribute and position it well into the mind (Trout, 1995:11-24).
  3. Minds are insecure
    • Minds tend to be emotional rather then rational. Often people tend to follow others as a principle, social proof to guide the insecure mind in making decisions and reduce the risk of doing something wrong. Behavioural scientists say there are five forms of perceived risk: (1) monetary risk, (2) functional risk, (3) physical risk, (4) social risk, (5) psychological risk (Trout, 1995:25-28)
  4. Minds don’t change
    • According Petty and Cacioppo (as quoted in Trout, 1995:35)”…beliefs are thought to provide the cognitive foundation of an attitude. In order to change an attitude, then, it is presumably necessary to modify the information on which that attitude rests. It is generally necessary, therefore, to change a person’s belief, eliminate old beliefs, or introduce new beliefs.”
    • Once the market has made up it mind about a brand it is impossible to chance that mind (Trout, 1995:34).
    • In general, the mind is sensitive to prior knowledge or experience. (Ries & Trout, 2001:6) At the end it comes back to what the market is familiar and already comfortable with (Trout, 1995:34-35).
  5. Minds can lose focus
    • Variations to the brand, for example line extensions, can leverage the distortion of minds, in other words: the mind loses focus. To enforce the mindset it is necessary to stay focussed and consistent on the key attributes of the brand.

Positioning is in essence a strategy to position the brand against other brands (Trout, 1995:146). Consequently, positioning requires a balance of ideal points of parity and point of different brand associations within the given market and competitive environment. Establishing brand positioning starts with identifying: (1) the target market, (2) the nature of competition, (3) the points of parity (POP), and (4) the points of difference (POD) (Keller, 2006:98-99).

Marketers can use a brand mantra to emphasize the core brand associations that reflects the “heart and soul” of the brand. The brand mantra is a three- to five-word (phrase) that captures the indisputable “heart and soul”; the essence or spirit, of the brand positioning. The brand mantra communicates what the brand is and what it is not. Next to that, it can provide a brand guidance to appropriate product extension, line extension, acquisitions and mergers, internal communication. A brand mantra provides (as well) a short list of crucial brand considerations which leverage a consistent brand image and internal branding. Keller distinguish three determinant categories to design a brand mantra: (1) the emotional modifier, (2) the descriptive modifier, (3) the brand function (Keller, 2006:121-123).

Positioning results from an analytical process based on four questions: (1) a brand for what, (2) a brand for whom, (3) a brand for when, (4) a brand against whom? Obviously it indicates the brand’s distinctive characteristics, essential points of difference, attractiveness to the market and “raison d’être”. Kapferer’s standard approach to achieve the desired positioning is based on four determinations; (1) definition of target market, (2) definition of the frame of reference and subjective category, (3) promise or consumer benefit, (4) reason to believe (Kapferer, 2007:100-102).

According to Ries and Trout the secret of a successful position is to balance a unique position with an appeal that’s not too narrow. Organizations should look for manageable smaller targets which deliver the appropriate and unique value proposition rather than a bigger homogeneous highly competitive market. Its success is captured by the willingness to sacrifice a minor role the total market in return for leadership in specific oligopolistic market segments (Ries & Trout, 2001:208).

Treacy and Wiersema argue that leadership comes with a strong focus on delivering excellent customer value. Based on a three-year study of 40 companies they distinguish three value disciplines on which organizations should focus; (1) operational excellence, (2) customer intimacy, or (3) product leadership. See figure 20. The challenge for organizations is to sustain the chosen value disciple persistent through the organization and to create internal long term consistency. Two golden rules to success; (1) excel in one of the three value disciplines to create a leadership position and (2) deliver adequate level of excellence in the two other value disciplines (Treacy & Wiersema, 1993:3-14).

Value disciple model

Figure 18. Value disciple model (Treacy & Wiersema, 1993,3).


According to Kapferer there is a direct connection between the brand essence, brand identity and brand position that enables the brand to change over (long term) time within certain degrees of freedom and still remain it self. Brand positioning capitalizes on a specific part of identity within the playing field which varies by segment, demography, market dynamics and time. For that Kapferer argues that on a global level a unified identity can initiate multiple specific market strategies for different markets without jeopardizing the brand essence and identity (Kapferer, 2007:105).