On Positioning

There's a local car commercial running here in New York. It's for Mercedes-Benz and it's different from what I've heard in the past from the world's leading luxury brand -- a lot different. The spot is all about affordability, which they call aggressive pricing, comparing the Mercedes payment plan to that of the Toyota Camry.

Last Thursday former Congressman Anthony Weiner announced his resignation from the US House of Representatives He went to public schools all his life, he reminded us. The middle class story of New York "is my story," he said. While he wanted to continue to fight for the middle class, he could no longer do that because he had created a "distraction."

The first example above is a repositioning based on a changed marketplace reality. The second is a repositioning based on a new level of self-serving disingenuousness. But both are interesting because they remind us that one of one of the most important communications requirements in today's marketing environment is where to place your brand in the consumer's mind, in a crowded and fast changing marketplace.

Positioning is a concept that's been defined and mapped. There have been books written about it (thank you, Jack Trout and Al Ries) and multiple processes created to develop it. When I moved from the agency to the client side, I did a thorough study of the various ways to think about positioning and to develop it for my brands. It always came down to three essential elements: an intimate understanding of your target; an intimate understanding of the competition for your target; and a sustainable way to beat the competition.

Sometimes when discussing the subject with students, I tell them about the Dennis Rodman theory of positioning. For those who remember Rodman before the tattoos, green hair and body piercing became the story, he was the rebounding champion for the National Basketball Association for seven years in a row. While it was a great record on its own, the fact that he was 6' 6" in height (although listed at 6' 8") and 50 pounds lighter than the NBA giants with whom he was competing, made it even more remarkable.

Rodman did it by understanding his target (specifically studying where the ball would likely come off the rim for the various shooters), understanding his competition for that target (Shaquille and other big men and their strengths and weaknesses), and developing a sustainable competitive advantage for beating them (anticipation and speed). In short, he was a master of positioning. Really understanding those three elements -- your target, your competition for that target, and a way to beat the competition -- are the keys in basketball, in selling cars or in selling a personal brand for political gain.

As we enter the early stages of the political season leading up to the 2012 election, get ready to see some prime examples of positioning, sometimes at its best, more often at its worst. Weiner's juvenile "distraction" aside, we've begun to hear the first trial balloons from the challenger brands as the Republican primary participants try to establish themselves for the selling season.

Mitt Romney has already tried to communicate his unique understanding of the plight of the unemployed with his "I'm unemployed too" comment, an initial effort that may not have hit the mark for the independently wealthy former Governor. The Ron Paul camp is the limited-government, end-the-Fed, adopt-the-gold-standard brand. Michele Bachmann is a smarter Sarah Palin who may be tougher for Tina Fey to marginalize, and Pawlenty, Perry and Huntsman haven't told us who they are yet. The point is not their politics, it's watching them use these early days as market research and evolve their message so they can effectively place themselves in our minds as the most viable brand to meet our needs.

The final point about positioning, the key point, is the importance of authenticity, which is sometimes a fancier way of saying honesty. A brand has to be genuine, or it will die a quick and certain death in a time of instant, consumer-controlled communication. As we work each day on our own brands and positioning assignments, it can be instructive, and it will be fun, to watch the various campaign positioning strategies unfold.

Particularly how they handle the honesty thing.

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1 comment about "On Positioning ".
  1. Michael Baer from Stratecution Stories , June 21, 2011 at 2:53 p.m.

    The other key aspect of the Dennis Rodman theory of positioning is SACRIFICE. Rodman was able to be the very best rebounder, because he did not lose focus by trying to be anything else. This is a very strong lesson for brands, as well.