The Future of Positioning Research

The Future of Positioning Research

Last month I wrote about the impact of work such as Byron Sharp’s ‘How Brands Grow’ on advertising development research. For ‘brand and comms’ research experts, the other string to our bow has always been brand positioning and strategy development. So having looked at advertising in my last blog, it makes sense to also explore what Sharp’s work says about brand positioning, and its implications for researchers.

Not surprisingly, Sharp has quite a bit to say about ‘positioning’. To summarise: conventional marketing wisdom is that a brand needs a meaningful, differentiated positioning in order to succeed, and in most cases (as there is no real functional difference between products), this differentiation needs to be at a brand level. Not only must a brand ‘have’ a differentiated positioning, this difference must be perceived and valued by consumers so that they will prefer and buy your brand. Sharp argues that if this were true we would see the following in the data:

a. Varying degrees of brand loyalty depending on the strength of differentiation

b. More of a particular type of customer for any given brand

c. Partitioning rather than overlap of customers

d. ‘Loyalty beyond reason’ (AKA ‘brand love’), especially for iconic brands

e. Brands being seen as different to their competitors by their own users (other than for functional reasons)

But the data shows – basically – none of the above to be true. So it seems brands are succeeding, and have loyal customers, but not because they are perceived as different.

Sharp also points out that conventional wisdom assumes consumers are evaluating brands and making conscious well-thought-out decisions. But we know from Behavioural Economics that how much (or more precisely how little) effort we put into any ‘evaluation’ varies depending on mood and circumstance, that we usually ‘satisfice’, i.e. we choose the ‘good enough’ option, and (subconsciously) screen out most brands from the get go anyway.

So for Sharp, the key to a brand’s success is less about a differentiated positioning, and more about the ‘distinctive brand assets’ that create the memories that ensure brand salience, i.e. that gets your brand thought of, more often, in more buying situations.

So, what does this mean for research? Should we bother developing a consumer-focused, differentiated brand positioning via research? Absolutely. A positioning is ultimately an internal document, a blueprint if you will, that marketers and their agencies use to guide what they do. So as much as Sharp’s work might change what marketers and their creative and media agencies do, they still need that blueprint – to help give their brand the distinctive personality, tone of voice, and advertising that gets their brand noticed, engages consumers, and ultimately helps them develop the distinctive assets that Sharp says are critical to a brand’s success.

So what specific elements go into a positioning may have to change, but the process of understanding what does and doesn’t resonate with consumers shouldn’t.

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