Breathing life (and magic) into Brand Positioning

29 Aug 2008|Added Value

Positioning is dead.  Seriously!  One of the toughest and singularly most important hurdles in the brand journey is the point at which its strategy is mobilised.  And most businesses rely on a two dimensional, static brand model to do the job.  Brand tools like onions, bullseyes and keys are what we’ve used for years to distil brands down to their core, their most clear articulation.  But there in lays the rub.  As the market gets more competitive, these tools just aren’t adequate and worse still, leave too much open to interpretation. 

Ask five creative directors to deliver a TV campaign built on the descriptors “modern, African and stylish” and you’ll get five different expressions.  Throw in the below-the-line agency, the in-store guys, the PR folk, the customer service trainers and the HR people, and you’ll get a whole new range of visualised versions.  A simplistic point, but when one considers that the goal of tight brand building is in delivering the same brand experience in every facet of the brand’s manifestation, you start to see that current positioning models are not telling the whole story.  

Positioning tools need to be far more specific and relevant.  They can’t be snapshots some idealistic vision of the brand.  They need depth and colour as well as a no-nonsense, unequivocal articulation of the brand, in all its multilayered glory.  They also need to have the flexibility to move into the future.

I can hear the sceptics groan from here: sure, that’s what we’ve been saying; that’s what we do; we know a real brand is more than just its proposition and a few adjectives in the “personality” layer of the onion; that’s what our story boards and mood charts and show reels are all about. 

But the truth is these expressions usually live in the agency side of the brand world.  And when big brands are using up to four to five agencies to deliver their brand, the problem is exacerbated.  Misinterpretation fractures the message and the brand owners don’t fully own the one true representation of their brand.

So, we have a challenge.  Brands aren’t static.  They aren’t two dimensional.  They’re more like characters on a mission whose life stories are evolving.  They have personalities, often flawed.  They develop from and evolve into the cultural memes and mores they are part of.  They have various socio-cultural roles.  They are as multifaceted and history-rich as the societies they operate in.  So how can we better build – and mobilise – brand stories that reflect this? 

Firstly, the insight work we use to underpin brand creation needs to change.  What’s been missing from the traditional triumvirate of consumers, competitors and trade research is cultural insight.  Cultural insight gives brand owners a vision of the context in which their brands live and a good view of how that context will change in the future. 

This is not just about trend spotting.  It’s about getting to grips with the seismic shifts in what we call “Cultural Centres of Gravity” or COGS, and the social, cultural and economic factors that inform them.  Shifts in attitudes to health, material value, ethics, gender and identity and technology, for example, have had significant repercussions for brands everywhere, including our own southern corner of the globe.  For brands to build real cultural capital over time, this kind of insight can help businesses strategically decode how culture is evolving and use the information to keep their brands fresh, relevant and mobile. 

Secondly (and good news for agencies) is that we need to get better at articulating our brands in ways that are solid enough to resist misinterpretation, but alive enough to be campaign-able, both now and in the future.  Because a strategy works if it’s actionable.  Brand tools should breathe life into brands.  We’ve spent a lot of time on this; developing a Brand Story tool that helps us build a character instead of just a proposition.  Based on a starting point of universally recognisable Jungian archetypes, brands can become true individuals: with a voice and a past and a personality, warts and all; a tangible entity with talents and emotions and an appropriate cultural context.  A three dimensional articulation that works towards the grail of brand building:  consistent execution, from channel strategy to communications to service. 

What makes this combination of elements work – insight and articulation – is the acknowledgement that a brand needs mobility and cultural context to have long term validity.  Coke does it; every incremental evolutionary move the brand has made has kept it relevant with the current generation, without losing the one before it.  Apple appears to be doing it too, but admittedly with less heritage and more bumps along the road.  Take Volvo as another example. They’ve owned safety for years.  But safety has become a tablestake in the category and the car brand is feeling a little static as a result.  With a solid understanding of how the concept of safety is evolving in a cultural context, Volvo could be planning ahead; making sure their articulation of safety is relevant now, while planning for how and where “safety” might evolve and look like in the cultural context of each segment of their many markets in the future. 

With a fully mobilised positioning model, brand owners and agency partners can activate strategy today that has an eye on building real long term cultural capital and brand equity.  After all, for many of us, the best parts of getting to the bottom line are the great, magical stories we help to weave into life in the process.

By Keith Stevens and Ginny Felps, Added Value South Africa
Originally written for The Annual

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