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The Problem with Brand Positioning

The Plenty Team
November 15, 2016

When we discuss brand development with our clients, we typically see their team laser in on two questions. First, “What does our brand represent/mean?”, and second, “What makes us different from our competitors?”

More often than not, the latter question – the question of positioning, or “why are we special?”– comes first. And that’s understandable. C-D maps, SWOT analyses, messaging templates, and charts of all shapes and sizes exist to help brands find their niche in the marketplace. Unfortunately, these tools exist in a realm where your brand is competing for the same people, the same space, the same market share as everyone else – in other words, a realm where you’re playing a zero sum game. And with that mentality, it’s no wonder that many of our clients start a brand conversation by listing out all the reasons why they can’t live up to the hype or expectation set by a competitor.

There’s some element of truth to brand competition, for certain. We wouldn’t suggest that your brand reach is truly unlimited; we also wouldn’t counsel you to market your brand to everyone, or even to everyone within a specific demographic. That said, we don’t believe that starting the conversation with positioning sets you up to create a brand that is the best representation of your organization for three reasons.

Under a positioning-based model…

  1. Your brand’s value is no more important than the other brands and influencers in your competitive set. When discussing your brand identity, there’s no more important organization in the world than your own, but it’s easy to forget that when you’re performing competitive research.
  1. What your brand is lacking is just as easy – if not easier – to identify than what your brand brings forth to the market. As part of a positioning exercise, you’re required to take a survey of the market share that’s already taken, which may leave you feeling like you’re ten steps behind your competitors.
  1. The people who will interact with your brand in real time are diluted to a “market share.” When this happens, you may forget about the passionate pockets of supporters who already exist and support your organization. You might also forget how important it is to be accessible and transparent with your constituents, and run the risk of developing a brand that feels unapproachable or sterile.

If positioning isn’t the place to start a conversation about your brand, what is? Well, the first question we mentioned in this post is a great place to start — though we’d begin by breaking it down into parts. In asking “What does our brand represent/mean?”, you’re actually addressing a number of distinct questions that tie into the purpose, presence, and passion behind your program. And these three elements are pillars of the model we use to workshop brands with our clients.

That model takes into consideration no fewer than seven distinct qualities of a brand, starting first and foremost with passion. Passion, we found, is a differentiator in the social good space because caring about the mission or cause is a prerequisite for brand equity. Starting at passion also begins the brand development process at an open, introspective, and positive place; the values and statements that flow from a passion-centric brand tend to be more authentic, more original, and a more appropriate cultural fit for the groups we work with.

So, if you’re starting a conversation about how to brand a new program, or you’re taking a critical eye to your existing brand, encourage yourself and your team to start in a place of passion, rather than positioning, and allow your unique set of benefits to shape the way the space views you, rather than the other way around.

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