Why Positioning Must Evolve

Positioning has had a long and storied history. The original concept, like much strategic thinking (including the word strategy) came from the world of the military where armies would quite literally seek to take defensible positions from which to fight. The origins of modern positioning came from Jack Trout in the late 1960’s. And as Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble note in their book “The Other Side of Innovation: Solving The Execution Challenge” the height of positioning as a business strategy came in the 1980’s, when businesses sought the creation of defensible positions from which to compete.

However, as they go on to note, strategic positioning started to unravel when it became apparent that no position is defensible in the long run. There will always be a competitor or substitute that will come along and destroy value. It is this fact that leads them to observe that modern day business strategies have increasingly moved from defense to offense, and in specific terms toward a dynamic approach focused on constantly innovating new sources of value. For two very successful proponents of exactly this approach just think Apple or Google.

However, while the thinking on business strategy has clearly evolved over time, it isn’t clear that the thinking on brand strategy has kept up. Instead of constant innovation, the idea of  how you “position” a brand has instead become locked into various static models that aren’t taking account of the same shifts.

Unfortunately, this means the way positioning is thought about today has three potentially fatal flaws:

  1. The positioning is almost always arrived at in the context of the existing competitive set
  2. The positioning almost always focuses on something that is “defensible” relative to this competitive set
  3. The positioning is almost always a static statement rather than a dynamic concept

The flaw is not only that nothing is defensible in the long run, but increasingly that businesses do not know who their competitors will be from one year to the next. As the business cycle has sped up and technology has massively decreased the costs of entry across many industries, new competitors are today springing up overnight.

If positioning is to survive as a strategic concept (and I believe that it should) then it needs to evolve beyond these three constraints. Instead of focusing around the competition, it should instead become much more focused on the customer. And beyond focusing on what the brand can defend, it should instead focus on what the brand can create. In order to achieve both of these things, the positioning should also be focused much more closely on the real underlying strengths of the business than is often the case.

In working with brands in the technology space who face radical, sometimes tectonic competitive shifts both faster and more regularly than other industries, I’ve found the following three things to be really helpful when considering a positioning (or re-positioning)

1. Define the role that the brand intends to play in the lives of its customer. Focus this more on relevance to the customer than differentiation from the existing competitive set. What is it about this brand that customers will find both enticing and energizing? Within this, think through the problems you will be solving for the customer and the pain points you will be taking away, and consider bringing the positioning much closer to a value proposition.

2. Define the experience the brand wishes to create. Beyond a product or a way of communicating, what will the experience of being a customer of this brand be like? What are the businesses own strengths and capabilities that will translate into experience innovation over time? Think of this experience less as a statement and more as a narrative.

3. Think of the positioning as a journey and not a destination. Rather than a static thought, work on what the narrative might become over time. Consider the direction the positioning suggests and the journey the brand will need to be on moving forwards. Think through the kinds of things a business like this might do in the future, and how the positioning will become a platform for this kind of change.

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