Branding can't exist without positioning

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I'm often asked about the difference between branding and what some see as a dated concept, positioning.

That's because, in recent years, branding is the one subject in marketing that has been turned from a molehill into a mountain. The last time I looked, there were over 2,000 books covering some topic related to brands or branding. What used to be just a logo and the name of a product or company has now become an almost mystic creation that encompasses unique identities and qualities separate from product names.

Let's see if we can put some things into perspective.

First of all, building brands is nothing new. Look at the charts of leading brands that accompany this piece. If you take 25 popular product categories and study leading brands, you'll discover that branding was a big deal over 80 years ago. And the brands that were built then are still the dominant brands in the business today.

None of these brands had to deal with all the jargon, charts and systems that today's marketing people have to face. To paraphrase Nike, they just did it.

There are some that say today is a more complicated time and a brand needs multiple positions for different market segments. I say that they don't understand positioning. Multiple positions are like multiple personalities or schizophrenia. Whether it is products or people, all it does is generate confusion. You have to stand for something in the mind or you become nothing.

What you certainly don't do is drop the positioning idea. Such was the case of Coca-Cola, the leading cola brand since the early 1920s. Its differentiating idea was its heritage as the inventor of the cola category. It was "The Real Thing." But many years ago it abandoned this concept for a parade of meaningless slogans. Brand Keys, a research firm that tracks brand attributes and brand loyalty, has found that measures of the perception of Coke's heritage and its differentiated image have plummeted in the last six years. If Coke isn't "The Real Thing," it's just another cola. It's no wonder that without a clear positioning strategy, things aren't going well with Coke.

There are two ways to approach a changing market. One, you select a position that enables you to offer different forms to different segments. BMW is the "ultimate driving machine." This position transcends different forms of sedans (the 3 Series, 5 Series and 7 Series). It also covers SUVs, convertibles and roadsters.

The other strategy is to evolve your brand's position. Crest toothpaste built the brand on the position of "cavity prevention." But as cavities decline and people's teeth get older, you have plaque and germ problems. It should evolve to a position of being "the pioneer in tooth care" which transcends these different tooth care problems. McDonald's became famous as a high-speed hamburger place. But with today's global reach and broader menu, it should evolve into "the world's favorite place to eat." You reposition yourself from one idea to another as a way to avoid marketing schizophrenia.


Unfortunately, we currently have an epidemic of schizophrenia thanks to endless line extensions. A well-known research firm called Copernicus investigated 48 pairs of leading brands in 48 different product and service categories. The objective was to measure whether brands were becoming more similar and commodity-like over time. Of the 48 categories evaluated, 40 were perceived as becoming similar. The reason: a shift from brand building to promotional programs, a shift from information-oriented advertising to entertainment-oriented advertising and a failure to communicate a distinctive point of difference.

This is where positioning comes into play. As Walter Landor once said, "products are created in the factory, but brands are created in the mind." Positioning is a body of work on how the mind works. The definition of positioning: It's how you differentiate your product or company in the mind of your prospect. It's why a shopper will pay a little more for your brand. The trick is to figure out how to express that difference. It's easy if you're faster or fancier or safer or newer. But often you have to find other non-product attributes like leadership or preference or heritage. (I wrote a book on all this titled "Differentiate or Die.") And, of course, you have to stay focused on what the brand stands for and not get greedy with it. (That greed spawns line extensions.)

So all this comes down to the simple fact that branding and positioning are linked. This is especially true when you look at these simple definitions of what I consider the keys to marketing success: Branding is about the process of building a brand. Positioning is about putting that brand in the mind.

You can't do branding without positioning.

Jack Trout is the acclaimed author of many marketing classics published in many languages: "Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind," "Differentiate or Die," "Big Brands. Big Trouble," "A Genie's Wisdom," and his latest, "Trout on Strategy." He was the originator of the concept of positioning.

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