How Behavioral Science can Supercharge (your) Brand Positioning

Positioning: a science of perception?

The art of positioning was created by Al Ries & Jack Trout in the early 80’s with their book “Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind”  (Ries & Trout, 1985), during the golden age of television and mass-retail. Their method would suggest that positioning is about “manipulating what’s already in the mind”, “retying connections that already exist” and “finding an open hole in the mind and become the first brand to fill it”. In some sense, their approach was an anticipation of the Brain System 1 metaphor: the intuitive system that behavioural scientists explore in order to show how most of our decisions are rapidly made: by activating simple associations and heuristics.

Here is an example of a typical brand positioning statement:

Figure 1: Brand Positioning Statement © Beloved Brands

In terms of advertising strategy, Ries and Trout would insist on having a brand associated with only one key word in the prospect’s mind, acknowledging that simplicity always beats complexity in the way people sort brands in their head. They would also recommend  “hammering” the message with multiple repetition to make sure it gets in (when TV was the dominant medium). This way, people would make instant associations that build differentiation and preferences such as: “Avis, we try harder”, “Nike just do it”, or “M&M melts in your mouth, not in your hands”.

Ries and Trout’s influence on marketing practices has been tremendous, and positioning statements are now classic frameworks that can be found in brand bibles – next to brand missions, purpose, values and other equity assets. Derived frameworks are still in use today, and they have been recycled to help start-ups formulate their “elevator” pitch (Moore, 2014).

However, this approach of betting only on influencing preference by manipulating perceptions, has led brand managers to focus on talking about themselves (“my product, my benefit, my difference”) and less about how they help their consumers. We have therefore seen big organizations slowly allowing brand stories to develop further away from product reality or retail experience – consequently leaving room for new competitors to fill this gap.

Positioning is all about behavior

With digital transformation and new ways of reaching consumers in a media landscape dramatically changing, new models have emerged. New players have started to disrupt traditional markets where product differentiation had become minimal, and pricing overly expensive. Many legacy brands didn’t see the threat as they were still competing on brand stories to defend their competitive advantage while relying too much on premiumisation strategies (e.g. the 6th blade on the razor) to drive value…

Figure 2: Game Storming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Gamechangers © Gray, Brown & Macanufo (2012)