Developing a Strategic Brand Positioning Forces Conversation

Developing a strategic brand positioning requires conversation – dialogues between senior leadership and marketing, between product development and marketing, between engineering, manufacturing, R&D, and marketing. You get the idea.

The result of these discussions and debates and push-backs is a much fuller and more in-depth understanding of the category, the customer, and what is truly special and differentiating about your offering.     

Focus Brand Positioning On Your Target Market

The basis of any strategic positioning statement is the target audience — the powerful description of who your offering’s prospect is. The goal is to dive into the minds of who you are going after to gain an understanding of:

  • What motivates them
  • Their aspirations and fears
  • What keeps them up at night
  • Their unmet needs

While there are many ways to attain this understanding, they all require talking to your target audience. This conversation can be achieved through focus groups, online surveys, mall intercepts, or one-on-one interviews, to name a few. The point is, we need to converse with our audiences if our offerings are going to resonate and drive purchases.  

Can we Break Down Internal Silos?

Given today’s hyper-competitive marketplace, delivering a truly differentiated offering requires the whole organization’s effort. The entire company must be “singing the same tune” if you are to deliver a truly exceptional offering. This alignment goes way beyond the offering itself to include any aspect of the organization customers will interact with. Think sales and social media, customer service and collateral, website, and warranties. Breaking down silos requires getting outside of your comfort zone to expand and embrace others within your company.  

Your employees are your greatest asset, so everyone must be on board to outperform your competitors. You’ll need to ensure that all of your employees — not just top and middle management — understand and believe in your company’s mission and goals.

Are We Using It as a Strategic and Creative Filter?

Once the brand positioning has been nailed, the talking continues:

  • Are we using it as a filter for all brand-related activities? 
  • Does it align strategically with the brand’s position?
  • Are we figuratively and asking ourselves and each other if the action being considered is on-brand? 
  • Does it communicate its story? 
  • Does it reinforce its value? 
  • Is the creative brand appropriate? 
  • Are we promoting it where our customers are? 

The questions are endless, as should be the conversations.  

Conversation + Positioning = Competitive Advantage

You may be asking yourself what all this talking gets you and how it will take your business to the next level. Brand strategy is the external communication of the internal business strategy. And brand positioning is the foundation for delivering upon the brand strategy. Consider Nike, Apple, IBM, and Starbucks. These businesses are their brands. Price inelasticity, a competitive barrier to entry, more loyal customers, greater margins, better ROI. These are but a few examples of competitive advantage. So bottom-line, get out there and start talking.

A strong, clearly differentiated brand returns improved customer satisfaction and loyalty, lower sales costs, more efficient operations, and competitive advantage. It should be noted that because brand positioning is fundamental to marketing strategy, it should also be coordinated with and tied to the overall business strategy. Unless the entire organization supports and contributes to the brand position, it’s not likely to succeed.

Marketers Must Rethink Some of the Basics of Brand Strategy

As the primary stewards of brand-building, marketers have become complacent thanks to a convergence of factors-massive changes in technology, market structure, distribution, information, communication, and consumer purchasing dynamics. In the face of these challenges, many overwhelmed marketers have thrown in the towel, moving away from the leadership roles that characterized the early days of brand management, opting instead to react and respond to what they think customers want. What’s worse, they’ve also taken to copying one another in the process.  

Historically, it was far simpler for brands to stand out from the crowd. There were fewer competitors, brands, and product/service offerings in most categories, and industries-there were even fewer categories and industries. 

Not surprisingly, it was significantly easier for brands to be distinctive in consumers’ eyes with fewer alternatives. Obviously, a lot has changed. Following are seven distinct yet interrelated factors that have affected branding the most.

1)    Technological Advances

Virtually any brand, global or local, can reach customers and prospects with minimal effort-barriers to market entry have been virtually eliminated. Brands are launched and flourish almost instantaneously. 

2)    The Proliferation of Choice

Historically, there were fewer options in the market across the board – fewer categories, fewer brands within those categories, and fewer alternatives within any given brand. Today more competitors are going to market with more brands than ever before. A more crowded and competitive marketplace makes it far more challenging for brands to stand out from the crowd.

3)    Changes in Communication and Media

Thanks to smartphones and computers, we consume content constantly, whether we’re lying in bed, waiting in line, or even in front of the TV. Take television, for instance. Back in the day, three television networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) ruled the airwaves. People didn’t have cable TV, much less the internet. Because of this, branding was reasonably straightforward: marketers bought ad time on a given network and were guaranteed to reach a hefty percentage of consumers within their target media demographic.

4)    Changes in Distribution

New technology has changed distribution dynamics in the world of both B2C and B2B, especially for service-based businesses. Advances and innovations such as affordable air travel, virtual offices, teleconferencing, email, and video conferencing make it easier than ever for a potential client in Paris, France, to hire a company based in Paris, Texas. As Thomas Friedman noted in his best-selling book by the same title, the world is flat.

5)    A Spike in Available Information

The explosion of the internet gave customers access to information that was once the exclusive domain of large companies. The dramatic changes in the media environment also increased the amount of information available globally, and knowledge is power.

6)    Enlightened and Empowered Consumers

Technological advancements have fundamentally changed consumers’ decision-making processes, giving way to a new path to purchase. Multichannel journeys are on the rise; gone are the days when consumers moved in a linear and sequential manner from awareness to consideration to trial to repeat purchase to loyalty.

7)    Changes in Marketers’ Behavior

Many brands jump on the digital bandwagon with an “I can do that, too” attitude and automatically add every trendy technology and platform to their marketing mix. In reality, it’s never a good idea to blindly follow the latest trends without first gaining an understanding of how implementing a new approach or technology will benefit your brand.

So, What Does All This Mean? 

Traditional brand strategy components such as positioning, architecture, experience, and extendibility need to evolve to account for a radically different digital environment. Bottom line: to differentiate our brands without missing out on new opportunities, we must rethink some of the basics of brand strategy. It is time for companies to resume their roles as leaders through more robust brand strategies based on differentiated brand positioning, not on copycat behaviors.

This article was first published on the Institute for the Study of Business Markets (ISBM) in 2017. It has been updated to reflect current information.

As with every facet of business, strategy should precede and inform tactical implementation when managing brands. This means developing a thoughtful brand portfolio strategy that defines the optimal number, scope, and strategic role for each brand within the portfolio for brand management. Only then can more tactical brand architecture decisions be made, including:

  • How should brands relate to one another (if at all)?
  • When should a corporate brand endorse a product brand?
  • To what extent visual identity elements should be shared across brands?

In today’s turbulent times, building a powerful brand does not alone guarantee long-term financial success.  Even if a company has just one brand, it may launch or acquire a new brand or extend the existing brand, thereby impacting the portfolio. This paper will highlight five over-arching guiding principles commonly used to drive effective brand portfolio strategies.

1)    Build and leverage a strong corporate brand

Build a corporate brand that is a clear and accepted frame of reference for the customer and provides positive equities to other brands throughout the portfolio. 

Many companies build their businesses with multiple brands. A brand’s role is determined by its ability to contribute equity to an offering. Understanding brand roles and relationships ultimately guides brand-naming (i.e., architecture) decisions. 

A corporate brand acts as an “umbrella” for the organization’s activities and captures its vision, image, values, and positioning, along with many other aspects.

A corporate brand is a valuable resource that provides the business with a sustainable, competitive advantage. According to the Interbrand Best Global Brands 2020 ranking, Microsoft has entered the top three with a +53% growth rate and $166,001bn brand value. Behind Microsoft’s transformation is an incredible cultural shift, supported by empathy. regarded by Nadella as a leadership trait as much as a business priority and an innovation ethos: “Our core business is connected with the customers’ needs, and we will not be able to satisfy them if we don’t have a deep sense of empathy.” says Nadella.

Leveraging the corporate brand is most effective if it is perceived as a valuable strategic and financial asset to key stakeholders (internal & external). Appropriately, it is the primary point of reference for customers, employees, investors, and other stakeholders. A corporate brand strategy should leverage a company to extend its brands vertically and horizontally to capture new customer segments and markets.  

Microsoft lends its brand identity to Microsoft Office, Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, Microsoft PowerPoint, etc. Windows, the operating system is what has made Microsoft the company it is today. 

2)    Define strategic objectives for brands

Great brands, with clearly defined positioning and value propositions aligned with segment target needs, are easy to recognize. Strategic objectives align to target segment needs or fulfill a strategic role to inform investment and resource allocation decisions. 

Strategic roles are identified for each brand within the portfolio with definitive expectations regarding growth and margin contribution and identified metrics to measure performance against. Core Brands that generate positive cash flows are highly profitable and account for the majority of sales.

3)    Employ a simple & clear brand architecture

This is characterized by a hierarchy of brands with explicit guidelines that define the appropriate linkages, nomenclature, and visual identity for brands in the portfolio. Utilizing fewer levels in the brand hierarchy to achieve organizational and investment efficiencies and simplify customer offerings. Offerings are organized and facilitate customer navigation. There is consistent execution and application of linkages, nomenclature, and visual identity systems for each brand. 

One of the best illustrations of this is still BMW. The BMW brand has the 300 series (small), the 500 series (medium), the 700 series (large), the M series (high performance), Z4 (roadster), and the X3/X5 (SUVs).  This form of line extension from the core brand involves sub-brands that vary in price, quality, and features. BMW also owns Mini, but they are separate. The company does its best to make consumers understand which car model is right for them. It has provided leverage and clarity to the BMW brand that has maintained its tagline “The Ultimate Driving Machine” for over 35 years. 

4)    Build relevance across value tiers

The deliberate alignment of individual brands targets segments within each value tier to maximize the company’s reach. Leverage distinct brands to target all relevant value tiers and provide a clear delineation of appropriate benefits (levels of quality, service, expertise, etc.) for each offering relative to its value tier positioning. Consistently applied pricing strategy reflects intended value tiering for relevant brands (i.e., across industries, applications, sectors, channels, etc.). Premium brands are maintained at premium price levels and protected against brand dilution.

5)    Maximize the extendibility of brands

Selecting those brands that can extend across multiple dimensions maximizes brand extendibility. This necessitates fewer, stronger brands leveraged across multiple dimensions (e.g., geographies, industries, sectors, applications, channels) and new growth platforms to achieve synergies, capitalize on economies of scale, and penetrate new markets.

 Brand portfolio management is a strategic assessment of a company’s branded offerings across the organization. The end goal is to manage branded offerings efficiently and create greater value and uncover new growth opportunities. Brands are assets that must be regularly monitored to assess their contribution and role in the overall portfolio. Based on their roles, brand architecture is how companies strategically organize their complete array of offerings in the marketplace and how all the brand names and identities relate to each other.

At its core, brand portfolio strategy determines the number of brands that a company’s portfolio should contain. It explains how to deploy those brands within the business and in the market. A long-term approach to growth is provided by establishing each brand’s strategic roles and including what it should contribute to the company.  

An Approach Toward Establishing and Managing a Portfolio of Brands

Brand portfolio strategy dictates the relationships brands should have with one another. The concept of relationships between brands is often referred to as brand architecture. The exact components of a comprehensive brand portfolio strategy vary based on the company and the nature of its business. Still, most brand portfolios should address several key questions discussed in detail here.

What is Brand Architecture?

The terms “brand portfolio strategy” and “brand architecture” are often used interchangeably, but the latter is a distinct, critical component of the former.

Brand architecture is a central component of brand portfolio strategy because it articulates the explicit, market-facing relationships that brands within a portfolio have with each another. This principle is almost entirely externally focused. 

It is imperative to establish a brand architecture that makes it easy for outside stakeholders to view quickly, understand it immediately, and know which offer works best for them. 

A simple and clear brand architecture has a logical organizing principle, few levels of hierarchy. It follows a rigorous set of guidelines that ensure a consistent expression and execution in the marketplace. This includes the visual identity and verbal expression of brands and the naming conventions for product and service offerings.

Branded House vs. House of Brands

David Aaker, widely considered the father of modern branding, introduced a continuum framework for brand portfolios that is still widely embraced. Aaker refers to one end of the brand portfolio spectrum as “branded house,” a portfolio where the master brand (usually a corporate brand) acts as the dominant brand. In this situation, descriptive sub-brands have a minimal role in establishing market-facing equity and driving business results. 

GE is an excellent example of the branded house approach. The master brand serves as the main asset applied to every product and business unit.

At the other end of the spectrum is “house of brands.” Here, independent, standalone brands—each with a minimal connection to the corporate brand—have the greatest equity and represent the primary face to the market. 

Unilever is an excellent example of this, for its product brands like Dove and Hellman’s, have more consumer equity than the corporate brand. Independent brands are the primary conduit to customers in a house of brands.

Five Factors for Every Company, of Any Size, in Any Industry

While the considerations for companies deciding where to reside on the brand spectrum vary, five factors apply to every company, regardless of size or industry.

1. Number of Customer Segments

Companies should consider the number of distinct customer segments they serve and are attempting to target. A well-positioned brand is targeted toward a single customer segment and can only serve that segment (and, at most, one or two others) exceedingly well. Therefore, the more distinct customer segments in the market that the company seeks to serve, the more brands required to do so effectively. 

2. Range of Breadth of Offer

This factor is closely related to customer segments. One of the fundamental premises of brand extension is how brands should be defined by something more than the product category or categories in which they compete. Brands, however, have limitations in terms of how far they can stretch across different categories. Even the most celebrated brands can only stretch so far. As a rule of thumb, the more product categories in which a company competes, the more likely its portfolio will need to reside on the house of brands side of the spectrum.

3. Corporate Brand Relevance

Some businesses deem the company behind the products and services more important than others do. Professional services is an industry where the master brand is critical; clients often buy the brand as much as its service offerings. In these cases, it makes sense to go to market with a strong focus on the corporate brand. Firms like McKinsey & Company, Boston Consulting Group, KPMG, and Ernst & Young are quintessential branded houses that rely heavily on their master brands. The more established and relevant the corporate brand is, the greater its ability to reside on the branded house end of the spectrum.

4. Investment in Branding

The extent to which a company is willing to invest in building brands determines where it should reside on the brand portfolio spectrum. Brands are assets and require significant investment to develop, launch, and maintain. This includes expenses and ongoing investments like advertising, market research, and digital activation. These costs mean that a house of brands portfolio requires more financial resources to support than a branded house portfolio.

5. Commitment to Talent Development in Branding

Brand management also requires human resources; companies need human talent to build and maintain strong brand assets. Organizations should thus consider the extent to which they’re willing to invest in recruiting and developing employees with the necessary skills to drive brand leadership. A house of brands portfolio almost always requires more internal brand and marketing talent than a branded house portfolio.

No matter where on the spectrum of house of brands versus branded house a company falls, differentiation remains essential for success. If individual brands are not compelling (or if a branded house cannot rely on a sufficiently compelling corporate brand), it will fail to break out of the brand monotony that characterizes modern-day marketing.

By now, you probably feel like you’ve read one too many articles offering ideas and guidance on how to respond to the current pandemic. However, for your brand’s long-term success, you must take some time to revisit why your value proposition—why you are in business and what customers and prospects want and need most from you.

What is a Value Proposition?

In a nutshell, a value proposition is an assurance of value to be delivered to your customers. It’s an easily understood promise from you to your customers, offering them an obvious reason to act. It answers the question, “Why should I buy from you and not your competitor?” It’s the primary reason a prospect should buy from you. It’s also the #1 reason that determines whether people will bother to read more about your product or service or click the back button

Your value proposition is one of the most critical elements of your brand messaging. As you think about writing it, start with what you’d say if you were having an informal conversation with a prospect.  

Questions to Ask Yourself

The best value proposition is clear: What is it? For whom? How is it useful? Specifically, begin by asking yourself:

  • What is product or service is my brand offering?
  • Who is the target customer?
  • What are their pain points?
  • How will my product or service remedy their issues?
  • What companies and products compete with my brand?
  • What differentiates my brand from those competitors?

While COVID-19 may require you to reengineer your value proposition, it has not changed the attributes that make it compelling and resonate with prospective buyers. The first, most critical step is to identify how the pandemic is currently affecting your customers’ and prospects’ business operations and how it will likely impact them in the near future. 

The next step is to identify the attributes of your product or service offering that meet those immediate needs. Finally, focus on your offerings’ attributes that make them superior to your competitors’ offerings at meeting those immediate needs.

For a more in-depth review the fundamental principles of customer value propositions, check out my previous post on FullSurge.com.

In his now-famous TED Talk, Simon Sinek delivered a simple yet powerful message: start with why. Sinek says that influential leaders work with a sense of purpose from the beginning, which allows them to inspire loyal followings. 

The Genuine and Compelling Reason Your Brand Exists

“Why” is a brand purpose, cause, or belief. It’s the very reason your organization exists—put simply, why it does what it does. When it’s compelling and genuine, “why” can form the basis of an incredibly strong promise and a highly differentiated brand

Even before the global pandemic, consumers were becoming increasingly interested in purchasing from purpose-driven brands, especially brands practicing sustainability.  These brands can even drive higher price points when leveraging their “why.” Nielsen’s 2015 report on global corporate sustainability found that about two-thirds of consumers in general (and almost three-quarters of Millennials specifically) are willing to pay more for a brand practicing sustainability.

Taking Care of Customers and Communities

Talk is cheap, but action can come with a substantial price tag. Brands that make noise about caring for customers and communities, the environment, or more specific causes during times of crisis, may have to dig deep to keep the promises they made when the world is in the throes of a deadly pandemic. The sharpest brands, the most competitive brands, are those that realize now is the time to activate their purpose. They need to communicate effectively and be authentic and, in the long run, they will win.

Countless brands are giving products and donations to those affected by the coronavirus pandemic. High-end luxury brands from LVMH to Burberry to Gucci to Bulgari have stepped up to helping society and health officials by speedily re-manufacturing luxury goods into medical equipment and raising money to fight the spread of the virus. Many others have donated personal protective equipment or other critical supplies, infrastructure, expertise, logistics, transportation, manufacturing equipment, or space.

But what happens when brand purpose is put to the test—will customers forgive those brands that miss the mark?

In the wake of an 80% sudden and dramatic drop in flights at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Virgin Atlantic announced it was grounding approximately three-quarters of its fleet, retaining a focus on core routes. As a result, staff was required to take eight weeks of unpaid leave at some point over the next three months (however, their cost will be spread across six monthly pay periods). A rather peculiar departure from the airline’s professed identity as the “fun, friendly, fabulous choice that made travel attainable for everyone.”

To make matters worse, the company called on the government to orchestrate an emergency bailout for the airlines “bolster confidence” and prevent credit card processors from withholding customer payments. Virgin Atlantic said it needs relief for the summer season to match supply to demand, reduce costs, and avoid unviable flying and corresponding CO2 emissions. The airline believes this support will enable them to “weather this storm” and emerge in a position to “assist the nation’s economic recovery.”

Frustrated consumers shared their dissatisfaction on social media, noting the potential bailout of a company associated with a high profile billionaire owner, while the NHS struggles to treat ill pensioners.

When purpose truly drives the brand, customers who share that purpose become fiercely loyal, to the point where their passion for the cause and their love for the brand become indistinguishable from each other. However, people will remember this reaction from Virgin Atlantic, in the same way, they remember those brands truly driven by purpose.

Brands need to grow, continually, to flourish and maintain relevance, but achieving and sustaining profitable growth is a constant challenge. One of a firm’s most valuable resources is its brand equity. Attempting to leverage this asset, an increasing number of companies are extending their brands into multiple product categories through brand extensions, trying to grow the brand beyond its core products. However, many owners of brand strategy struggle with how far they can (and should) stretch their brand’s “bounds of extendibility.”

McDonald’s Mighty Wings

In 2013, McDonald’s launched Mighty Wings as an attempt to ride the wave of the growing demand for lean protein (e.g., chicken). However, after the initial launch of the ill-fated product, “the burger giant had 10 million tons of unsold, frozen chicken wings to get rid of.” Value for the money seems to have been a key issue. CEO Don Thompson admitted that prices were “not the most competitive.” Packs of three wings sold for $3.69, five for $5.59, and 10 wings for $9.69: a dollar per wing was pricey for penny-pinching customers watching their budgets. easyJet’s Easy Cinema The idea of cheap theatre tickets might at first seem appealing. However, easyJet is a business associated with no-frills cheap and cheerful air travel. It’s a budget-friendly way to get wherever you need to travel. Yet, when people go to the movies, they’re looking for an exciting and immersive experience. They want all the bells and whistles – otherwise, they would just stay at home and watch whatever was on Netflix. With easyCinema, easyJet failed to understand its new target market properly.  It could not provide a good value product because it failed to capture the customer purchase behavior of the majority of customers (families and 15-24 year- olds).

Reasons Brand Extensions Fail

Play it too safe, and your likely result will be ho-hum, underwhelming line extensions that are short-lived in the marketplace. Wander too far from your brand’s core positioning, and you risk diluting—or even irreversibly damaging—your brand’s valuable equity. Successful brand extensions are a logical step from the flagship product. If not, consumers are left asking, “What were they thinking?” 

Market opportunity. No need for the product or service exists, or the need has already been met. The reason for launching new products is simply “because we can.” Companies must properly evaluate the market to understand whether an opportunity and what type, may exist in a category and consumers’ specific unsolved problems.

Brand relevance. The new product or service does not express the critical attributes of the brand and is not a strong fit. The new product category must convey the higher-order, emotional benefits associated with the parent brand, and the attributes must be meaningful to consumers when it moves into the new category. Furthermore, consumers must perceive the brand’s ability to deliver credibly on all the necessary attributes in the new category. Arm & Hammer baking soda claims it is an effective deodorizer for refrigerators, etc. As a result, they extended the brand into other products such as Arm & Hammer underarm deodorant and cat litter deodorizer. Honda’s expertise in reliable engines led to lawnmowers, gas-powered generators, and a variety of other gasoline engine-powered devices. When you think of Harley-Davidson, you think of adventure, free-spirited and rebellious. Other motorcycle brands try to capture that essence. Still, people associate those feelings with Harleys, and they’re willing to spend more money for a Harley than a Kawasaki because of it! However, Cake icing kits conveyed none of the nonconformist values that Harley-Davidson stands for.

Part two of this series will focus attention on building brand relevance and positioning a new product or service to ensure it enhances brand equity. Relevance the limits to which you can extend your brand without compromising credibility involves understanding what your brand is, as well as what it is not. 

As highlighted in the first of this four-part series on brand positioning strategy, the most common method for defining a brand’s promise is through a customer end benefit—the “what.”  You know your brand does this when its promise answers the question, “What tangible benefit does the brand provide, presumably to its target customer?” Sometimes, however, a brand’s “what” might not be all that special, exciting, or unique. When multiple brands in a category attempt to position around a common end benefit—especially a pedestrian category ante—brand monotony is the inevitable outcome.

Focusing on “How”

A brand focused on the “how” focuses on the process or approach the brand takes to deliver, rather than the promise itself. Brands like these emphasize the added benefits that differentiate their product from others in the marketplace. When a brand has an end promise similar to others in the market, it is imperative they do not just promote that promise. These brands benefit most from highlighting a journey or an exciting path the product or service will take you on before reaching the actual end goal. We see these types of marketing with car companies, airline providers, and even some lifestyle brands. These types of companies all have similar end promises to their competitors, which is why focusing on the “how” is a great marketing strategy. 

One of the best examples of this positioning strategy is Apple. Apple has continued to focus more and more on the “how” approach. Functionally, Apple creates products that have almost identical competitors already in the market, making it essential they focus on other things. Since the core function of their products (calling, accessing the internet, etc.) isn’t as exciting or unique, Apple must market the bells and whistles of its products. Highlighting the high-tech camera or the face-recognizing unlocking software is what is going to get them ahead in the monotonous market when going against Samsung or Google.

Planet Fitness’ Judgement-Free Zone

When focusing positiosning strategy on “how” your brand delivers you are highlighting how the consumer will reach their ultimate goal—not merely what that goal is. Planet Fitness is a company doing a great job with this. With the slogan “Judgement-Free Zone,” Planet Fitness hoped to create a gym that will provide a comfortable environment for members to work out and better themselves. During an interview with CBS, CEO Chris Rondeau stated that “if you think about our business model and our marketing, it’s a marketing machine.” He believes that the way they are advertising their new approach to what a gym should look like will be what is going to make consumers pick Planet Fitness over its competitors.

We can see the “how” brand positioning strategy throughout the different markets and segments. The similarity of these markets is that they are all very crowded and in need of a change in focus. Marketing the “how” can be innovative and creative. Since consumers likely already know the end goal, markers should take this chance to create a new and more captivating journey or path their product will take customers on to distract from the less exciting end promise. 

Many successful brands choose to channel more of their time energy into a loyal customer base. Rather than marketing the product itself, they design the brand positioning around an explicit audience. This works exceptionally well when marketing a product that holds only a small space in a crowded market. Here, the brand promise is crafted in a manner that is defined by—and can even help to define—the target audience for whom it is intended.

Brands That Embody, Inspire and Motivate their Target Audiences

So-called lifestyle brands are often defined by the “who.” Lifestyle brands embody the interests, attitudes, and opinions of a group or culture. They inspire and motivate people with the goal of shaping consumers’ way of life through their products or services. While it’s true that every brand has targets, not every brand chooses to define its very essence (i.e., promise) around its target audience.

Brands focused on the “who” will typically aim to create a feeling and motivated culture through their services. The majority of the marketing strategies are explicitly designed with their target audience in mind. One of the best examples of a “who”- based brand is Proctor and Gamble (P&G). P&G markets to parents or those running a household. One of P&G’s most impactful and remembered campaigns was the “Thank you, mom” ad aired surrounding the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. This advertisement’s goal was to bring attention to moms, and all they do for their children. P&G’s creating of such a specific, emotional advertisement was their attempt at targeting an audience—moms. The actual commercial did not mention any of their products or services, but rather just focused on strengthening their audience’s loyalty. 

The Imperative Customer Loyalty

Brands that emphasize the importance of the “who” rely heavily on the loyalty of their audience. Since they are marketing to a smaller, more specific audience, it is even more important that those customers continue to return. This type of positioning is prevalent among lifestyle brands. 

One example of a brand that is currently very successful in positioning with a “who” strategy is Brooks Running. Brooks manufactures running shoes and apparel for long-distance runners. The Brooks brand focuses on their produclts’ ability to withstand the miles and miles for which their customers will likely need them. Most avid runners do not switch running shoe brands once they have found the right one for them. So, capturing these runners initially is crucial for the success of their company. 

Makeup and skincare product brands are also example of brands that rely on capturing returning customers. People typically don’t abandon makeup and skincare products once they find those best suited for them. Since there are multitudes of similar products on the market, these brands especially need returning and loyal customers to make their company successful. 

Creating and focusing on a smaller and more specified brand audience is a great way to position a brand. When marketing to a specific audience, you can develop marketing strategies that will resonate with that audience because you know what they like and want to hear. Consumers identify with this positioning because it makes them feel like they are a part of something. Using the “who” brand positioning can help your brand hone in and create a loyal and consistently returning audience.

What makes “who” brands special is that when the customers feel they are part of the brand, It doesn’t matter if someone else comes along with a cheaper alternative. The fans remain loyal because they see themselves reflected in the brand.

A brand promise represents a brand’s primary point of difference. In the traditional model for brand positioning, conventional wisdom suggests the promise must be a customer benefit. This is essentially the “what” that the brand provides to customers. Many positioning models refer to this component as “benefit,” not “promise.” However, this thinking is limiting and outdated for a few reasons, including:

Reconsidering the Brand Promise

In some categories, the customer benefit is virtually universal (e.g., most everyone who uses shampoo wants beautiful hair). So, the only way to differentiate is to emphasize some other aspect of the brand. Pantene Pro-V, for example, differentiates itself not so much on the benefit of beautiful hair, but rather its unique means for achieving it: vitamin-infused formulations. In this example, the point of difference is more in the “how” than the “what.”

In addition to the “what,” other options for brand positioning include focusing on the “how,” the “why,” and the “who.” As promised in a previous post, we will discuss the brand promise beyond merely “what.” 

A Brand Purpose (” Why”)

“Why” is a purpose, cause, or belief. It’s the very reason your organization exists—put simply, why it does what it does. When a brand is focused on a “why”, they intend to attract an audience that supports their purpose, not just their product or service. 

Consumers are becoming increasingly interested in purchasing from purpose-driven brands, especially brands practicing sustainability. A brand’s purpose is meant to be seen as more prominent than the product. This “why” is often a charity, an initiative, or an end goal of solving a problem. Often, consumers have a hard time choosing between companies with similar products. Still, a brand having a higher purpose may be the push consumers need to pick one company over another. 

TOMS Shoes

One of the most common strategies of employing the “why” is the implementation of the “buy one, give one (BOGO)” model. The market first saw this with TOMS Shoes. TOMS created a promise to the customers that for every pair of shoes purchased, a pair would be donated. These types of campaigns resonate extremely well with consumers because it allows them to help with a cause that normally would seem way out of their reach. This new model changed the market and has since been adopted by many different types of companies. 

Another example of positioning the brand around a “why” promise is Love Your Melon—a non-profit company created to raise money for cancer research. They are committed to donating a beanie to every child battling cancer. They are an extreme version of a “why” promise company. 

When looking at “why” brands, we can more or less divide them into two segments— those created for the charity and those who added their cause after launching the company. Eyeglass brand Warby Parker with a “BOGO” model, did not found their company on the idea of donating glasses, but it was added later on as a marketing plan. Brands like Love Your Melon see an issue or cause they want to help and create a company around that cause. That said, customers respect and buy into both forms. In general, consumers like the idea of their purchase benefiting more than just them. 

Companies that position the brand around a “why” are often seeking the customer looking for more than just the actual product or service. Consumers want to feel that their purchase will benefit more than just them. The public cannot always help charities important to them, so finding a product that will help is crucial. 

When purpose truly drives the brand, customers who share that purpose become fiercely loyal, to the point where their passion for the cause and their love for the brand become indistinguishable from each other.