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Sunday, June 10, 2010

If you have been following the NBA playoffs, you no doubt know by now that the final two teams are decided. This past week the San Antonio Spurs, despite winning 20 games in a row and the first two of their Western Conference Finals, lost four games in a row to the Oklahoma Thunder, which meant they were suddenly eliminated. But just before their loss in Game 6, as is often the practice on all the sports networks, commentators and analysts were asking the familiar questions, “What do the Spurs have to do to win?” or, “What will be the keys to the game for the Spurs?”


On most syndicated sports radio shows the answer to these questions (about the Spurs) were surprisingly consistent: the Spurs needed to focus on three behaviors, three actions to get back to what had them winning so many games. And these three actions were quite specific: (1) keep turnovers to single-digits; (2) win the offensive rebounds by at least ten; and, (3) make 85% of their free throws. Looking at how the Spurs had won game after game before their losing streak, these three “keys to the game” seemed obvious. (Sorry to say, even though the Spurs did have a commanding first-half lead in Game 6, they failed on the specific actions.)


All of this analyzing and commentating got us to thinking that, in aiming to make one’s Brand Positioning more competitive - along the lines of our NBA story, to get to a “winning” positioning - there are also “keys to the game.” And the keys are not always the same. As in basketball, many of the keys depend upon the relative strengths and weaknesses of your competition, which vary over time. Practically speaking, this means that when your brand team embarks upon positioning work, seeking ways to make your brand positioning, either on a real or perceived basis, it’s always a good practice to first know those positioning strengths and weaknesses of your competition. Then, the next step is to look at all the “positioning actions” a brand could consider taking, and focus on the select few that exploit a competitor’s weakness…or, at the very least, exploit something competition has overlooked. These become the “keys of the game.”


About two years ago, we were asked to help a client in Australia come up with some ways to gain a positioning edge on their competition. Both our client’s brand and their primary competitor had been in the Australian market a long time, and both had good market shares. Our client had considerable market research as well: usage and attitudes studies, segmentation studies, comparative product performance tests, and so on. Everything in the research made one thing perfectly clear, however; namely, in the near term there was no Functional Benefit or Product Feature (Intrinsic Reason Why) that could be added or changed to give the brand a positioning advantage.


During a conference call prior to our planned positioning workshop, we asked the client (given any unlikely meaningful differentiation to surface within functional benefits and intrinsic reasons why), “Where should we focus our strategic and creative efforts during the workshop? What do you think are the keys to leaving the team’s workshop with a winning positioning?” Fortunately, the brand’s Marketing Director was thinking along the same lines as we were; the positioning actions where we had the most likely chances of out-thinking (even surprising) their primary competitor were these three: (1) Find a differentiated Emotional Benefit that the competitor could not easily or comfortably copy; (2) create a Brand Character that would become an alluring badge (something no brand in the category had ever pulled off); and (3) articulate a Perceptual Competitive Framework—a strategic “label” or “sound-byte” that consumers would find accurate and, even more important, captivating. Accomplishing these three things (or even two of them very well) would make our client’s brand a perceived better choice.


You have to give the client in this case a lot of credit. After all, the usual course for most brand teams would be, despite the low odds, still try to come up with something more functional or tangible as a way to win. It’s what so many marketers and their research partners are most comfortable with anyway. Instead, this client opted for more creative positioning actions as keys to the game. In fairness, both we and the client took a hard look at some brands in related categories…brands that had, quite obviously, nothing functional or tangible in their positioning strategies to win with and that had found their keys for winning in never-before exploited emotional benefits (Axe) badge-like brand characters (U by Kotex and Old Spice), and captivating perceptual competitive frameworks.


For the record, during the workshop we not only spent 85% of the team’s time on these “keys of the game,” but we also ensured that team comprised a good balance of strategic and creative thinkers. The outcome of this positioning work was an evolved brand positioning with a differentiated emotional benefit and brand character—along with an action plan to deliver on these actions. We retell this story as a way to remind all of us that, when approaching any brand positioning work, it’s a good practice to look at all the positioning elements and consciously choose the ones with the highest likely return.




1.     To help in looking over some possible “positioning keys to the game,” here’s a quick list of the major brand positioning elements from which your team might choose to focus against:

Positioning Element Potential "Keys"
  • Psychographics
  • Current Usage & Dis-satisfactions
  • Needs (Functional & Emotional)
  Competitive Framework    
  • Literal (The Market)
  • Perceptual ("Label")
  • Product (Functional)
  • Consumer/Customer (Functional)
  • Emotional
  Reasons Why
  • Intrinsic (Features, Attributes, Designs)
  • Extgrinsic (Endorsements)
  • Self-Created (Seals, Endorsements)
  Brand Character
  • Badge
  • Relationship-Builder (with Target)

2.     Looking at each of these, and based upon consumer/customer research (that is, not merely upon your company’s opinions), conduct a “differentiation check” to see against which ones the competition would be most vulnerable.


3.     Keep in mind that very few brands devote significant time toward building meaningfully differentiated Perceptual Competitive Frameworks or Brand Characters. These are almost always highly opportunistic keys to the game.

Richard Czerniawski & Mike Maloney


Richard Czerniawski

430 Abbotsford Road

Kenilworth, Illinois 60043

tel 847.256.8820 fax 847.256.8847

reply to Richard: or



Mike Maloney

1506 West 13th

Austin, Texas 78703

tel 512.236.0971 fax 512.236.0972

reply to Mike: or

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