Working recently with a healthcare client brought to the forefront an age-old truth about brand positioning: namely, creating a winning positioning is essential—and admirable; but being unable to execute that positioning in the marketplace, for whatever reasons, makes all for naught. Brand positioning strategies don’t do much for us if they remain locked in our laptop files or only posted on our office walls. And, let’s face it, getting a winning positioning up and running in the market takes dogged determination, crystal-clear communication (to everyone involved in implementing it), but most of all, sustained execution over time.
What brought these thoughts to mind was simply this: our client had invested considerable time and money into researching with customers, in order to (1) externally articulate a differentiated positioning strategy for each of their core brands, and (2) internally to provide clear rationale for each brand in their portfolio…to make perfectly clear why they maintained a number of brands in the same general class of products. The company had made good progress against both of these objectives. Unfortunately, though, due to a series of upheavals—acquisitions, management and Sales Force departures, and attacks from emerging, lower-priced but good quality competitors—their positioning strategy work never really “left the building” in any coordinated or sustained way. Actually, and not just in healthcare, such a story is not all that unfamiliar.
All of which got us to thinking, “what does a brand positioning strategy—when actually well-executed in the marketplace—look like?” As we were just wrapping up work in Goteborg, Sweden, this past week, the first and most obvious brand positioning that came to mind was that of the brand that makes its global home there: Volvo. Of course, just about wherever you go in the world, virtually everyone knows the longstanding Volvo positioning—superior family safety, both functional and emotional. And, regardless of whatever inroads other luxury car brands make into the safety benefit area (360° airbags, auto-stop before contact, you name it), Volvo continues to retain its preeminent place as THE safest automobile brand.
It didn’t take us long to come up with a few other brands that, in their categories, hold a similar, most-enviable positioning…even if none can demonstrate a significant, quantitative “win” versus their main competition. But here’s the best part; in each case we can say that we have seen their brand positioning strategy “happening right before our very eyes.”
Volvo: About ten years ago now, one of our sons and his wife were expecting their first child. As it turns out, his wife had for a number of years driven a well-worn Ford Explorer…a vehicle that she had enjoyed driving for quite awhile. One time, before the big day of birth arrived, upon stopping at their house, the familiar Explorer was nowhere to be found; instead, a shiny Volvo wagon sat parked in the driveway. When asked, “Where’s the old Explorer?” this was the immediate response: “Gone, we’re about to have a baby.” There was no mention of Volvo’s safety positioning because it wasn’t needed. The plain-as-the-nose-on-your-face action of trading one family-sized vehicle (with no particular reputation for safety, one way or the other) for a Volvo said it all. This was what all that investment in owning a family safety positioning was about…not merely to get families with young children to remember what Volvo stood for, but rather to get them to act upon what Volvo stood for. By the way, that son and his wife, now with two young children, are in the market for a third Volvo wagon.
Snickers: It was a time at Frito-Lay when there was a serious effort underway internally to clarify, once and for all, what each of the salty snack core brands stood for—especially vis a vis one another. As by far the most densely made snack in the portfolio, Fritos was believed to be the one brand within salty snacks that could take ownership of hunger satisfaction—it was (and still is) a very filling snack. There was just one problem. The Snickers Brand, while not a salty snack but still a most formidable sweet snack, had already taken ownership of between meal hunger satisfaction. The idea, then, was to conduct some research among macro-snackers (those who consume salty chips and crackers + sweet candy and cookies) to see just how rock-solid that Snickers ownership was.
A series of focus groups were scheduled, all to take place at 2 PM in the afternoon. Screened snacker-participants were requested to eat nothing after breakfast because the research facility would be providing a substantial lunch when they arrived. It was important that each participant arrive hungry. When ushered into the group room, participants were told to make themselves comfortable, that lunch would be coming in about 45 minutes, and to please help themselves to a snack at the front of the room in the meantime. Front-room snacks included about 10 each of: Kit Kat, Milky Way, M&M’s, Fritos, Oreos, Chips Ahoy, and…Snickers. From behind the glass, all observed carefully to see which of these snacks—offered to approximately 12 hungry people—would go first. All ten of the Snickers were taken, almost from the outset; some participants took Snickers and another snack. But it was clear in a matter of minutes that only one snack was nearly everyone’s choice to satisfy his/her nagging between-meal hunger, Snickers. Seeing the Snickers brand positioning instantly at work was not merely amazing; for Fritos marketers, it was sobering!
Mercedes: One of our most congenial and favorite client-friends had asked us to join his team one evening for a strategy-session dinner. As a longtime outdoorsman, he was much more comfortable on a horse or a Jeep than on anything else. So, when he agreed to meet us outside the hotel that evening, we were at first surprised not to see him waiting in some such off-road vehicle; then, even more surprised when he called to us from his spanking new Mercedes sedan. Smelling the genuine leather interior and barely hearing the softly purring engine, we asked the obvious: “What in the heck are you doing driving a new Mercedes? Never thought of you as a “Mercedes kind of guy.” To which he replied, “I’m not. But I am out with surgeons nearly every day on the job…and the Company wants to make sure those surgeons know I’m as successful as they are.” Again, no mention about the many Mercedes luxuries. Everything about the Mercedes brand positioning was already in sight before us: if you want to be perceived as successful, your ultimate signal-statement is driving a Mercedes.
Gatorade: Our former longtime colleague, Dave Roche, tells the true story of one of his nephews who had tried out for and made a select (as in competitive) soccer team. Such teams are typically coached by paid, former amateur and professional soccer players themselves. And above all else, they demand discipline, and they practice as if they were a semi-professional squad. When Dave’s nephew met with the coach and team for the first time, all were handed a list of essential equipment that each must bring to every practice; anything missing would mean not playing that day. On the list were: Team shorts and jerseys (both practice and playing); rubber-cleated, association-approved shoes; knee and shin pads; calf-length socks; various other clothing items and…Gatorade. Not just any “sports drink” or “thirst-quencher,” but specifically Gatorade. While other beverages such as Powerade might offer the very same formulation and replenishing benefits, only Gatorade has ownership of the “ultimate liquid athletic equipment” brand positioning strategy. You could see that on the official equipment list!
Some will say, “Each of these four brands has been on the market for years. No wonder you can see the positioning strategy of each so readily.” But here’s another perspective: the fact that one can see the positioning of brands like Volvo, Snickers, Mercedes, and Gatorade at work—without hearing a single “positioning strategy word” from a user– speaks volumes to their relentless determination to take ownership of something meaningful…and to absolutely never let it go.
Richard Czerniawski & Mike Maloney