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Successful marketers know the difference between brand and position
by Rob Gelphman 02/03

Often what goes wrong with marketing campaigns bent on creating a brand is the underlying strategy. When it fails, those responsible for execution-such as PR and advertising people- are blamed. Perhaps, the execution itself isn't the problem, but rather it's the strategy being executed that's flawed. The disconnect is that too many VPs of marketing and their product managers pursue a branding campaign when it is positioning that is required. Compounding the problem is that many folks don't know the difference between the two.

Brand creation is expensive, time consuming, and is primarily intended to generate an emotional response from the intended audience. Commodity-type products with minimal differentiation among competing offerings are generally best served via branding.

Positioning, it could be argued, is brand’s counterpart, requiring the demonstration of real value. Positioning can be done in a much shorter time frame (months, not years), and is significantly less expensive. For many industries and companies, positioning is the best strategy for improving sales and market share, not branding. Besides the cost and time factors, branding is difficult to measure and does not always show up in the form of sales.

Another way to look at the two is such: Think of brand as being similar to ubiquity where everyone knows you. And think of positioning as being similar to value where everyone wants you. So before creating brand, establish position. Consider positioning as that desirable place in the customer's mind where he not only recognizes the product, but can also recite its attributes. Effective positioning makes the customer a part of the unpaid sales team.

Inherent in any successful positioning exercise is the continuous assessment and analysis of targeted customers. For many hi-tech companies, the customer is an engineer, a network administrator, or at least someone proficient in computers and technology. To them, brand is irrelevant, while value, articulated through positioning, is paramount. These folks require information on how to use the product and why it best serves their purposes.

This failure to identify key audiences, and thus evolve its position or value proposition, is what contributed to the melt-down at Kmart. The company forgot who its audience was and how it was evolving. If you have kids, you probably know the location of the nearest Target. Wal-Mart, too.

Both Target and Wal-Mart took Kmart's position as a low-cost, commodity goods provider, enhanced it with service and product depth, and left Kmart without a value proposition.

Kmart also made the mistake in thinking that its long-time leadership as a discount retailer translated into a value proposition. Many companies think that leadership is the same as positioning. But leadership and value do not always equate.

In hi-tech, there are only a few leaders - Sun Microsystems in workstations, Oracle in database software, Microsoft in desktop software, and Intel in microprocessors, to name some of the most prominent. Revenues and market share support their claims to leadership. Most importantly, their customers consider them leaders. While these companies probably do have brand in their respective markets, their position is well recognized and understood.

This leadership-as-positioning thinking plagues many start-ups. By definition, a company cannot be new and a leader at the same time. It is an oxy-moron. In addition, claiming leadership too early in the game removes you from leveraging a key competitive advantage, which is basically criticism of, and positioning against, the leader. When new to a market space, the strategy is to attack the leader by demonstrating significant advantage and value. This forces the established company to acknowledge the new entrant as a player, providing instant credibility, and position.

The key to a successful marketing campaign is to demonstrate value. This is best done through positioning, and is equally true in good economic times and bad.

Positioning is dynamic and fluid. Yesterday's unique position is today's commodity provider. Useful positioning should describe what the company is and what it wants to be.

So remember: brand is nice, but positioning is better.

Rob Gelphman
Gelphman Associates