“Coffee Talk With Linda Richman” was a character sketch Mike Myers created during his time on SNL. I loved the silly chat show when it aired in the early 1990’s. (So stamp a date on me [shrugs].) A recurring gag was to occupy the audience with a paradox for a beat or two as the host, Linda, recovered from momentary drama: “I’ll give you a topic. Rhode Island is neither a road nor is it an island. Discuss.”
Brand positioning is a similar sticky wicket. “Brand” and “positioning” are two entirely distinct ideas, and shouldn’t be shmushed into one phrase. Organizations that use the two ideas interchangeably risk behaving a lot like the mythical ouroboros, endlessly eating its own tail.
This wasn’t always the case. Back when options were fewer and competition abided by a Rule of Three, positioning looked a lot more like branding. I worked extensively with retail brands at the time, and retail was a stable industry dominated by one channel: the store. We talked a lot about branding “within the department store sector,” or “expanding the positioning by adding merchandise lines.” Brands and market positions were more akin to crayons in the same box – different in color, but all made of the same materials.
Slow, predictable industry development is quite rare nowadays. There should really be only one, not three, of everything, store or otherwise. The principles of branding and positioning have evolved as a result. Both are still crucial for marketers and their markets. But where positioning has remained a solidly market-facing principle, branding has become something you do not only to win over the market out there, but to guide the market in here. Positioning is about adjusting to the cyclical or rapid changes in the marketing landscape. Branding is about carving your own path.
A brand is like currency. Strong brands are financial assets, leading to everything from price premiums to longevity outlasting the original business. Marketers use brands to broker conversations with their targets. The conversations themselves are comparative, and that’s why positioning is so darn useful – “My brand’s different than the other guys you might be including in your consideration set.”
But brands are important inside the organization, too. Good brands shape, and are shaped by, organizational culture. Brands need to be directly tied to the organization’s vision, mission and values. Brand strategy, which includes brand architecture and line logic, are important to business planning. Indeed, branding touches all business critical functions. Well-tended brands can also aid in longer term financial decisions – “These ideas are great for business, but do they make sense for the brand?” “Does the brand give us the freedom to move into these new areas?”
The complexity of the branding discipline must work beyond marketing, yes. The reverse is that marketing departments, who are the most likely to own the branding function, should weigh the risks of engaging marketing partners who look at branding only as a marketing weapon. Instead, look for an agency accustomed to putting the value of marketing initiatives into the proper context.
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