Brand positioning vs. brand stories: it’s really both, not one or the other

A new paper by the Verse Group claims that brand positioning is dead, and in its place comes brand storytelling. Brand positioning, as Verse notes in this release on the subject, is the “theory that a brand should own one idea in a person’s mind.” Brand storytelling, in contrast, relies on a “complex interplay of emotions, experience, and sensations” to get the message across.

What’s this all about to begin with? Verse is responding to an Advertising Research Foundation report, based on three years of research, which found that storytelling-type TV advertisements are more effective than positioning-based TV advertisements at engaging the viewer.

According to an article in Brandweek (October 29, 2007), the ARF findings were clear. A total of 33 ads in 12 categories were analyzed by 14 “leading emotion and physiological research firms.” The study found, for example, that “Bud's iconic ‘Whassup’ (campaign) registered more powerfully with consumers than Miller Lite low-carb ads that essentially just said, ‘We're better than the other guys.’ Why? Because Bud told a story about friends connected by a special greeting.”

The ARF report emphasizes, as I have stated repeatedly, that brands “co-create” meaning with their consumers, rather than straightforwardly imposing meaning on them. The co-creation process is enhanced when brands are presented as stories rather than as one-dimensional aspects of meaning.

At the same time, the Brandweek article notes, storytelling ads are only “truly effective” when “the plots tie in to a positive brand message.” “When the emotional peaks align with the presence of the brand, or the impact of the brand in the story, the emotional connection with the brand is greatest,” says ARF Senior Vice President, Research and Standards Bill Cook in the article.

The reality is, it is brand positioning + brand stories that makes the brand work, not brand stories alone, and Verse Group misunderstands this completely. In trying to make a name for itself—ironically, in trying to position itself when the company is anti-positioning—Verse misses the mark. The company states, in very strong terms, that “‘brand positioning’ is perhaps the most misguided marketing idea in the past 30 years.” Nothing could be further from the truth. It is when brands are positioned effectively, and storied effectively, that they resonate with the target audience.

Verse is trying to put a semblance of ROI on brand stories. It says in its response to the ARF report that “paid media spending (is) estimated by Nielsen to be over $150 billion in 2006,” so that “even a modest increase of 10% in effectiveness would be equivalent to $15 billion.” Verse wants to “own” brand stories—it wants to be positioned as the company you turn to when you need one. But in the Brandweek article, Mark Truss, director of brand intelligence at JWT, cautions that the industry still doesn’t see the ROI, and therefore “marketers and advertisers are not going to embrace (this approach).”

My advice is to incorporate brand stories where possible, but center them on a strong positioning. This is the best approach to take to increase brand value.

Global "tribes" and branding

The Wall Street Journal (December 10) has a story about marketers closing in on global "tribes" who are united more by demographics than by nationality. The article gives the example of baby boomers, a transnational "tribe" that may well need hearing devices as they get older. Phonak Group is targeting boomers, who dread aging, by calling the device a "personal communication assistant." Multilingual advertisements all feature the same type of image--"youthful-looking customers who lead interesting lives." The CEO of Phonak says that baby boomers "all have a similar psychology--if we take away the stigma and show them a product that is high-tech and hip and easily improves the quality of their lives" they will buy it.

Other examples are teenagers "who socialize on the Internet and like the same music and fashions" and "working women trying to juggle careers and families."

The idea from a brand perspective is to "focus on the similarities instead of the differences," says Melanie Healey, president, Global Health and Feminine Care at P&G.

In an increasingly international world, it pays to be mindful of "tribes," and to cater to's an idea worth pursuing. In fact, I wonder whether consumers of global brands are not themselves kinds of tribes, whether the Prada buyer in the U.S. is similar to the Prada buyer in France or England or Spain. If so, we may be wasting our time trying to cater to people by their sociodemographics...we could just cluster them by the types of brands they buy. Certain brand tribes affiliate with certain other brand tribes, and you can just go from there.

People are increasingly tending to define themselves by multiple brands, not just one or two.

This brings to mind an interesting Harvard Business Review article from June 2001, "See Your Brands Through Your Customers' Eyes," that talks about "A new, three-dimensional approach to mapping brand portfolios" that "reveals the complex relationships between your brands and those of other companies." It notes that "Volkswagen and Trek team up to bundle bicycles with cars. American Airlines, Citibank, and Visa jointly offer a credit card. Subaru markets an L.L. Bean edition of its Outback station wagon. Dell stamps Microsoft and Intel logos on its computers. Toys R Us partners with to launch an on-line toy store. The interweaving of brands, now commonplace in business, is changing the rules of brand management."

The article notes that a tool is needed to look at brands the way they "actually appear to customers. In this article, we’ll describe such a tool and show how it can be used to create multidimensional maps—we call them brand portfolio molecules—that reveal the relationships among diverse brands and provide a powerful new way to think about brand strategy."

The point for tribes and branding is, it pays to understand the unique power of a brand, and how it aligns with other brands, when one is trying to classify a global tribe.

Also, an interesting document at this UK tourism site talks about "brand clusters" in terms of the type of vacation people like to take.

"To capitalise on this, Towards 2015 will concentrate on the development and promotion of what are known as ‘Brand Clusters’. These clusters define the sort of holiday our customers want in terms of the experience they are looking for. For example, there is the ‘sheer indulgence’ cluster which is characterised by fine dining, pampering, treats, luxury and celebration. Then, there is the ‘close to nature’ cluster which trades on the ‘wow’ factor of the South West’s uniquely diverse landscape, the fresh air, the wildlife and the stunning views."

That is another way of separating people into tribes...according to the type of branded experience they want to have.

One can keep going, but the point is to be imaginative about tribes, and not limited to the same old thinking (Internet teenagers, baby boomers, working mothers).

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