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It's easy to just go through the motions of a brand-positioning project and come out with an average, nondistinctive outcome everyone can feel good about.

But why settle for less than great?

I've had the opportunity to develop brand-positioning platforms for more than 25 years, in every possible setting. Here is what I have learned about what can go wrong—common mistakes and what to do about them.

1. A Poorly Defined Business Problem to Kick-Off the Project

Clearly defining the problem you are trying to solve is an essential step in any positioning development process. But each problem statement has built-in assumptions that often limit the ability to identify a truly novel and relevant solution.

Also, problems are often stated within a specific context (market situation, corporate culture, preconceived notions, etc.) that put a major constraint on your ability to identify novel solutions.

Most teams do not spend enough time on this part of the process.

2. An Obsessive Focus on What the Audience Wants

The "benefit" is obviously an important element of any brand-positioning statement. And in some rare instances, a brand benefit is so compelling that it creates enough traction and appeal for the brand on its own. But that is usually the exception rather than the rule.

What is often more important is for your audience to understand how your brand uniquely delivers on the benefit, why it does so, and in what context. The "brand benefit" is only one of 26 potential angles to look at.

3. Letting the Loudest Voice in the Room Dictate the Ideation Session

We've all experienced brainstorming sessions in which one participant hijacks the process—either because he is particularly vocal or he has a preconceived notion of what the solution should be. Or she is the highest paid and most senior person in the room and no one dares contradict her ideas (good leaders are aware of this phenomenon and act accordingly).

You need to ensure that doesn't happen, either by carefully deciding whom to invite to the work sessions or by moderating the brainstorming accordingly.

4. Focusing on Category Consumers Rather Than Real People

People have a lot on their minds, and the chances that your brand and product are part of their top priorities and concerns is almost zero.

So, when developing a brand-positioning platform, it is important to understand people's life circumstances, their overall self-image, and even the social and cultural context in which they use your category and brand.

That simple shift in perspective will enable you to speak about your brand in a way that connects—with relevance to people and their lives.

5. A Lack of Insight and Lack of an 'Idea' in Your Brand-Positioning Statement

Good brand-positioning statements capture an idea that is either based on a unique insight or that resolves an inherent tension (brand, people, culture). Weak positioning statements usually capture an "ideal" but boring summary of everything the customer desires.

Yes, moms want their kids to be happy and also eat their vegetables. Yes, moms have a chaotic life. And yes, Millennials want to do some good. Those are not insights; they are generally accepted truths that are not specific to your brand.

6. The Expectation That Differentiation Will Just 'Happen' as the Brand-Positioning Platform Is Brought to Life

This is often the default justification either for a weak and generic positioning platform (see the previous point) or for positioning platforms that are the result of group compromise. It's lazy. It delegates the responsibility and pressure onto the design or creative team, making their job much more difficult.

A strong and powerful brand-positioning statement captures an inherent tension that guides a creative solution. It is already interesting, exciting, and energizing in itself.

7. A Lack of Diverse and Divergent Perspectives

Companies usually have their established models and frameworks (which are basically assumptions about how the world works), and senior marketers usually have methods that have worked for them in the past they use over and over again (though that doesn't necessarily mean they'll work in a changed environment).

Such behavior is completely normal—but also extremely limiting because it leaves out a lot of relevant perspectives on how to solve your business problem.

The problem is further amplified by the drive in the marketing world to always come up with new buzzwords that promise to make marketing easier. "Cultural branding" and "brand purpose" are two such examples. And although both perspectives can be effective in specific situations, they are completely useless in others.

Adopting the idea that "cultural branding" or "brand purpose" is the cure for all business problems means you'll be leaving out 96% of potential solutions to solve your business problem.

8. Ignoring the Importance of Alignment Within the Organization

Brand-positioning statements are pointless if they are not embraced by the entire organization and all the constituents and stakeholders within the organization. You can have a killer positioning platform, but if your R&D team, your sales team, or your international (or local) marketing team don't buy into it and get excited by it, it's worthless. Its implementation will fail.

In politically-driven organizations or organizations with decentralized P&Ls, the easy way out (which I see a lot) is to develop a brand-positioning platform in a silo (away from all distracting influences), get a senior officer to approve it, and only then try to socialize it within the organization.

Such an approach is the path of least resistance, but it will fail 9 times out of 10. It is therefore much smarter and more effective to allow for input from the various constituents and thus create a sense of collective ownership that will be part of implementing the brand.


9. Writing Your Brand-Positioning Statement in a Workshop

I've witnessed countless workshops in which the facilitator tries to get the group to actually write the brand-positioning statement and agree on every single word in the document before leaving the workshop.

The hope, I assume, is that everyone involved can then be held responsible for the document ("Hey you agreed to it, you helped write it").

At my company, we never write the brand-positioning document in the workshops we facilitate. Instead, we get the group to agree on the core ideas and elements of the document and then finalize it after the workshop with a smaller group (usually the project team) and, often, with the help of a copywriter.

That approach will save you a lot of time and headaches.

This article is based on an excerpt from The Brand Positioning Workbook: A Simple How-to Guide to More Compelling Brand Positionings, Faster by Ulli Appelbaum.

More Resources on Brand-Positioning

26 Universal Questions for Brand-Positioning (and Creating Your Brand Story)

Brand-Positioning and Customer Insights: Debbie MacInnis and Allen Weiss on Marketing Smarts [Podcast]

Be Positioned or Get Positioned: Do's and Don'ts for Transforming the Perception of Your Brand

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image of Ulli Appelbaum

Ulli Appelbaum is an international brand strategist and the founder of First The Trousers Then The Shoes Inc., a brand strategy and research boutique that helps brands achieve their business potential by creating compelling positioning platforms and brand stories.

LinkedIn: Ulli Appelbaum