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Think BR: The paradox of positioning

Don't play it safe when positioning your brand, writes Nick Liddell, director of brand strategy, Dragon Rouge.

Nick Liddell, director of brand strategy, Dragon Rouge

Nick Liddell, director of brand strategy, Dragon Rouge

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Positioning a brand should be a relatively easy matter.

You work out which audiences are most vital to the success of your organisation. You understand what makes them tick. Then you tailor your products, service and communication based on this understanding. Great.

But the reality is rarely like this. Positioning is difficult. Because fundamentally, positioning involves sacrifice.

A lot of the time, the issue is with the first step: working out which audiences are most vital to the success of your organisation.

This requires us to separate an organisation’s audiences into segments and then to decide which one or two we want to focus on.

So far, this still seems pretty easy, but let me frame the exact same activity in another way: This requires us to separate an organisation’s audiences into segments and then to decide which five or six to ignore.

Suddenly things start to feel a little bit uncomfortable. It seems a bit mean to say we’re going to turn our backs on 80% of the people we could be talking to.

This notion is particularly unsavoury for mass market brands, where the idea is that your appeal should be as broad as possible.

Disregarding potentially relevant audiences feels shameful and, more importantly, it seems limiting from a commercial perspective.

Why would you deliberately fish in a smaller pond?

It seems odd that the majority of clients we speak to feel perfectly comfortable with the idea of prioritising audiences - or occasions, or needs - but are deeply uncomfortable with the idea of de-prioritising. They wish they could enjoy the benefits of the former without the consequences of the latter.

But when it comes to positioning, all of our experience leads us to a simple conclusion: You can’t.

The act of prioritising one group of people necessarily involves de-prioritising everybody else. Trying to communicate to everybody is inefficient and ineffective, resulting in beige brands that are equally unappealing to all. So prioritisation is necessary.

There’s no paradox here yet. It’s a pretty basic logic that focusing on a particular audience must necessarily come at the expense of all others.

But here’s the weird thing: focusing on one particular audience will actually make you more desirable to everybody. It’s an idea I have to admit that I struggle to articulate clearly because it seems so perverse.

The best way I can sum it up is this: The more specific you make your target audience, the broader your brand’s appeal is likely to be.

This is the flipside of the observation that being non-specific in an attempt to appeal to everybody usually results in appealing to nobody.

Targeting a specific audience, occasion or need gives people something particular to identify with.

Hopefully the audience you are seeking to target will identify with your brand in the way you intend.

But this doesn’t mean that the audiences you’ve chosen to de-prioritise will necessarily be turned-off your brand.

Instead, they will identify with it in their own way. Part of the fun of branding is that non-target audiences frequently appropriate brands for their own devices: hip hop culture has identified with luxury brands like Timberland, Tommy Hilfiger and Courvoisier in ways that the owners of those brands could not - and did not - anticipate; Axe targets 18-25 year-olds but the average user is aged 36.

It’s inevitable that people will interpret brands differently, based on their own values and experiences. In fact, this is desirable because this is how personal attachments form between people and brands.

It’s much more likely that this will happen if you give a person something specific to respond to - even if he or she isn’t the audience you had in mind when you developed the brand.

Positioning a brand to mean something specific will not limit the ways in which people understand it. When it comes to brand positioning, the riskiest thing you can do is to play it safe.

 Nick Liddell, director of brand strategy, Dragon Rouge

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