Developing a Winning Brand Positioning

By Scott Wilkerson, Ellen Brett and Daniel Sargent

Every Marketer knows how important it is to have a great brand positioning. Just think of any iconic brand today and you can be certain that a well-crafted, thoughtful positioning is behind their success. However, for CMOs or Brand Managers looking to position or re-position their corporate or product brand, it can feel like a daunting task. Given the seemingly unlimited number of options, competing stakeholder agendas, unclear timelines, and fuzzy ROI, brand positioning can present Marketers with a variety of potential challenges.

While the creative aspect of contemplating all the brand possibilities can be stimulating, the breadth of the task can also feel overwhelming at times! Nevertheless, these challenges are not insurmountable. Armed with a comprehensive set of frameworks to guide decision making, an efficient and proven approach to creative development and testing, and the right set of metrics, you can streamline the brand positioning process while significantly strengthening its impact. This article shares HawkPartners’ best practices gleaned from 20+ years of helping Marketers at leading global enterprises successfully position or reposition their brands.

Putting Brand Positioning in Context

Before diving into best practices, it’s helpful to align on terminology. What exactly is brand positioning? It’s far more than a tagline or slogan. Marketing icon Philip Kotler defines it as “the act of designing the company’s offering and image to occupy a distinctive place in the mind of the target market.” In other words, positioning is what you want the brand to represent in terms of key associations, including how it’s different from competitors.

Although brand positioning is not typically customer-facing, it should provide a North Star that clearly defines the benefits you want to communicate about your brand across all internal and external communications, advertising campaigns and promotional materials. Keeping this definition and objective in mind throughout the initiative can help to keep disparate stakeholders aligned.

HawkPartners’ Approach

In our work advising Marketers on positioning strategy, we’ve observed that a key challenge they often face is knowing where to start and when to end (i.e., how do you know when you have landed on a great positioning?). We’ve developed a comprehensive and flexible approach that combines marketing strategy, creative development, and customer insights to guide this process smoothly and efficiently. It’s done in four differentiated phases:

Phase 1: Assess Current Brand Assets

When embarking on a brand positioning (or repositioning), Marketers first need a clear foundational understanding of three things:

  1. The brand or company’s desired future goals
  2. The needs and perceptions of target consumers and other key stakeholders (both conscious and nonconscious)
  3. The competitive landscape within their category

Answering these questions can be accomplished by a variety of techniques, including…

  • Customer research, using unique approaches to mine deep-seated emotions, needs and perceptions, as well as understand where the brand has “permission to play”
  • Analysis using Behavioral Economics principles to understand the cognitive biases and heuristics that influence nonconscious consumer behavior
  • Interviews or workshops with key internal stakeholders (Marketing, Sales, Account Management, etc.) to understand and align on the future vision for the brand
  • Secondary research on the competitive landscape to understand where the potential “white space” is, both today and in the future
  • (For professional services brands) An employee survey to assess what brand values are most important

Phase 1 typically concludes with one or more stakeholder workshops designed to help the team internalize the insights and gain alignment on next steps. In addition, it’s often helpful to share these results and solicit preliminary feedback from internal stakeholders ranging from sales executives to Product Managers to board members. The more opportunities you provide these audiences to give input early in the process, the smoother the adoption of the eventual positioning will be on the back end.

HawkPartners recently employed a combination of these tactics when working with a global food & beverage company looking for the most effective way to position a new product as an innovative brand. We first met with key client stakeholders to understand their hypotheses about future innovation opportunities in the category. We then conducted research among their target consumers – including a mobile diary study and focus groups – with the goal of exploring consumers’ existing habits and perceptions. At our Phase 1 workshop, we helped the client connect the dots and align on a core set of ideas to be further developed in Phase 2.

Phase 2: Determine Your Aspirational Brand*

While Phase 1 is heavily analytical, Phase 2 is far more creative. This is where Marketing teams spend time brainstorming potentially unique and differentiated ways to talk about their brand. For some, this is the most fun part, but for some this process can feel overwhelming due to the sheer number of options (potentially infinite!) that could be chosen for their brand’s positioning. Without the right guidance, this process can become a time sink for your team.

HawkPartners Brand Positioning Framework can provide value by streamlining this process. It was designed to help focus early ideation sessions when the team is still considering a variety of positioning options for the brand. The framework helps to facilitate stakeholder dialogue and debate around which broad ideas best fit with the brand’s business strategy by organizing concepts and ideas into several key categories.

Discussing case examples of how other brands have positioned themselves within each category can also help to surface risks and opportunities for your brand. With the aid of the insights gleaned in Phase 1, use of this framework allows the Brand team to quickly prioritize which brand territories are most viable for further creative exploration and testing. In our experience, this can increase the breadth of new ideas shared during brainstorming sessions while reducing the number of meetings spent on ideation.

HawkPartners recently employed this framework when helping a US-based financial services company re-position its corporate brand. We presented the framework to a cross-functional core team tasked with leading the re-positioning, led by the CMO. Based on our internal and external stakeholder analysis in Phase 1, we were able to quickly eliminate several categories that didn’t align with the team’s goals or current customer perceptions of the brand. We instead focused the team on 4 categories that appeared to offer the best opportunities, and then spent time ideating as a group and further prioritizing the proposed narrower list of concepts. What could have taken days or weeks of deliberation was completed in a three-hour workshop.

An ideal outcome from the ideation session(s) is alignment on 4-6 potential categories/subcategories that have the best potential to tell your brand’s story. From there, Brand Positioning Territories are developed to explain and codify each distinct idea among the chosen categories, and these Territories can be further refined and evaluated in Phase 3.

Phase 3: Customer Feedback, Refinement & Socialization

As Territories/concepts are further distilled, it’s time to get more feedback from your target customers, using a variety of consumer research techniques (1:1 interviews, online surveys, mobile diaries, focus groups, etc.). We recommend aiming to test 3-5 distinct territories, making sure that each territory represents a unique idea and not just variations on the same themes.

At this point you may be wondering how to know which territory is best for your specific brand? While each organization has different goals, we recommend some combination of the following criteria for evaluating each positioning territory:

  1. Relevance – Does it address a relevant need valued by your customers?
  2. Benefit-Driven – Does it focus on functional/emotional benefits (vs. just product attributes)?
  3. Distinctiveness – Is differentiating compared to other products in its category?
  4. Credible – Can your team actually deliver on the brand promise?
  5. Strategically-Aligned – Is it aligned with your long-term corporate or product strategy?

After completing this round of customer research, applying the above criteria, and regrouping with your team, you should be in a great position to decide on an optimal positioning. This can take the form of a final brand territory, a positioning statement, a positioning map, or some combination of these approaches.

Once a final brand positioning is chosen, additional steps are likely needed to ensure smooth buy-in throughout the organization. For product brands, this may involve reviewing/socializing your work with your CMO, Product Managers, and Sales team. For corporate brands, you may additionally want to get buy-in from the Executive Team and even the Board of Directors, as well as share highlights via a company-wide forum (e.g., a town hall-style meeting). If you’ve laid the groundwork in earlier phases by soliciting input from these audiences throughout the process, the buy-in will be more likely to be aligned with your team’s recommended decision on the brand’s future direction.

Phase 4: Develop Implementation Plan

Once you’ve aligned on a brand positioning strategy, it’s almost time to execute! However, it’s critical to provide some tactical implementation guidance to your internal marketing/comms teams and your agency partners – typically in the form of a Communications Plan. This plan often includes…

  • Brand Voice guidelines 
  • Brand Values 
  • Brand Messaging 
  • Customized segment plans  
  • Earned and paid media guidelines 
  • KPIs/Metrics 
  • Implementation schedule 
  • Estimated budgets 
  • FAQs 

The Communications Plan can be developed internally or in collaboration with a trusted partner. For example, HawkPartners often works in collaboration with the internal Marketing/Comms team and/or their Agency of Record to develop this Plan. In addition, these plans can take many different forms and have varying levels of detail, but regardless of format, it’s typically a critical tool to link the positioning strategy to execution.

While creating a strong brand positioning can seem daunting, being equipped with the right mindset, frameworks and strategic partner will enable you to successfully and efficiently position your brand for breakthrough growth.

*Note: HawkPartners can play different roles at this stage, depending on client needs, ranging from leading the creative process itself to working alongside the client’s creative team or outside agency to provide discipline and analytic rigor to the process.)

Connect with our team to develop a game-changing positioning for your brand.