Rethinking marketing and branding
The exact definition of brand positioning has been a topic of debate for ages between academics and marketers. Although the debate centers on the “how” of positioning, but there is consensus on the “what” of positioning — which is the outcome. The outcome is simple — it is about occupying a space in the consumers’ minds wherein a brand has a distinct identity (in terms of its external look and feel, a need it satisfies or a problem it solves in a unique way).
Previously, and I will leave the time period out for debate, the modes of achieving a distinct positioning space in a consumers’ mind was primarily two folds — product superiority behind the brand label and creative strength of brand communications.
The domain of brand positioning has now evolved to a point wherein achieving market success is now primarily dependent on “how you are selling a brand” and not “what you are selling as a brand”. So, we now have new or evolved modes of achieving brand positioning, which has gone beyond product superiority and creative strength.
The first thing that comes to every critics mind is that any other mode of achieving brand positioning, which is not around product superiority and creative communications strength, is a pseudo-mode (and is aimed at fooling consumers). But in reality it cannot be farther from the truth.
The fundamental reason why brand positioning as a domain has evolved is primarily due to the evolution of how a consumer becomes aware, gather knowledge, develops preference and actually makes a brand purchase. We all know that the traditional brand funnel is dead, and one of the significant drivers behind its demise is the emergence of channels.
We do not have brand evaluation and brand purchase channels anymore — we have influencer channels, interaction channels, information channels and experiential channels (and a consumer can get exposed to all these channels without even coming close to making an actual purchase). Some interesting examples here:
- Having a point of view as an influencer channel: Brands have increasingly started taking a point of view on political, social and cultural issues and the momentum is increasing. Having a point of view is about indirectly or directly applying influence, which is also referred to as ‘brand activism’
In this thoughtful piece from Wharton, one of the key highlights is that “consumers increasingly expect brands and companies to have a point of view.”
The key inference here is that if as a consumer you are expecting a brand or an organisation to have a point of view, you are open to be influenced if that point of view is strong, relevant and impactful. For you to be influenced, you may be miles away from entering a brand’s purchase funnel. There is a need to distinguish between a channel and a platform though. A platform is a means of delivering an influential message, while the channel is the message in itself.
- Information channels do not only provide information, but increasingly have a direct or indirect point of view: The platforms for accessing information were the first to be impacted by the so-called digital earthquake. Information transformed itself from being a unidirectional producer to consumer item to a “complex network of producers, consumers, those who adapt, those who evolve and those who transform”. Information is increasingly being subjected to a game of Chinese whispers, which keeps on getting complex by the second
Information channels as a mode of brand positioning have become more powerful than traditional modes of advertising and even to a large extent, more powerful than advertising on digital mediums. How has that happened? The factors that have driven this leads us to the next kind of channel, which are interactive channels. Long admired as the brand that taught the world how to make coffee drinking an experience, consider its latest dilemma (no one is immune to the winds of change it seems).
The world’s biggest coffee brand’s challenge to engage with customers is encapsulated in the following quote from the current CEO:
“…engaging, digital and mobile relationship with customers that is threaded into a branded, immersive, experiential retail destination”
….in a simple word “interactive”. This is a powerful example of how a humble act of drinking a cup of coffee can transform into a need that has interactive, immersive and experiential dimensions (which in turn makes it difficult for brands who invented the path to follow it).
- Interactive channels allow the processing of information in asymmetrical forms: For brands that are willing to take a leap into the uncertain right from the very beginning, ‘asymmetry’ is a brand positioning dimension and an interactive channel is a mode.
Information asymmetry is a driving force behind the concept of an impulse purchase. To link it back to the Starbucks dilemma, the concept of coffee drinking evolved through the following phases over the years:
Making a morning coffee at home (functional / routine) → Having a coffee alone or with a group at a coffee shop (emotional / social / occasion driven) → Expecting a coffee drinking occasion with experiential bliss (higher order expectation / social / alone / routine).
The needs from a coffee drinking occasion is coming full circle — from a ‘routine hygiene morning need’ it has becoming a ‘routine hygiene experiential interactive branded coffee shop need’. When a need is routine, impact of asymmetric information is less of a factor as there is less need to make a choice (thinking of Mark Zuckerberg wearing the same T-shirt everyday). When a need is created, asymmetric information has a wider influential role.
What has all this to do with brand positioning? Interactive channels give consumers the freedom to experience and form perceptions about a brand with multiple degrees of freedom. The brand needs to hold on to its core values and beliefs. Interactive channels are the fundamental building blocks of occasion-driven positioning. But after a point, the variety of mental positioning converges into a holistic mindset. After that level has been achieved, the brand needs to find the next platform on which it can allow mental positioning to proliferate.
“We can call these levels positioning hierarchy cut-offs. To move beyond a cut-off, positioning needs to expand to satisfy a higher order need. After a point, needs reach a saturation level, which is when brands start suffering from positioning lethargy.”
- Experiential channels are a culmination of information and interactive channels working together: We process information in interactive ways, which creates an experience. The hardcore critics amongst us would argue that solitary reading of an engaging book is an experience, which is true, but there is still information processing involved in it. When it comes to brands, ‘experience’ has already entered the positioning mix, and it won’t be long when we will start hearing about the ‘PE’ of marketing, instead of the 4Ps or 5Ps.
Both virtual and augmented reality developments and their application in selling brands have significantly transformed the way experiential channels work. But innovative work is also being done in real life physical environments. A very recent example is Apple’s global roll out plans for a new store concept — “Gathering Space”
With emphasis on design, photography and coding using Apple products, this new store design concept is evolving Apple’s brand positioning through an experiential channel, and again without any direct impetus to enter the purchase funnel.
If we were to bring together the defining characteristics of the channels that have redefined brand positioning, they would probably read like the below:
- Enabling transformation of brand messages
- Provides a continuity of experience (discovery to loyalty)
- Expands avenues of potential brand applications
- Creates, defines and sustains communities built around brands
- Allows for creative and free exploration of the brand and its application
- Provides access to unfiltered opinions, thoughts and feedback
- Infuses technology even when the brand in itself may be far away from technology
- Expands the possibilities of how the brand can be perceived
- Provides brands with enhanced visual platforms to explore
The key question that brand builders should ask themselves is whether using channels create brand positioning dimensions that are difficult to live up to. Are we reaching a stage in brand building wherein the use of influencer, information, interactive and experiential channels are creating higher order needs to quickly for brands to evolve into? Are higher order needs now becoming routine and hygiene? Do consumers now start engaging with a category with a set of complex and sophisticated needs right at the onset? How much is the free reign of allowing brand positioning to evolve responsible for this?
This article was originally published in LinkedIn Pulse.