Brand Positioning 101: How to differentiate your brand for growth
A hospitality case study with industry players Airbnb and Generator Hostels
tl;dr — The brand positioning workflow and the brand identity prism are two tools growth marketers and content creators can use to align their value proposition and messaging. Well-defined, ever-green value differentiators and purposeful, customer-focused branding can be key to growing a company. Airbnb and Generator Hostels are two hospitality companies that on the surface do not seem like direct competitors. Yet, while exploring their unique value propositions and branding, it would seem their spheres are beginning to merge as companies try to become more social and experiential.
HAVE YOU DONE YOUR HOMEWORK?
“We are hoping to become a lifestyle brand….”
“We are aiming to be the coolest, most trusted brand on the market….”
Those are lofty, exciting statements! Yet, we’ve all heard the stories, or maybe even been an employee at a company like this: fledgling companies searching for the voice of their content, the identity of their brand, and/or the fit of their product on the marketplace without putting in serious pre-work.
Job advertisements abound for growth marketers and content creators to work with products that have yet to achieve legitimate market fit or companies without a clear strategic vision of their identity. How can we expect to grow a product that doesn’t fit consumers needs and isn’t communicated in a voice that’s effective and consistent?
Two tools that can help us achieve big results early on are the Brand Positioning Workflow and the Brand Identity Prism. These tools can help companies and their brands define their position and identity more robustly and concretely. Sitting down early and often to brainstorm and evaluate these factors can lead to seamless, targeted messaging and content. Developing a clear, well-defined unique value proposition is what can truly help companies grow.
The case study used to present the tools compares two companies that are wildly popular in their respective hospitality sector, and have sharply defined brands and value propositions:
• Airbnb, a perennial favorite of older millennials looking to “live like a local,” is expanding its product line to include activities, magazines and guidebooks, and festivals, and has grown to be well-known and trusted internationally in under a decade.
• Generator Hostels, a European powerhouse in the industry, focuses on its “experience and design” by combining affordable luxury accommodations with social events and spaces, and is finally launching in North America this year.
Some might say that comparing Airbnb with Generator Hostels is like comparing apples to carrots or even Goliath to David. But in today’s digital world, where consumers are searching for more avenues with deeper social connections, it could be argued that the new wave of luxury hostels have the upper hand, and Airbnb is playing catch-up by launching new social-based product verticals.
However, delving deeper into their brands reveals many overlaps…
Airbnb, launched in 2008, is a platform for listing and renting unique accommodations around the world. The platform now lists carefully curated travel activities, called experiences. They have developed an ethos around globalization, community, diversity, and wanderlust. Their current valuation sits at $30B. In Silicon Valley, the name Airbnb is synonymous with unicorn, as their platform disrupted and transformed the hospitality industry in just a few short years.
Generator Hostels, launched in 1995 and began its major expansion in 2011, is a chain of design-led, photogenic hostels with bars and social spaces. Their design aesthetic is centered on bright and modern colors, with intricate details and rich textures emphasizing their ethos of immersive experiences. They were bought last year for $450M, with the private equity firm promising to invest an additional $300M. They are now the leading hostel firm in Europe, and looking to bring that hype to the United States.
THE BRAND POSITIONING WORKFLOW
The brand positioning workflow takes teams step-by-step to create a product’s unique value proposition. The workflow is designed as a thought exercise in identifying a product’s unique place in the market, and how that differs from potential competitors and substitutes.
Once a company has developed an understanding of the competition (steps one and two), gaps in the market (step three), and how their product fills a gap or solves a pain point in the market (step four), they should be able to start stitching together a coherent value proposition (steps five and six).
Note: Pain points can be real or perceived. Generator Hostels addressed a real pain point, as there was a demand for safer, cleaner, more appealing hostels. Airbnb created a perceived pain point, disrupting an old market and creating a new one entirely, as the market didn’t know it needed a new way to rent private property.
Airbnb’s first value proposition in 2009 stated “Forget hotels: stay with a local while traveling,” which followed this brand positioning thought process perfectly. Airbnb deduced their biggest competition would be hotels, and understood the gap they filled in the market was providing more authentic, local accommodation options. They immediately identified their differentiation from other rental sites too, by focusing on the hospitality aspect of living in a local’s home. Other value proposition taglines since their rebranding include “Live There,” “Belong Anywhere,” and Welcome Home,” which focus on their ethos of community and belonging (see brand identity section).
Conversely, Generator Hostels’ unique value propositions until their recent rebranding focused on party atmosphere, budget pricing, and clean facilities from a leading hostel company. (The propositions were also incredibly wordy, sometimes two paragraphs long. This is not a best practice.) These wordy propositions could be the differentiating factor for a number of “leading hostel companies” in Europe, and offer nothing unique. Generator’s new proposition, however, speaks to their differentiation. “Experience and design-led accommodation” now begins to tells a story around their bespoke, curated, social offerings (see brand identity section).
THE BRAND IDENTITY PRISM
Once an arsenal of information has been collected and synthesized to help craft a unique value proposition, this value needs to be effectively communicated to potential customers. One way to help tailor the message is to formulate and solidify brand identity. Knowing a brand’s personality and the self-image customers want to obtain when they use a brand is key for messaging, tone, and content.
The brand identity prism relates to the six factors of a brand’s image. Factors on the right of the prism are those created within the company, and develop from internal stimuli; factors on the left are created with the help of external stimuli or perception. Factors at the top are related to the way the company wants its brand to be consumed; factors at the bottom are related to the way customers actually consume the brand. Let’s look at these six image factors in more detail:
1. Culture: What is the history of the company’s origins and how does that relate to the brand’s evolution?
2. Personality: Who are the people portrayed in advertisements or in other content (blogs, management, videos) and what are their traits?
3. Physical Facets: What is the tangible product or service sold, what are the visual elements of the website and logo, and what words could be used to describe these items?
4. Relationship: How does the brand reach out, connect with, and empower its customers?
5. Reflection: Who are the customers, what do they do or aspire to do, and how do they use the product?
6. Self-Image: Who do customers want to transform into and how does that make them feel when they use the product?
Once a company has brainstormed and built wording and visuals around this identity, it can use these words and ideas to craft messages, guide imagery, and ultimately, develop a unique value proposition more precisely. Below are the six brand identity factors for Airbnb and Generator Hostels. It’s easy to see how these ideas and words play into messaging and value proposition, and how these two companies may be more competitive in the months to come.
Finally, taking the results from the Branding Prism exercise, companies can recycle the process by circling back to the brand positioning workflow, steps five and six, to write and communicate more meaningful, unique value propositions. These exercises are intended to be interactive, iterative processes and produce ever-green results.
Companies such as Airbnb and Generator Hostels, who’ve worked hard in the past few years to develop cohesive, thoughtful brands, continue to make tweaks and improve. As they introduce more verticals and geographically expand, expect to see these two brands leverage their unique value proposition and brand identity to compete in similar spaces.
Tell me about your favorite brands and the unique way they’ve positioned themselves. As someone who has spent the past two years traveling, hospitality is on my mind; but what brands excite you?
A big thank you to my editors, @thomasmaremaa, @andrewjns, and Elizabeth Braden. Props to Tradecraft and HEC Paris for the inspiration and support to publish.