Monday, April 27, 2009

Positioning vs. Branding. What's the diff?

At left, a taco with a fallout problem.

The way people talk about branding and positioning, it's hard to tell if they mean the same thing or if they're talking about two different elements of selling. Some people use them interchangeably. And indeed, they are related. But they're different.

Is "branding" simply creating a neat logo for a company or product? Or perhaps an "identity package" consisting of the logo applied to stationery, product package, Web site and print ads? Sometimes, it's the first thing a graphic design company or ad agency proposes.

A smart advertiser will know that the "branding" actually is the last step in the journey to market. The first step is "positioning," which is based on the promise the company makes to the consumer. Branding, meaning a logo, ad designs and all other physical identifications of a company, product or service must spring naturally from a clear definition of the company's positioning.

To discover the most effective positioning, you begin with one basic question:

"What is the compelling thing that you do or provide that no one else can or does promote in their advertising?"

The answer is the promise. It is the Unique Selling Proposition, the brainchild of the revered Rosser Reeves, author of "Reality in Advertising." By "revered," I mean that if there were a Mount Rushmore of advertising, Rosser Reeves would be on it.

By determining the USP, you're close to discovering the positioning of the product, service, or company. As touched upon above, you're not positioning in a vacuum. You're positioning against your competitors. So naturally, you have to identify them and figure out their positioning. Let's assume the market research is done already. So here's the way Reeves breaks out the USP statement:

Unique: No one else can or does use your claim.
Selling: It must give the consumer a compelling reason to buy.
Proposition: It must make a promise to the consumer: "If you buy Product X, you will get (fill in unique benefit here)."

Now, here's a unique proposition, but is it compelling?

"SquareDogs are the only hot dogs that won't roll off your plate."

Frankly, so to speak, I can't imagine that statement compelling anyone but extreme neat freaks -- a miniscule market segment at best -- to buy SquareDogs. When choosing hot dogs, people probably consider taste first, value second. But squareness? Completely off the radar.

On the other hand, squareness can be a USP -- for taco shells. A TV spot I saw recently showed a little child filling his taco shell as it stood squarely on its flat bottom on his plate. Wow! That's positively revolutionary! And showing the small child dealing successfully with it emphasizes that with this product, even a kid can keep a taco together. There's a great product idea that solves a problem for Moms all over the country, and it can be sold simply with a visual demonstration of its benefit. Your USP might be:

Unique: The only flat-bottom taco shell you can buy.
Selling: It stands up straight on your plate while you fill it.
Proposition: If you buy "Flat-Bottom Taco Shells," your tacos won't fall over and make a mess.

That's an easy one because it has a clear, unique benefit. Unfortunately, we don't often get revolutionary, problem-solving products or services to advertise. In the case of parity products or services, the need for a strong USP is even more urgent. It just takes more work to develop.

How do you differentiate your dish detergent from every other? Toothpaste? Insurance? If your product has no compelling difference to tout, Rosser Reeves advises suggesting the manufacturer add some innovative feature. Their doing that is about as likely as their traveling to Mars via hot air balloon. But you can at least suggest it before resorting to image advertising, which is never as compelling as USP-based, specific-benefit-oriented advertising. The exceptions are ads for beer, wine, liquor, perfume, fashion, and luxury cars -- products that convey a certain image for the person who buys them. For example, there are those Captain Morgan commercials. Not to criticize what may be a successful campaign, but at first, I thought the guys with "a little Captain in them" were impersonating dogs watering a tree. But I digress.

The USP as stated above, of course, is not the final headline or tagline. It is the bare-bones description of what the product offers versus the competition. It's the job of the copywriter to transform the USP into a succinct, catchy statement that people will remember next time they're cruising the grocery store.

Only when the positioning is defined does the art director or designer go to work. Armed with knowledge of the USP, the positioning, the target audience and the competition's packaging on the shelf, s/he will come up with a logo and design treatment that fits the product's promise like a glove. The colors, the fonts, the logo, the pictures and overall design will sell the product off the shelf in a print ad, on TV, on the Web or on a billboard.

By the way, if you are a designer reading this, please, when designing billboards, remember this: the billboard may look terrific on your Mac monitor, but you need to view it at the size people will see it as they drive by at 60 or 70 m.p.h. Teensy words and minute logos can cause a pileup on the highway, as people strain to read your masterpiece. Good design communicates ideas clearly. Thank you!

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