Assume the Position

“If you don’t know who you are, the stock market is an expensive way to find out.”

Benjamin Graham, Warren Buffett’s mentor

Graham was referring to public companies, but his quote applies just as well to brand positioning. If you don’t have a clear sense of your brand’s identity and value proposition, you’ll end up wasting buckets of money trying to figure it out through trial-and-error marketing.

One of the first things I look at when helping a business with their marketing is to make sure their positioning is pointed in the right direction and applied consistently. Brand positioning is the process of carving out a distinct space in the market and minds of your customers. It’s about defining how you are different from competitors and why someone should choose you over the alternatives. It’s also about managing expectations.

Mind the Expectation Gap

The classic failure mode of a brand’s positioning is a mismatch between your brand’s perceived identity and its actual identity. In other words, there’s a gap between what customers expect from your brand and what it truly delivers. This expectation gap can manifest itself in a few different ways:

  1. Overselling and under-delivering. Your marketing makes big promises that your product or service can’t live up to. This is the “bait and switch” approach which may get people in the door, but leads to disappointment and churn. It also slowly poisons the well of potential customers, as the brand’s bad reputation quickly spreads. It’s especially hard to get away with this in the age of Google reviews and social media.
  2. Underselling and over-delivering. The opposite problem is where your brand undersells its value. Customers have low expectations which get exceeded. This could be rationalized as a good thing (and it’s certainly better than the reverse) but it’s better for the market at large to know you do good work to begin with, rather than assume you aren’t very good and be pleasantly surprised. After all, would you consider “you aren’t nearly as bad as I expected” a compliment?
  3. Misaligned positioning. Your brand positioning is simply inaccurate or outdated compared to your current offerings. You’re sending mixed messages to the market. For example, a restaurant’s advertising may look sophisticated and lead you to believe it’s a nice spot for a date, but then you arrive and see it’s a take-out counter. If there’s a disconnect between the brand identity you are projecting and what customers actually experience, you will attract the wrong type of customer and they will leave disappointed.

Expectation management is how you address this. You need to shape customer expectations through your branding and marketing so they closely align with the reality of your products and customer experience. Define your brand identity based on who you truly are as a company — your genuine values, strengths, and capabilities. Don’t try to be something you’re not just because you think that’s what the market wants. Even if you can fake it for a while through marketing, you won’t be able to sustain it when customers experience the real you.

Wal-Mart is the example I use all the time. Their brand is just about the least exciting one I can imagine, and I doubt it has ever elicited an emotional response from anyone (or at least a positive one). It does, however, perfectly represent what Wal-Mart is about — boring, cheap, uncomplicated. I’m sure the marketers who work for them would find a more exciting positioning more, well, exciting, but it wouldn’t align with the customer experience. Wal-Mart isn’t pretending to be something it is not. That authenticity breeds trust and credibility. They make a brand promise they can actually keep, and greatly reduce the potential for disappointment. People enter the store expecting to find basic goods at low prices, and that’s exactly what they get.

Repetition Legitimizes

Once you know what your brand is about, you need to relentlessly and consistently repeat it so that customers remember it. I see so many small businesses, especially startups, fail here because they want to constantly tweak things. Inconsistencies will start to create confusion in customers’ minds about your brand’s true identity. Mixed messaging leads to mixed expectations which leads to disappointment.

McDonald’s is the poster child for brand consistency. Wherever you see the (in)famous golden arches, you know exactly what experience to expect. You know you won’t get a gourmet meal, but you also know it’ll taste like all the other McDonald’s you’ve had in your life. Are their marketing materials beautiful? Not particularly. Do they reflect the customer experience? Absolutely. Have they changed significantly in the decades they’ve been in operation? Nope. We instantly know what the brand is about, because they’ve been telling us the same thing since we were born.

What to do?

This can all be summed up in a few bullet points.

  1. Make sure everything people see from your brand — logo, design, writing, etc. — aligns with what they will experience once they do business with you. Don’t try to pass off an economy brand as a luxury one, or an online/digital service as an in-person one. Don’t try to make your mom-and-pop corner store look like a multinational business conglomerate.
  2. Once that’s done, repeat it consistently. You can make minor tweaks, but don’t deviate from step 1.
  3. Revisit this every few years to make sure your business and its positioning still align.