Is It Time to Replace ‘Positioning’ With ‘Purpose’?

Has the idea of ‘positioning’ outlasted its usefulness as strategic tool for building differentiation?

Positioning helps focus the value proposition into a singular promise and supporting evidence for a particular target audience. But, it is primarily an inward looking tool. With social media forcing marketers to rethink how their brand identity is expressed across conversational forms of communication, it’s worth considering the limits of positioning and what might take its place.


Positioning is essential in a one-way, mass communications context where messages are crafted and placed based on a clear target audience description and defined competitive frame of reference. A consistent message is the basis for maximizing efficiency through ‘integrated marketing communications’. The narrower the target and the more singular the message, the greater the impact. Yet singular focus is the opposite of what is required to differentiate a brand on Twitter, in a blog or on Facebook. 

Social media has been likened to a cocktail party where brands had better come prepared to talk about more than themselves.

A conversation about one idea is certain to be a short conversation. Two-way communications have changed the game across all three elements of positioning: target, frame of reference and key benefit.


Target: Not all targeted individuals are equally important, and not just because some are more likely to buy. Some non-category users may be more influential than users. What’s more the notion of the purchase funnel has been turned upside down, with advocates often more important than prospects.


Frame of Reference: As marketing objectives evolve from purchase to sustained ‘engagement’ with brand-related content or brand-sponsored activities, the frame of reference becomes harder to define. In a broad sense, a brand’s content now competes with everything else that battles for consumers’ attention, not just competitive messages.


Key Benefit: As products become less distinctive, benefits are more likely to reside in the brand experience than in product performance or image characteristics. Differentiation now is as likely to lie in ‘our customer service rocks’, ‘we have great apps’ or ‘we support the same causes you do’ as in better, faster or cheaper.  


Evidence of the shift to participation is all around. Smart marketers at P&G, Unilever, Ford, Pepsi, and more are re-envisioning marketing as a range of activities designed to make consumers want to interact with brand content - to watch it, comment on it, and share it with friends. Sustaining this kind of engagement requires a deep understanding of the target’s interests, passions and values.  And it requires a broader perspective on ‘brand strategy’ than is afforded by positioning alone. While positioning is useful for defining the desired place in consumers’ minds, new strategic tools are needed to helping a brand understand how to connect with customers at an individual, human level.


What will take positioning’s place? Instead of thinking of brand strategy in terms of targets and messages, I am intrigued by the idea of thinking of brand strategy as a series of brand behaviors that are in turn informed by a sense of purpose.

Words are so 1990’s; today’s strategist knows actions speak louder than words.  Nigel Hollis writes, “The future is uncertain but one thing is sure. People pay a lot more attention to what companies do than to what they say.”

This emphasis on behavior over words can be thought of as the “Gatsby Approach” to brand strategy. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote of his hero, Jay Gatsby:


If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby


Like people, successful brands make a series of gestures informed by a greater sense of who they are and what they stand for. Or to put it in social media terms, less by their profile than by their status updates.


It is a mistake to think of behaviors exclusively in terms of cause marketing, although causes are proving to be an effective way to engage audiences and express values. Young people in particular are attuned to which brands support the ideas that are important to them, like sustainability, social justice and altruism. Brand behavior goes further to encompass activities that express a brand's legitimate interests in related categories or the broader culture. Strategist Simon Mainwaring writes in Fast Company, “Companies must focus on how they can serve their community.”


As an overall strategy, the idea of ‘brand purpose’ may be more useful for creating differentiation than ‘positioning’.

When brands humanize for social media, it’s no longer enough to be clear on what you do. It’s essential to be confident in the knowledge of who you are and why you do what you do. Often it is a brand’s reputation for ‘walking the talk’ that tips the balance toward loyalty by providing differentiation or justifying a higher price.

A clear purpose provides direction for brand behavior. It helps direct choices, just as people’s choices are directed by their values. Consumers want to know, at minimum, that a brand aligns with their values, that buying this brand will do no harm. But many consumers are looking for more. They want to see how their brand choices can help to make their community or world a better place, not just improve their own lives. For Millennials in particular, a sense of purpose is no longer a nice to have, it is a must.

Conveying a sense of purpose is an important aspect of leadership. Warren Bennis, the world’s foremost authority on leadership, puts ‘guiding vision’ ahead of passion and integrity in determining effectiveness. According to Bennis, leaders inspire others and that inspiration comes from a sense of purpose and enthusiasm that brings people to your side.

Everyone knows of Steve Job’s success as an innovator, but less is known of him as a brilliant brand strategist. In a videotaped speech to Apple employees where he explains the rationale behind the ‘Think Different’ campaign, he shows a deep understanding of the need to express a noble purpose that goes beyond ‘making boxes’ or ‘why we’re better than Windows’. Guided by a clear purpose, not a traditional positioning, Jobs led Apple to a position among world’s most influential brands.


“Our customers want to know who is Apple and what do we stand for? Where do we fit in this world? What we’re about isn’t about making boxes, although we do that well. What Apple is about at the core, its core values, is that we believe people with passion can change the world for the better. That’s what we believe. And we believe that those people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones that actually do.” – Steve Jobs

The answer to the question of why your brand exists need not be as be as lofty as Steve Job’s passion to change the world. It can be as modest as making homes smarter, children happier, nutritious meals easier to prepare, friends and family a little closer.

The key to differentiating brands in social media is to find out what consumers are trying to do and point your brand toward delivering it.  

This is basic marketing, of course, but it requires taking a risk. Marketers must be being willing to step away from core messages and closer to what consumers are interested in talking about. Taking this risk has paid off handsomely for Ford Fiesta and Old Spice. These efforts (which are larger than simple ‘campaigns’) exhibit a sure sense of what consumers are interested in doing – driving a car that engenders passion among its drivers, or using a body wash that speaks to what it means to be a guy today.  Armed with a belief that consumers themselves would guide the conversation if given the chance, they embarked on campaigns that have strongly differentiated their brands from competitors and lead to solid business results.

Is there a still place for positioning? Absolutely! But we should also recognize that there are other ways to differentiate brands that are not dependent on unique messages and reasons why. The new brand strategy toolkit will inspire differentiation by envisioning the brand as having a unique personality and values consistent with those of the target, as evidenced by “an unbroken series of successful gestures