Sunday, July 6, 2008

Is Brand Positioning Dead in the 21st Century?

In the latest issue of Marketing Management, Don E. Schultz, professor emeritus-in-service at the Medill School of Journalism, feels that the concept of positioning espoused by Jack Trout and Al Reis in the 1970's is no longer valid in the 21st century. He cites several reasons for this hypothesis, but most prominent is his reasoning that "marketers don't control brand positions, concepts, images, or even experiences -- consumers do". He goes on to state that today's marketers have "only limited means to communicate with consumers today . . . to position the brand" and that "the brand manager's voice in the branding milieu is tiny and faint when compared to the branding experiences consumers receive from other sources -- such as the brand's customer service group, the technical support experts, other employees, retailers, and distributors who are not even under the control of the brand manager or marketing department".

Professor Schultz concludes his argument with the question "does any of the brand baggage we've dragged into the 21st Century have any relevance or resonance today with us, our customers, or the marketplace?" Throughout the article, Professor Schultz makes it clear where he stands, which is evident with his description of positioning as "brand baggage".

Unfortunately, his apparent disdain for anyone foolish enough to cling to the notion that brands can occupy a particular place in the mind of the consumer has clouded his judgment, and for the first time in a long while I think the professor has totally missed the mark.

Professor Schultz is certainly right that the idea of one brand completely owning a position for all time in the customer's mind is outdated. But I don't think that idea was ever totally valid in the first place. Volvo has always been positioned as the epitome of safety, but that brand was never the only brand with safety features. So it never owned exclusive rights to that position.

Yes, things are different today than they were in the 1970's when the original concept of positioning was coined by Messrs. Trout and Reis. Yes, the proliferation of brands, sub-brands and line extensions has increased while the ability of marketers to reach masses of consumers has dwindled dramatically. Yes, there are new tools that all marketers should be exploring to discern how best to speak to today's customers.

But I've got news for you, Professor Schultz. The consumer has always been in charge.

When the marketing mavens in Atlanta tried to foist a new version of Coca-Cola on the world, consumers said no in dramatic fashion. The marketing business has always had its share of Edsels when consumers refused to buy into the marketer's attempts to position the product in the consumer's mind. Do you remember Quadraphonic sound, Apple Newton, Apple Lisa, PC Jr., the Susan B. Anthony dollar coin, the USFL? These were all well-positioned, sure-fire winners until consumers said no thanks.

So the idea that positioning is no longer valid for marketers because the consumer is now in charge doesn't resonate well with me. Nor do the arguments that marketers have limited means to communicate or that every exposure and every brand experience outside of the brand manager's voice and control is suddenly more powerful. The sum total of the actual brand experience has always been more powerful than the statements made in formal branding communications. And they always will be.

No matter how wired the world becomes in the 21st Century, there will always be a need for marketers to try to position their product or service offering in the mind of the customer. There will always be a need for marketers to search for competitive niches and unmet needs, and to espouse the most salient benefits to a target group of consumers. Success, as always, will be based on whether expectations are aligned with the reality of the brand experience.

Is the concept of brand positioning different in today's world? Yes. Is the concept of brand positioning more difficult in today's world? Absolutely. Is the concept of brand positioning nothing more than yesterday's "baggage" and thus dead in the 21st century? Absolutely not.