Brand positioning tip #6: build peninsulas, not islands

In previous posts about brand positioning, we’ve talked about points of parity & points of difference, the competitive frame of reference, brand mantras, and the concept of “brand permission” as tools you can use when developing your brand positioning. Today I want to cover one of the biggest positioning mistakes that I see companies make.

Island hopping is for the South Pacific, not for brands.

I call it island hopping. Let me explain with an example.

Say your company makes dish detergent. You’ve been making dish detergent for 50 years. All you know how to make is dish detergent. Your kids grew up as the famous heirs to a dish detergent fortune. When you show up at parties, people go “hey, look, it’s that dish detergent dude/dudette!” (When your kids show up at parties, people start whispering about videos they saw on the internet, but that’s another story).

Now you hire a new CEO. He has a Harvard MBA. He shows you lots of PowerPoint slides that explain how crappy the market for dish detergent is going to get over the next 50 years. He says you need to diversify into another business, and he suggests the boutique hand soap business is starting to really heat up (after all, who doesn’t want to smell like juniper peppermint citrus after they wash their hands?).

And he’s right. Your kids are spending all your money, and the dish detergent business is going pretty sour.

When some brands reach this point, they jump straight into the new business with their current brand or company name. Problem is, their current brand often doesn’t have “permission” to enter this new market yet (if this doesn’t make sense, read this post). One famous example we’ve talked about previously is when Clorox tried to diversify beyond bleach. I always think about examples from the auto industry, where a sports car company starts making SUVs out of the blue or an economy brand starts putting out luxury coupes.

This is classic island hopping. Trying to jump from one island of meaning to another. And where occasionally a brand has the legs to jump from one island all the way to another, in many cases, the brand falls into the ocean and drowns. If it is lucky, the brand falls close enough to the original island that it can swim back, flop down on the beach, and try to recover over time.

But other times, the brand reaches for the new island with such determination that it actually falls in the water too far from the original island to swim back, and not close enough to the new island to swim there. And that brand goes from meaning one thing clearly to meaning nothing to anyone.

Still with me?

When positioning your brand for a move from one category to another, I prefer peninsulas to island hopping. Why risk falling in the water when, if you take the appropriate steps, you can actually build a peninsula that connects the new land to you. Let’s go back to our dish detergent example.

You end up listening to the new CEO, and decide to go into the boutique hand soap business. Your first move is peninsula-worthy– you start a boutique dish soap business. It has a great value prop– makes people feel like they are getting a herbal spa treatment while they are handwashing their dishes. It’s a huge success, because, you know, people like spa treatments and all that. And it is close enough to your existing dish detergent business (it’s all dish washing after all) that your brand has permission to go there.

After a year, you have the best selling dish soap in the $10-and-up per bottle category (since you created that category). And now you begin to make your move into the boutique hand soap business. It is also a smashing success because people now recognize you as that “boutique soap products dude/dudette.”

You’ve built a brand peninsula, expanded your brand position, and probably kept the family fortune growing.

Now if you could just get those spoiled, good-for-nothing kids under control…

About Chris Grams

Chris Grams is Head of Marketing at Tidelift. He is also the author of The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Successful Brand Positioning in a Digital World.

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