I believe almost all great brands are built on a foundation of great positioning.
I feel so strongly about positioning that one of the core elements of this blog is a series of brand positioning tips I learned over the years as an eager student of classic brand positioning.
Sometimes great positioning is led by a branding genius such as Scott Bedbury (who helped grow the Nike and Starbucks brands); sometimes a great leader and communicator with a very clear vision (like Steve Jobs at Apple) drives it into the organization; sometimes people stumble on great positioning by pure luck; and more and more often, organizations are developing positioning by collaborating with the communities of people in and around the organization who care most passionately about the brand.
This last way is the ad-free brand way of developing brand positioning.
1. Great positioning helps people understand the brand
The best brand positioning is always simple and clear. The greatest product or organization in the world won’t be successful if people can’t or don’t bother to comprehend why they should care about it. Your story must be able to break through the clutter.
2. Great positioning helps people value the brand
Getting people to understand the brand is the first step, but no less important is ensuring they value the brand. The best brands stand for things people care about or desire.
3. Great positioning helps people identify with the brand
Once people understand and value the brand, they must also understand how they fit in and how they can engage with the brand. They need to see some of themselves in it.
4. Great brand positioning helps people take ownership over the brand
It may sound like a brand’s worst nightmare to lose control and have the brand community take over. But the most self-actualized brands of the twenty-first century allow the communities of people surrounding them to take some ownership of and responsibility for the brand. Essentially, the brand owners become in command and out of control of the brand.
In 1981, when Jack Trout and Al Ries wrote Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind (the book that really defined the discipline of brand positioning) traditional advertising was still a dominant force. In fact, as you glance through their book, you’ll notice that most of the examples they use to illustrate positioning concepts are classic advertisements or advertising campaigns like the Avis “We’re #2, so we try harder” or the 7-Up “Uncola” campaign.
In the book, Trout and Ries define positioning as follows:
“…positioning is not what you do to a product. Positioning is what you do to the mind of the prospect. That is, you position the product in the mind of the prospect.”
The Trout and Ries definition is a perfect way to achieve the first three of the four benefits above; it helps people understand, value, and identify with the brand.
Where the Trout and Ries model of positioning is all about what you do to the mind of the prospect, ad-free brands are less interested in creating meaning for a brand in people’s minds and more interested in creating meaning for a brand with the help of people’s minds.
By giving the communities of people who care about a brand some ownership over its future direction, we begin to build relationships based on trust, respect, and a mutual exchange of value.
Where 21st century brands will really shine is by mimicking the open, collaborative, meritocratic model of the open source software movement (and the Internet itself) in their positioning work. In my view, without beginning to engage the communities of people who care about a brand as co-owners, classic brand positioning by itself will continue to be less and less effective as traditional advertising and PR continue to be less and less effective.
The secret? Marrying those classic brand positioning principles to a 21st century way of collaborating with the communities of people who care about a brand. By doing both together, we’ll be able to build stronger, more resilient brands than ever before.
In Brand Positioning Tip #3, I introduced the concept of the brand mantra. The term was originally coined by Scott Bedbury during his time at Nike, and it refers to a short 3-5 word phrase created to capture the very essence of the brand’s meaning.
Usually a brand mantra includes or hints at some of the points of difference discovered during the brand positioning exercise (learn more about points of difference here). The most famous example of a brand mantra is from Bedbury’s Nike project, where the team coined the brand mantra Authentic Athletic Performance.
The most important thing to understand about brand mantras is that they are not designed to be externally facing slogans or taglines. Case in point— unless you’ve heard the Nike brand mantra story before, you’ve probably never seen the phrase Authentic Athletic Performance associated with Nike in advertising. Usually you will see an external manifestation of it, Just Do It being the prime example.
This is where most well-meaning brand mantra projects go bad. When brainstorming possible brand mantras, it is important for your team to be very clear that they are not writing advertising copy or taglines for external use. There is no quicker path to an inauthentic brand mantra than heading too quickly toward the language of advertising or marketing.
A brand mantra should resonate internally first. The mantra you chose should reflect the core values, mission, and culture of the company while also staying true to the brand positioning (if this is difficult, you’ve got bigger problems, because it may mean your culture and your brand are out of alignment).
The most powerful brand mantras become part of the DNA of the organization, and are used to guide everyday decisions about strategy, user experience, voice, and a host of other things. The mantra becomes a touchstone that is returned to over and over again— especially when decisions start getting tough.
Once you’ve settled on your brand mantra and tested it internally to ensure it resonates, you can finally start working on taglines. Again, think of a tagline as an external manifestation of the brand mantra— written in a language that will resonate with your target customer instead of your co-workers.
On Twitter yesterday, my friend Chris Blizzard mentioned to someone that I often say “brands are like sponges.” When I saw this, I realized that a) I haven’t said this in a while and b) I should say it more often because it is a freakin’ awesome way to think about brands. So I’m saying it again right now. Right here.
It’s actually not my line. I got it from the Scott Bedbury book A New Brand World (one of the top ten books behind Dark Matter Matters). Near the beginning of the book, Scott, who is one of the masterminds behind the good ol’ days of the Nike brand in the 80s and the Starbucks brand in the 90s, provides one of my favorite definitions of what a brand is:
A brand is the sum of the good, the bad, the ugly, and the off strategy. It is defined by your best product as well as your worst product. It is defined by award-winning advertising as well as by the god-awful ads that somehow slipped through the cracks, got approved, and, not surprisingly, sank into oblivion. It is defined by the accomplishments of your best employee– the shining star in the company who can do no wrong– as well as by the mishaps of the worst hire that you ever made. It is also defined by your receptionist and the music your customers are subjected to when they are placed on hold. For every grand and finely worded public statement by the CEO, the brand is also defined by derisory consumer comments overheard in the hallway or in a chat room on the Internet. Brands are sponges for content, for images, for fleeting feelings. They become psychological concepts held in the minds of the public, where they may stay forever. As such, you can’t entirely control a brand. At best you can only guide and influence it.
Those last two lines have stuck in my mind since I first read them. First, the idea that a brand is a sponge, soaking up everything, both good and bad. And second, that you cannot control a brand, you can only guide and influence it.
Today we will be covering the 4th element of good brand positioning: the brand mantra.
What is a brand mantra?
A brand mantra is a 3-5 word shorthand encapsulation of your brand position. It is not an advertising slogan, and, in most cases, it won’t be something you use publicly.
Books are important to me. Growing up, almost every free wall in my parents’ house was lined with bookshelves, some of them stacked two deep. I spent most of my pre- Red Hat career in book publishing, first working during college at The University of North Carolina Press. After college, I went to work for a literary agent named Rafe Sagalyn in Washington DC. Working for Rafe was a great experience because he built his reputation on big think/idea books and business books.
His first big book was the huge bestseller Megatrends by John Naisbitt back in the early 80s. When I was there, I personally got to work with, among others, Bill Strauss and Neil Howe on their great books about generational patterns in society (check out The Fourth Turning… very prophetic these days) and Don Peppers, author of some books back in the 90s like The 1:1 Future about relationship marketing that were the grandparents of today’s books on social media marketing.
I also got to play agent and author myself too. As an agent, I represented some of Tom Bodett’s work (yes, he is the Motel 6 guy, but was also a commentator on NPR) and sold a wonderful novel called The Frequency of Souls to FSG. As author, I helped Rafe write two “cutting edge” books about getting free and open access to government information (they have not aged well, I’m afraid).
After I left book publishing, reading became fun again. I read novels and travel literature for a while, nothing that made me think too much. But when I got to Red Hat, I relapsed and started reading the big think books like the ones I used to work on with Rafe. I thought it might be worth taking a few minutes to try to remember the books that have been the biggest influences on my thinking, and get them all down in one place, so here goes:
Without these ten books, Dark Matter might not even matter to me.