The following is a guest post by John Connors, CEO and co-founder at Boathouse. Opinions are the author's own.
We all admire great brands and know they are powerful assets. Brands drive massive value for companies and can help consumers navigate their purchase decisions. Interestingly, even CEOs from across industries and company sizes admire the same six brands that are top of mind for many consumers, including Amazon, Tesla, Apple, Nike, Microsoft and Google.
But the brand strategy frameworks we use to build our brands and our clients' brands may be gathering dust. The strategic principles marketers rely on have remained unchanged for the last 75 years: positioning, awareness, equity and loyalty, among others. As we reimagine business and work, maybe there is also an opportunity to reevaluate the principles of brand positioning.
Why we need to change
Let's begin with one of the most widely taught and widely quoted definitions in marketing: The definition of brand positioning as written by Philip Kotler from Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. Kotler defines brand positioning as "the act of designing the company's offering and image to occupy a distinctive place in the mind of the target market." That definition is often used, consciously and unconsciously, to rationalize a singularly focused brand positioning statement. That positioning gets tested, validated and espoused in board meetings and senior leadership meetings. The positioning becomes emblazoned in the brand guidelines of companies, and marketing departments work to enforce focus and consistency for multiple years to build differentiation in the market.
But too often this definition leads marketers to an overly simplistic, singularly focused, museum-piece of a brand positioning statement. This is likely due to the fact that when Kotler first published his findings in 1967, he was talking about the marketing of a consumer product — a bar of soap, a can of peas or maybe a box of tissues. These singular, product-focused brands allow for highly singular positioning. But today the product sector of the U.S. economy only accounts for 19% of GDP, while services account for almost 80% of our GDP. Single statements today are often too simplistic for most service companies. Google, Amazon, Tesla, Apple, Microsoft and Nike compete through a series of strategic activities rather than a single product. Today, competitive advantage grows out of a broad range of activities and departments. Marketers need a brand framework that embraces a broader system of activities.
In addition to being too simplistic, brand positioning too often focuses on a single target. Again, this may still be good discipline for a consumer product, but for most CEOs and CMOs, there are multiple target audiences. The modern CEO and CMO in a services company must consider customers, employees, suppliers, distributors, investors, media, politicians, activists, regulators and communities. It is too simplistic and exclusionary if we craft a brand positioning for one audience. It makes for an undifferentiated and unmotivating positioning statement if we try to include all audiences.
Finally, we all spend far too much time writing and defending the nuanced differences between vision, mission, positioning and values. We need a model that can hold all of these in a single framework. It is no longer realistic to have five separate conversations and create five separate documents that tease out vision, mission, positioning, targeting and values. It becomes a theoretical discussion and not a practical one for the company leadership, the CMO, the employees and the marketplace.
The narrative opportunity
Scholarship and data outside of marketing has led to a new framework for discussion, consideration and improvement. The premise is to migrate the idea of brand positioning from a monolithic model to a framework of five to seven core narratives that better reflect the company's strategy, the desire to build brand equity and the need to satisfy multiple target audiences. This framework was originated by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Shiller in a paper he presented to the American Economic Association in 2017. In his paper, Shiller demonstrated the relationship between narratives and economic activity throughout history. His analysis was possible because all the world's content is now indexed and can be studied and analyzed. In building on his breakthrough work, we decided to study the world's most admired brands using this same narrative filter and by using artificial intelligence to analyze every piece of content related to a brand.
An interesting pattern emerged. What became clear is that the most admired and valuable companies share a pattern of managing five to seven core narratives simultaneously. These companies are led by intuitive CEOs and management teams who do not get stuck writing singular vision, mission, positioning, targeting and values documents. Take Tesla, for example. It has a leader narrative, a car model narrative, a giga-factory manufacturing narrative, a feature-oriented self-driving narrative, a colonize Mars rocket narrative, a supercharger distribution narrative, a battery narrative and a fan narrative. They leverage all these narratives together in a consumer, employee, investor, politician and media marketplace flooded by screens and devices where different audiences help advance and carry the narratives. Tesla could have one positioning and one target audience, but imagine how different the brand would be if Tesla managed its marketing like it were marketing a box of tissues.
If you are in the 80% of the economy that is driven by services, a narrative-driven brand positioning is a framework to consider. Narratives will empower you to better connect to the company strategy, performance across the marketing funnel and give CMOs a new purpose in the C-suite. Let's start to innovate the post-war marketing playbook and find some interesting pathways to help companies to succeed.