Positioning to Advance

Holding current position when evidence of threat or opportunity is substantial is perhaps the most common characteristic of failure for companies, products, leaders, causes, political candidates – or even business initiatives.

The problem typically comes from leaders who prefer comfort, fear the unknown, lack strategic vision, or just rest on an arrogance of past achievements.

Positioning is the concept that one’s business, department, product, or personal presence is relative to variables in the environment.

To know where we stand, we must honestly and organically assess such variables as market economy, product competitiveness, customer service, organizational culture, ideology, and more. Less enlightened leaders and individuals tend to isolate these drivers from one another – establish silos – creating an inwardly focused, task-oriented condition where positioning, performance, measurement and competitiveness are out of context with market realities. For the leader, it is easier to target an under-performing business unit than to address the real threats in the larger market environment.

“Whenever I’ve asked senior executives to map the positions of their company’s brands and those of key rivals, we end up confused and dismayed,” writes Richard D’Aveni, the Bakala Professor of Strategy at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business.

Donald Sull, a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management, writing in Harvard Business Review in 1999, labeled the phenomenon of stuck position as “active inertia,” the “tendency to follow established patterns of behavior – even in response to dramatic environmental shifts. Stuck in the modes of thinking and working that brought success in the past, market leaders simply accelerate all their tried-and-true activities. In trying to dig themselves out of a hole, they just deepen it.”

All of the attributes of whatever is being positioned are critically and contextually linked. These attributes in total are what strategists define as market presence and appropriately use the word brand. A company, a department within the company, a product, a CEO, a political candidate, a person – all of these have a brand whether they know it or not. And, the failure to recognize and manage this brand, which is only established as an outcome of positioning strategy, is one of the most frequent roots of less-than-optimum organizational performance or inability to reach personal goals.

Part of the problem in understanding positioning is the intermingling of the word “brand” into the discussion of positioning. “Brand” today seems to have become interchangeable with the word “marketing.” Much of this confusion is caused by advertising and marketing agencies where the sole goal is to produce and sell marked-up creative services to achieve their own growth and revenue targets. With glam and sizzle they sell clients “look-and-feel” advertising and clever phrases that do not necessarily align with optimal strategic positioning.

Positioning is the strategy that puts meat on the bones of marketing, and ultimately brand. Positioning is built on the trinity of declared positioning intent, strategic message and connectivity with targeted audiences. Declared intent is always filtered through an honest and thorough analysis of strategic variables and a real-world environmental scan. Only after positioning is tightly nailed down can message be clearly and powerfully defined. Message and declared intent then drive the audience connection strategy — including the strategic choice of channels to reach those audiences.

Effective and powerful brand can only be built once positioning is clearly defined and understood. Marketing and advertising then take the outcome of the positioning work and select precision-targeted channels and tactics to create real audience connectivity. Positioning strategists are sometimes good marketers. Marketers are almost never positioning strategists. The two disciplines are uniquely different though inextricably linked.

Without the overlay of a strong positioning strategy, marketing and advertising activity tends to unfold in typically disjointed campaigns that may or may not advance audience perception, achieve growth, sell products, adequately define a cause, or achieve optimal return on investment. Without an active positioning strategy in place, we put the brand and marketing cart before the horse.

Leaders who accept this are at risk of becoming the keeper of the flame for active inertia for their companies, causes and even themselves.