Positioning in Marketing: Get Your Brand in the Brain

Between 1970, and up until the 1990s, Mcdonald’s used various forms of their slogan “you deserve a break today” to position their brand message deep in their target audience’s psyche.

This slogan, in the form of a jingle, positioned Mcdonald’s against one of its biggest competitors … not Burger King, but home cooking. The idea was to compel people to take a break from their ordinarily home-prepared meals and eat out at Mcdonald’s.  

Jingles once were a great way to differentiate from competitors of all types and position a brand.  The best of them immediately answered one of the most pressing questions in marketing:

With all kinds of businesses clamoring for attention, how do you make a business stand out? 

Both differentiation and positioning in marketing help businesses develop a solid, distinct brand and give their target market a shortcut through all the salesmanship and marketing fluff employed by other businesses online.

Differentiating your brand from the competition through good, strategic messaging, for example, shows a clear distinction between you and your competitors. In the same way, strategic positioning, done right, can keep your business at the forefront of your customer’s mind. 

“Branding is everything in business,” says Fig Loans Co Founder and CTO, John Li. “We spent a lot of dedicated time on differentiating our products from what our main competitors do, and this has positioned Fig to have a greater reach in the marketplace.” 

What is Positioning in Marketing?

Definition of Positioning

While related, differentiation and positioning differ in what relationship they emphasize. Differentiation has more to do with how you differ from competitors. That is, it deals with the relationship between your business and other businesses in your niche.

Positioning refers to the way a brand or product is positioned in the customer’s mind. That is, it deals with what your customers think of when they think of your brand. Effective positioning helps frame how your customer views your company, offering an alternative to your competition.

The difference between the two is nuanced, but it’s important for branding to focus both on how you differ from the competition (differentiation) and how you are perceived by your customers (positioning).

“We positioned Dentaly as an information portal on oral health that shares the most reliable, up-to-date practices in dentistry.” says Max Harland, CEO of Dentaly, “There is a lot of misinformation out there, so we intentionally distinguished ourselves from other sites by gathering a group of like-minded health professionals to curate the information we publish.”

Types of Positioning

Good positioning is not just about marketing strategy. Positioning considers all of the factors that contribute to success in today’s competitive marketplace. This could include customer service practices, pricing strategies, communications, and outreach.

The goal of positioning is for brands to create an advantage over their competition through strategically establishing what they have that the competition does not (for example, lower prices). Brands position to be the first in the customer’s mind. That doesn’t mean you need to be first to market, just first to the position. 

The classic book Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind by Al Ries and Jack Trout gives multiple examples of companies usurping first to market brands with effective brand positioning. 

Maxwell House, according to the book, came up with the first freeze-dried coffee and called it Maxim. But then Nestle released Taster’s Choice, which basically included positioning in its brand name. Maxim says nothing about coffee. Taster’s choice says that the brand is the choice for those who like good flavor. Taster’s Choice won the first position and is to this day the dominant brand.   

A picture of a chess piece, positioning in marketing is like a game of chess where you attempt to position your pieces better than your opponent.

To be effective, positioning strategies should include four elements: frame, position, distinction, and customer aspiration. 

  • Frame — understand how potential customers view your brand and what the brand stands for
  • Position — identify and communicate your company’s position as a market leader or innovator
  • Distinction — promote how you are different, using both tangible (“we’re cheaper”) and intangible factors (e.g., quality of service)
  • Aspiration–reach out to customers by understanding their needs and making them feel like you are positioned to serve them.

Understanding how potential customers may view your product/services, helps businesses position themselves against their competition based on strengths and weaknesses. Ries and Trout make the point that positioning is not trying to develop something entirely new in the customer’s brain but finding a position already present and filling it.

For example, Nestle rightly bet that customers might be wary about the flavor of an unfamiliar type of coffee. Taster’s Choice is an excellent positioning for that open spot. It reassures customers and plants a flag as the instant coffee to buy among all others. 

Commenting on the positioning of his business,  Choice Mutual Founder and CEO Anthony Martin says, “We’ve positioned ourselves to not sell in the pushy way typical in our industry. We sell through building relationships. We team with our customers to give them the very best. It’s a difference our customers notice.”

Applying STP: Segmentation, Targeting, and Positioning

Positioning strategies are usually teamed with segmentation and targeting to create a trifecta brand development strategy (called STP) that allows marketers to build their brand and reach their target market.

When it comes to getting your message out there on digital channels like blogs or social media, you first need to segment what type of audience you want to target based on relevant interests and demographics; then create content for those audiences with specific messages tailored towards them. Finally, position your niche-focused content as an industry expert by comparing yourself against other sources within your field so potential customers know why they should choose you over them.

“Niching down, finding people that are truly interested in your product, and seeking to understand them deeply through ongoing relationship building and optimization is the only way to build a business.” Says Will Ward, founder and CEO of Translation Equipment HQ

This strategy of segmentation, targeting, and positioning is encapsulated well in something Blitzmetrics teaches their agency partners. That is, finding a lighthouse. A lighthouse is a niche group of customers an agency can serve.

 Here is Dennis Yu, CEO of Blitzmetrics, explaining the lighthouse concept.

Trying to serve everyone in the digital marketing space understandably leads to confusion. You want to be a specialist because if you try to serve everybody or provide every service, it doesn’t earn you a position in the customer’s mind. 

By segmenting and messaging to a target audience you are immediately defining boundaries for the customer. You also reap the benefits of having a niche community of doctors, lawyers, dentists–whoever you serve–to freely recommend your expertise to their peers.  

This not only differentiates you from your competition, it effectively makes you have less of it. Here again, is Dennis Yu talking about why he doesn’t see other digital marketing agencies as competition in the digital marketing space. Hint: it has to do with positioning. 

Writing a Positioning Statement

A positioning statement aims to clarify what position your brand is taking when marketing to your target customer.  It can range from a single sentence to a paragraph, but it should ideally be no more than two paragraphs.

When writing your positioning statement, you need to answer the following questions:

-Who is our target customer?

-What do we want them to think of us when they see or hear about us for the first time?

-What do we want them to remember about us when they come back for their second visit?

Your positioning statement should be targeted towards your customer and say what you want that customer to know. In the end, it’s all up to how well people can connect with your message.

“One of the very first things we did when starting our company is to lay out how we were going to differentiate our brand in the marketplace.” says Chris Riley, Co Founder and CEO of USA Rx, “It’s a must to have a written plan in place before you start your marketing and messaging.”

Blitzmetrics advises using this simple formula as a positioning statement:

I help X achieve Y via Z.

X is your target customer or lighthouse client.  Y is what you want to help them achieve. Z are the strategies you use to get them there. 

As an example, for the McDonald’s positioning above, this might read:

McDonald’s helps working families (X) break from the long hours of food prep (Y) by offering them a ready-to-go meal that is inexpensive and tastes delicious (Z). 

Here is an example of the X, Y, Z formula in action.

Benefits of Proper Positioning

Companies that develop successful positions are able to take advantage of opportunities their competition might miss. Smart positioning sets a business apart and makes it more memorable.

You may not be able to control every aspect of your customer’s experience with your company, but you can position yourself so that your customers are more likely to think about you when they need a product or service like yours. Positioning is important for both businesses and individuals because it creates an association in the minds of others that helps them remember who you are and what you do.

Jeremy DuCheny

About the Author

Jeremy DuCheny
Jeremy is an SEO content marketer. Through his business hyperwriting.com, he writes copy and content for businesses who want more business online. He specializes in off-site SEO, including outreach, ghostwriting, and digital PR.