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Rethinking Brand Positioning

A new model for mapping brand strategy has been published by Niraj Dawar and Charan K. Bagga in their June 2015 Harvard Business Review article, A Better Way to Map Brand Strategy.

This brand positioning model promises greater simplicity (something your management team can truly understand) as well as a strong relationship to real-world results. And it still fits into the familiar quadrant chart!

I love that this model builds on the distinctiveness idea, something that Byron Sharpe set forth in the excellent book, How Brands Grow, as a better alternative to the traditional way of thinking about brands, seeking differentiation.

Let’s look first at their dimensions: Centrality and Distinctiveness. Centrality is a measure of how broadly appealing a brand is. Brands that score high on centrality tend to spring readily to mind. Brands that score high on this element tend to move more volume in their category.

quadrant chart diagramDistinctiveness is just what it sounds like — how unique the brand is. Distinctiveness tends to be associated with lower sales volumes, but higher prices.

arrow diagramThe HBR paper shows data for two studies done with consumers on well-known categories: automotive and beer. Here’s how a few of the major car brands line up in the quadrants.

quadrant descriptions and brand logosThe segment of consumers being targeted is important to how a brand shows up in the quadrant. Subaru was noted as an example of a brand that was not distinctive in the broad consumer study, but might be quite distinctive within certain markets (e.g. Northeast US.)

The authors identify strategic implications for brands based in each quadrant.

  • Aspirational brands need to defend against challengers from the mainstream quadrant. They are well positioned to launch innovations, as Toyota did with the Prius hybrid. These brands need to balance broad appeal with maintaining sufficient distinctiveness not to lose their status.
  • Mainstream brands should strive to become synonymous with the category and be cautious with their brand stewardship. Their challengers come from changes in consumer taste that make less conventional products more mainstream.
  • Consumers typically buy Peripheral brands as substitutes attracted by the lower price. Brands in this quadrant are more likely to exit the market (e.g. Saturn) but can survive for long periods (e.g. RC Cola)
  • Unconventional brands are niche players that need to be profitable at low volumes. They can become more mainstream or add mainstream features (e.g. Tesla, Stella Artois) to attempt to migrate to the Aspirational quadrant.

The authors also suggest the model has usefulness in looking across global markets to understand differences in brand performance, and develop global strategies.

My take

This model offers a lot to the general manager in terms of bringing marketing and sales performance together, and looking at the competitive landscape.

My only issue is the interchangeable use of the word “differentiation” with “distinctiveness.” As noted earlier, I believe that some pretty definitive work led by Byron Sharpe has shown that differentiation as conventionally defined is not a meaningful marketing goal (notwithstanding you will hear this all the time.)

Distinctiveness implies memorability more than true difference in perceived attributes, and this is a goal all marketers can aspire to and should be able to achieve.

It’s a small issue. The full article is worth reading, especially for the fuller data provided on both the automotive and beer category studies.