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branding

Stake Promises, Not Positions

Though they are often used interchangeably, a brand promise is very different from a brand position.

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A brand promise is not the same as a brand position. It is a common nugget of brandlore that the two phrases mean the same thing. They do not, though they are related to each other. A position asserts a line of argument (as in “what position shall we take in this message?”) or it pinpoints a location in perceptual space (as in “which position do we or shall we occupy in the mind of the consumer?”) Positioning thrives on “open space”—perceptual territory that your brand can claim because it is unclaimed by competitors. Imagine you operate a brand in an environment where every competitor uses a red logo. To effectively position your brand, you might choose to make your logo blue because that color is “ownable.” This example is a gross oversimplification of positioning, but it illustrates one reason a position is different from a promise. You position to be different and to stand out. It’s an essential activity, indeed, but it is possible to reposition a brand by focusing on purely cosmetic changes and not deliver any real, incremental value. In contrast, when you make a brand promise, you still stake a position, but you also create a covenant with consumers. You commit to deliver value.

Positioning is an artful and intelligent way to design messaging campaigns. One particularly useful application is to position in order to deposition a competitor. Coupled with semantics, a position can help you cast doubt on your competitors and it can cause consumers to reconsider their current behavior. Used in this way, positioning is a powerful redirection tactic that transforms public opinion in a short period of time. Consider how Republican pollster Frank Luntz described the way he depositioned the estate tax in a matter of days. “It’s not an estate tax,” he said. “It’s a death tax, because you’re taxed at death. And suddenly something that isn’t viable achieves the support of 75 percent of the American people.” It’s compelling proof of why positioning is useful, but it also demonstrates the difference between a position and a promise. Luntz’s position didn’t prescribe value-producing behavior.

A brand promise is the glue that aligns experience with expectations. Without it, you may stake any number of positions, but they’re little more than marketing tactics. You don’t haveto promise anything to take a position. You can change your look so people think you are something that you are not (a beautiful wine label attached to an undrinkable vintage). You can send out messages that appeal to distinct audiences and trends. You can use evocative words, imagery, and experiences to create a perception of what you might aspire to be or what you want others to think of you. But that’s not the same as promising to deliver specific value and executing all of your business activities to live up to that promise. Many brands have fallen into an endless cycle of repositioning initiatives, constantly redefining the brand in an effort to satisfy market trends and shifts in consumer tastes. This never-ending positioning process actually destroys brand value over time because it confuses us and makes us question what the brand really stands for. It weakens the brand’s credibility by eroding the link between our concept of the brand, what we expect from it, and what we know of its reputation. Here’s how it works.

If you lend me $5 and I promise to pay you tomorrow, on the next day you will expect me to give you $5. If I do, you will find me to be a man of my word. You’ll be likely to lend me $5 again, and when someone mentions my name in a similar context you might vouch for me. Your experience with my brand helped me establish a good reputation. On the other hand, if you show up the next day and I pay you only $2, you’ll have doubts about me the next time around. If someone asked you about me, you might be inclined to warn them. My reputation is in danger because of your most recent experience with my brand, which did not live up to the expectation I set with my promise to you. It won’t matter how I go about positioning myself next time. I can dress differently. I can make claims about cleaning up my act. I can try to convince you that I am financially stable or I could tell you I aspire to lofty goals. None of that is likely to impress you because I didn’t fulfill my promise the last time. My positioning activities might convince otherpeople to give me $5, but as soon as you log on to Twitter and squawk about your disappointing experience with my brand, I’d have what public relations experts call a “reputation problem.”

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