Alternative Approaches to Positioning

The competitive brand positioning model we’ve reviewed in this chapter is a structured way to approach po­sitioning based on in-depth consumer, company, and competitive analysis. Some marketers have proposed other, less-structured approaches in recent years that offer provocative ideas on how to position a brand. We highlight a few of those here.


Rather than outlining specific attributes or benefits, some marketing experts describe positioning a brand as telling a narrative or story. Companies like the richness and imagination they can derive from thinking of the story behind a product or service. To help sharpen its marketing and positioning, Jim Beam, with its namesake Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark brands, hired The Moth, a group of professional storytellers best known for a weekly public radio broadcast, to kick off a three-day biannual gathering of its marketing teams.38

Randall Ringer and Michael Thibodeau see narrative branding as based on deep metaphors that con­nect to people’s memories, associations, and stories.39 They identify five elements of narrative branding: (1) the brand story in terms of words and metaphors, (2) the consumer journey or the way consumers engage with the brand over time and touch points where they come into contact with it, (3) the visual language or expression for the brand, (4) the manner in which the narrative is expressed experientially or the brand engages the senses, and (5) the role the brand plays in the lives of consumers. Based on literary convention and brand experience, they also offer the following framework for a brand story:

  • Setting. The time, place, and context
  • Cast. The brand as a character, including its role in the life of the audience, its relationships and responsi­bilities, and its history or creation myth
  • Narrative arc. The way the narrative logic unfolds over time, including actions, desired experiences, defining events, and the moment of epiphany
  • Language. The authenticating voice, metaphors, symbols, themes, and leitmotifs

Patrick Hanlon developed the related concept of “primal branding” that views brands as complex belief sys­tems. According to Hanlon, diverse brands such as Google, MINI Cooper, the U.S. Marine Corps, Starbucks, Apple, UPS, and Aveda all have a “primal code” or DNA that resonates with their customers and generates their passion and fervor. He outlines seven assets that make up this belief system or primal code: a creation story, creed, icon, rituals, sacred words, a way of dealing with nonbelievers, and a good leader.40


Douglas Holt believes that for companies to build iconic, leadership brands, they must assemble cultural knowl­edge, strategize according to cultural branding principles, and hire and train cultural experts.41 The University of Wisconsin’s Craig Thompson views brands as sociocultural templates, citing research investigating brands as cul­tural resources. ESPN Zone restaurants tap into competitive masculinity, for instance, and American Girl dolls tap into mother-daughter relationships and the cross-generational transfer of femininity.42 Experts who see consum­ers actively cocreating brand meaning and positioning even refer to this as “Brand Wikification,” given that wikis are written by contributors from all walks of life and points of view.43

Positioning and Branding for A Small Business

Building brands is a challenge for a small business with limited resources and budgets. Nevertheless, numerous success stories exist of entrepreneurs who have built their brands up essentially from scratch to become power­house brands. Consider the global success of UNIQLO.44

UNIQLO Founded by Tadashi Yanai, now the wealthiest person in Japan, UNIQLO (short for Unique Clothing Warehouse) has followed its mission statement and credo of “Made for All” (see Table 10.4) to become a brand with a goal of reaching $50 billion in sales in 2020 and becoming the number-one retailer in the world. UNIQLO stands out … by not standing out! Heavily inspired in its early days by the Gap and its one-time president Mickey Drexler, the company expressly states that it does not want to be in the fashion game of chasing ever-changing trends. With a strong technology emphasis, the company focuses on continual process improvement and the creation of new, innovative products. Its signature mix of fleece, synthetic thermal underwear, down jackets, jeans, and other basics is designed to capture the essence of each type of product. UNIQLO feels it provides the perfect components for its customer’s everyday lives, products they can combine in different ways to create their own unique expressions. The company’s marketing strategy combines active social media campaigns with aggressive in-store activities to connect with customers and pull them into the stores.

When resources are limited, focus and consistency in marketing programs become critically important. Creativity is also paramount—finding new ways to market new ideas about products to consumers. Here are some specific branding guidelines for small businesses.

  • Find a compelling product or service performance advantage. As for any brand, demonstrable, meaningful differences in product or service performance can be the key to success. Upstart has carved out a strong position in the face of a slew of competitors large (Microsoft) and small (Box) that also offer consum­ers a means to conveniently store massive amounts of documents, photos, videos, and other files, in part by virtue of its convenient single-folder approach to accommodate multiple devices for a user.45
  • Focus on building one or two strong brands based on one or two key associations. Small businesses often must rely on only one or two brands and key associations as points-of-difference for them. These associations must be consistently reinforced across the marketing program and over time. Rooted in the snowboarding and surfing cultures, Volcom has adopted a “Youth Against Establishment” credo that has resulted in steady sales of its music, athletic apparel, and jewelry.
  • Encourage product or service trial in any way possible. A successful small business has to distinguish itself in ways consumers can learn about and experience. One way is to encourage trial through sampling, demonstrations, or any means to engage consumers with the brand. See’s Candies allows walk-in custom­ers to sample any piece of candy in the shop they choose. As one senior executive noted, “That’s the best marketing we have, if people try it, they love it.” See’s uses all fresh ingredients and no added preservatives to create its enticing flavors.46
  • Develop cohesive digital strategy to make the brand “bigger and better.” One advantage of the Internet is it allows small firms to have a larger profile than they might otherwise. Urbane Apartments, a property invest­ment and management company from Royal Oak, Michigan, has a virtual prominence that far exceeds its real-world scope. The company boasts a resident-penned blog touting favorite Royal Oak destinations, its own Urbane Lobby social networking site for tenants, and active YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter profiles.47 Sales for Rider Shack surf shop in Los Angeles increased when the firm began to emphasize Facebook and its Promoted Post service feature as a way to keep the brand in front of people.48 Mobile marketing can be espe­cially important given the local nature of many small businesses.
  • Create buzz and a loyal brand community. Small businesses often must rely on word of mouth to establish their positioning, but they can find public relations, social networking, and low-cost promotions and sponsor­ship to be inexpensive alternatives. As discussed in Chapter 5, creating a vibrant brand community among cur­rent and prospective customers can also be a cost-effective way to reinforce loyalty and help spread the word to new prospects. Evernote has several dozen “power users” who serve as passionate ambassadors to spread the word about the personal-organization application brand touted by the online company as the everything-in- one-place “external brain” for its customers.
  • Employ a well-integrated set of brand elements. Tactically, it is important for small businesses to maxi­mize the contribution of all types of brand equity drivers. In particular, they should develop a distinc­tive, well-integrated set of brand elements—brand names, logos, packaging—that enhances both brand awareness and brand image. Brand elements should be memorable and meaningful, with as much creative potential as possible. Innovative packaging can substitute for ad campaigns by capturing attention at the point of purchase. SMARTFOOD introduced its first product without any advertising by means of both a unique package that served as a strong visual symbol on the shelf and an extensive sampling program that encouraged trial. Proper names or family names, which often characterize small businesses, may provide some distinctiveness but can suffer in terms of pronounceability, meaningfulness, memorability, or other branding considerations. If these deficiencies are too great, alternative brand elements should be explored.
  • Leverage as many secondary associations as possible. Secondary associations—any persons, places, or things with potentially relevant associations—are often a cost-effective, shortcut means to build brand equity, especially those that help to signal quality or credibility. In 1996, J. Darius Bickoff launched an electrolyte-enhanced line of bottled water called Smartwater, followed in two years by the introduction of Vitaminwater, a vitamin-enhanced and flavored alternative to plain bottled water, and by Fruitwater two years after that. Clever marketing including endorsement deals with rapper 50 Cent, singer Kelly Clarkson, actress Jennifer Aniston, and football star Tom Brady helped drive success. Less than 10 years after its launch, Bickoff’s Energy Brands company, also known as Glaceau, was sold to the Coca-Cola company for $4.2 billion in cash.
  • Creatively conduct low-cost marketing research. A variety of low-cost marketing research methods help small businesses connect with customers and study competitors (Chapter 4). One way is to set up course projects at local colleges and universities to access the expertise of both students and professors. Many online options exist too.

Unlike major brands that often have more resources at their disposal, small businesses usually do not have the luxury of making mistakes and must design and implement marketing programs much more carefully.

Source: Kotler Philip T., Keller Kevin Lane (2015), Marketing Management, Pearson; 15th Edition.

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