Matt Harrington
Global Chief Operating Officer

I once had a teacher who told us never to answer a question with a question. But in this case, I think that the best way to explore the topic of “positioning gone too far” is through a series of pointed questions that can help prevent that from happening.

But before I get to those, let’s affirm that in today’s communications environment, rock-solid company or brand positioning is no longer a nice-to-have, it’s a must. The speed of business, the new pressures on companies to take a stand on issues in a volatile political and social climate, the rise of challenger brands and disruptor companies—among many other forces at work—should make developing, defining and expressing a brand’s or organization’s positioning an urgent priority.

This year’s Edelman Trust Barometer confirmed that people’s expectations for business have changed greatly since the days of “profit first.” Three out of four general population respondents now agree that a company can take actions that both increase profits and improve the economic and social conditions in the community where it operates.

This assumption that a brand or company will be both a business and social actor has enormous implications for its positioning. It means that the way a company or brand presents itself to its community, its industry, and the world at large must now speak to a much larger and more varied set of stakeholders, align with its bottom-line priorities and its societal good, and help point down its future path without jettisoning the past that brought it to where it is today. Ideally, good positioning is the green light at the intersection of reputation and operations.

But with so many criteria to meet, it can be tempting to take positioning too far—to promise too much that can’t be delivered; to make too strong a differentiation claim (after all, most people want what they are already familiar with); to stretch the truth to gain a foothold on or distract from the competition; even to pledge to be everything to everyone.

Simply put, positioning can go too far when it doesn’t stay true to its raison d’etre: to crystallize the company’s POV on its own business and its purpose in the world in a credible and honest way.

As communications pros, it’s our responsibility to help cut through the thicket of pressures on positioning and uncover the fertile ground that will grow effective communications and marketing. One approach is to continually test the positioning against that set of probing questions that I mentioned earlier:

  • Is it authentic? If the positioning is solid, when it’s put side-by-side with the organization’s mission and values statement, the two will be clearly, inextricably linked.
  • Is it built on a lasting idea? A brand or company that has stood the test of time may have evolved its positioning over many years, but it will keep the same key idea at its core, not bend to trends.
  • Can it serve as a guide? An organization should be able to turn to its positioning to help guide what to do and say next. It can help determine which choices might take the brand or company off-track, or are not value-adds.
  • Does it go the heart of your purpose? Positioning should reflect what a brand or company stands for—that’s what helps it stand out.
  • Does it build trust? For companies and brands alike, trust is a predictor of whether stakeholders will find you credible in the future, embrace new innovations you introduce and enthusiastically support you. Positioning that helps achieve this trust is essential to long-term growth and success.

Besides helping to bring consistency and continuity to everything you do, positioning that passes these tests helps the organization speak with a single voice, can help improve cost efficiencies and ROI for communications investments, and becomes the framework for long-term business strategy.

Any more questions?