Neon sign that reads "YOU ARE HERE" as a metaphor for positioning

When Jack Trout and Al Ries began advancing positioning as a tool for marketers, its focus was on efficiency in understanding the consumer. Positioning was about the place a brand occupies in the mind of its audience. David Ogilvy emphasized the importance of positioning to his creative teams. He encouraged everyone in the agency to “understand the brand positioning and use it as a context for making decisions”

Marketers used positioning the same way accountants used spreadsheets and formulas. It helped take the chaos and disorder of a complex process and create codes and structures around it.

Positioning Centers on the Brand

But I have a problem with positioning. Positioning takes a self-centered perspective. Positioning focuses on identifying a consumer need and connecting an organization’s offerings to that need. The issue with this method is that other than identifying the need, the consumer doesn’t really matter.

I’ve sat in thousands of hours of market research. I’ve read the reports of tens of thousands of interview hours I did not watch. Hence, I’ve noticed that very thing the organization creates addresses the greatest need the consumer faces. It’s a perfect match. Every. Time.

But the majority of businesses, brands and marketing programs fail. Every. Time.

We focus on the need. They need to choose a new car for their family, pick a fashionable shoe, or help managing their finances. As a consequence, we communicate to them about the need. We have made the need the hero of our marketing. It’s why concepts like “Jobs to be Done” have become so popular. If we can identify the job the customer wants addressed, we can design better products or services.

Focusing on the need is really just code for focusing on, and talking about, yourself. The need is important but human beings aren’t need machines.

Stories Tear Down Kingdoms

How can this be? Are we too blinded by the love of our own brands that we can’t see the larger picture? I don’t think it’s this bias that’s influencing us. Instead, it’s the self-centered structure of positioning and its sacrosanct status within most organization.

It’s time we risk marketing damnation and question the holy relic of positioning. Rather than thinking of human beings as need machines, we should think of them as narrative machines. As a result, this means understanding the consumer’s life as a series of unfolding stories.

Human beings use narratives to make sense of the world. The chaos, the unrelated bits of data, the random information, the mind wants to make order of it all. So, it puts the pieces together in the way that best fits the mind’s narrative. Whether you’re republican or democrat, young or old, mom or dad, you’re living a life story that you justify, modify and reinforce through the way you make sense of the world.

Search for the Stories to be Told

As marketers, we can use this insight to better tap into our consumers’ narratives. Rather than focusing on the need alone, we must focus on the more meaningful outcome. We have to focus on the desired end of the story. For many consumers, that means focusing on the desired identity. Who do they want to become? How do they want to be known? And how can we help them become that? Instead of thinking about “Jobs to be Done,” I recommend thinking about “Stories to be Told.”

Most of all, this nuance shifts our thinking about our brand from being self-centered to consumer-centered. As a result, it enables us to build deeper relationships with consumers. It takes on the focus of helping them express their identity. In some cases, it may be through your product. Apple’s technologies suggest a creative spirit. A minivan demonstrates you’re a responsible parent.

But in other cases, supporting their narrative is beyond the product. Gap recently launched a campaign in support of normalizing breast feeding and Harry’s created a video that explores the complexity, chaos and confusion around masculinity in a genuine, honest way. Each of these enables a consumer to reinforce their own values, whether it’s in breastfeeding or redefining masculinity, by purchasing these brands.

The focus on the consumer’s narrative inherently moves us from the idea of positioning as a static spot in the mind to occupy to the idea of being in a dynamic journey with the consumer through their life. If done well, it may even be for their whole life.

If you’d like to find out more about this approach, send me a note, or consider registering for our upcoming webinar on Narrative Design.

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