Psychological Approach to Brand Positioning

Posted in Marketing & Strategy Articles, Total Reads: 3364 , Published on 24 December 2012

This article delves into the basics of Branding and how brand positioning can be done more effectively by studying the nuances of human behaviour.

So what exactly is a brand ? A concept that conjures up images of fancy logos or sexy advertisements in the minds of most marketers. According to students of Msc. Brand leadership, a one of a kind course offered at Norwich B. School, it is a set of unique values. This definition is probably broad enough to encompass several connotations of the word’ brand’. Though the definition manages to capture the essence of Brand, in no way does it make a marketer’s job easier. I will first try to answer the questions that might pop into a marketer’s mind when she is first exposed to this definition such as Who decides the values that a brand stands for? Why are they unique?


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It does not require marketing acumen to figure out that the values that a brand stands for are determined by the owner of the brand. The owner could be small company, a multinational corporation even an individual. These values need to be unique since brands are often a source of differentiation and therefore sustainable competitive advantage. This differentiation is achieved through brand positioning i.e. creating a unique perception in the minds of consumers. In fact one of the alternate definitions of brand positioning is ‘creating meaningful differentiation’.

Since brand positioning involves gaining customer mindshare it has to be achieved through clear and consistent communication and reinforcement of the values that the brand stands for, in the minds of consumers. Several companies that have done this have been successfully able to create strong positive brand associations in the minds of consumers Coke for instance which has never tinkered with its brand logo in a big way, had a brand  valuation of  $70 billion in 2010. Ironically, its closes t competitor in India, Pepsi, spent a hefty amount on redesigning its logo. The effort figures in the list of the 10 worst rebranding exercises in the history of marketing. No wonder the F&B maker promptly changed it back. Other rebranding disasters include Comcast changing its name to xfinity, Pepsico changing the packaging of its orange juice‘Tropicana’, that attracted the public wrath . Not all re-branding efforts though had a negative brand rub-off. One of the most prominent success stories is the brand re-engineering of lifebuoy by HUL. The changes were noticeable and conspicuous and ranged from a change in the more tangible look and feel to the intangible positioning. The reason why the latter was successful was that the re-engineering aligned all the other brand elements with the new positioning, thus the rebranding was end to end and not just one odd attribute of the product or brand being toyed with. From the aforementioned examples the message is loud and clear, Branding can only be successful when all the elements of a brand are consistent and reinforce the positioning. So, ‘All brand elements shall be consistent with ONE distinct Positioning’ probably is potent enough to qualify as the 11th commandment.

Or is it? Compelling arguments can be made against the above observation. To strengthen my case let me start by looking at the history of brands and their evolution as a concept. Brands have been with us for a long time now. Back in the 1650s cattle were branded, at the time a brand was only a mark of ownership. Later on brands were burned on wooden cases (mostly wine cases) and became a guarantee of a good source or manufacturer’s promise about quality. Brands further evolved not only to guarantee quality but also evoke desire and help us as customers to belong. Now brands work differently, they mean what the customers say they mean. They have traditionally belonged to farmers, manufacturers, advertisers and organizations, now they belong to the customers. Ronald T rust, Christine Moorman and Gaurav Bhalla in their article ‘Rethinking Marketing’ comment that even though powerful technologies for understanding and interacting with customers are available, yet most still depend on mass media marketing to drive impersonal transactions. To compete, companies are required to become more customers centric. The authors further go on to suggest that marketing department in companies must be reinvented as a “customer department” which focuses on customer profitability rather than product profitability, the former measured by metrics such as customer lifetime value and customer equity. So the article establishes the importance of understanding the customer in and out before planning any marketing effort. The customers are different individuals, the’ science’ of marketing acknowledges that and instruments of market research used by various companies are meant to study characteristics of customers that drive purchases i.e. customer needs. These needs are then used categorize customers into segments and a firms target segments depending on their ability to fulfil these needs. Brand positioning however requires a deeper understanding of customers. Since positioning seeks to establish a unique perception in customers’ minds via positive brand associations. This is where the catch is!!

There is psychological evidence to suggest that same symbols, colors even language can invoke completely different associations in the minds of different individuals. I have witnessed this phenomenon in person so I can think of no better example to cite than my own experience; a few years ago I was in the US on an exchange program as an undergraduate student. I was talking to one American student about the disasters that have befallen the people in our respective countries. He cited the attack on World Trade Towers as one of the worst ones in American history. Being a Sikh with roots in Amritsar the example on the top of my head was the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, which witnessed the death of 2000 odd people. As soon as I completed the narration of the melancholy piece of Indian History. He responded with a” wow” and a mournful nod of the head. Growing up in Indian household, I got thoroughly confused with an apparently misfit expression given the context. I clarified and I got to know that in India where “wow” is used to express a pleasant surprise, in the US it may be used to express profound remorse.

If that is the contrast in the reaction that the same stimulus can elicit, Is it advisable for Brands to have just one concrete positioning? What if there is an outburst from a section of customers who feel it is offensive? Even if the group that lashes out does not consist of current or potential customers, the negative word of mouth is not good for brand equity. From this standpoint shouldn’t the company position a brand loosely and let it have multiple associations as long as they are all positive?

Not quite, firstly there will always be a risk of competition encroaching upon the positioning and therefore gaining customer mindshare. Second,  meaningful  differentiation will be difficult to achieve especially for commodities. Is this an irresolvable paradox?

Certainly not.  Psychology holds the answer. According to the theory of conditioning, an individual’s behaviour is modified by its consequences. The same theory can be applied to customers’ behaviour to brands. Obviously every company would want to condition its customers in ways that their brand invokes only positive associations in the minds of customers, it is not an easy task. A more practical way would be to segment customers according to how they have been conditioned and then zero in on a positioning that is best suited to the target segment making sure that the positioning does not impress other segments negatively. Psychographic segmentation though is closely related to conditioning based segmentation yet it concentrates only on certain individual behaviours (Lifestyle for instance). It does not attempt to understand the conditioning that has led to development of such behaviours.

The advantages of conditioning based segmentation is that not only does it help in creating a brand positioning which is more attuned to customer mindset, it increases the chances of positive brand associations in the minds of consumers. As an example the idea of being wealthy might be very different for a sheikh in Saudi Arabia for whom the wealthiest have the most number of wives, whereas for a corporate honcho wealth might ownership of a large estate and several luxury cars. The difference is due to different backgrounds of both people but more importantly due to different conditioning of both individuals.

This article has been authored by Taman Deep Singh Bajaj and Anurag Saxena from MDI Gurgaon.


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