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Brand Positioning: What to Convey vs. What to Say

Jean-Claude Van Damme does the splitsWhen it comes to positioning and messaging, there’s a fundamental distinction between “the idea” and “the message.”

We sometimes work with clients who come to us for positioning help, but then ask us to tell them what to say as their message. This typically happens after we’ve worked together to drill down what their complex organization does into a single, compelling idea. We’ve helped them articulate who they are, what they do and why they matter to their critical audiences, and it’s at this point where they run into trouble. We hear comments such as, “this positioning statement doesn’t just roll off the tongue.” Our clients are hoping they can take the positioning statement we’ve given them and simply drop it as messaging language into communication material. It doesn’t work like that.

Positioning vs. Copy
The position of your company sets you apart from everyone else. Used strategically, positioning should be the foundation for the messaging and communication that comes next, such as taglines and tactical advertising slogans. Positioning is internal and timeless—it is what you want to convey holistically, not what you literally say in each communication piece.

The message you then put forth should reflect your position and target the key opportunities and audiences you want to address. If every message comes from a common conceptual foundation and engages with its target audience in relevant ways, the effect of the brand will be greater than just the sum of its parts.

A good example of this is when Volvo Trucks wanted to highlight the precision and dynamics of Volvo Dynamic Steering in 2013. Volvo produced a memorable commercial featuring Jean-Claude Van Damme doing the splits between two moving semitrailer trucks. Volvo is famously positioned around safety; the ad effectively conveyed both the company’s positioning and the key point they wanted their customers to understand using inspired, memorable imagery.

Tips for a successful positioning/messaging relationship

  • Treat your positioning as your galvanizing idea. Once you’ve identified what you want to convey, you can take creative latitude to express it based on specific communication needs.
  • Don’t use positioning as your communication boilerplate. You should always be thinking of what you want your audience to understand, instead of simply looking for language you can plug in.

When used effectively, positioning and messaging takeaways are the litmus test for brand communications. They help guide communications—they are the key ideas, not the literal words.

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Winners in 2013

Managing Director Ken Pasternak

When we look back at the client relationships we’ve enjoyed over this last year, there’s one word that sums up our experience: Inspiration.

Our clients have shown both resilience and initiative in a time of uncertainty and recovery. In coming to us for help, they’ve shown they are committed to a renewed identity, a stronger position, or a clearer message to communicate to their audiences. We have been thrilled to assist these groups through this process.

There are several examples from this past year of clients doing extraordinary work to further their missions, and build their brands in the process. Our higher education clients, such as Georgetown and Caltech, set examples everyday of their innovation and thought leadership. UC San Francisco and Highmark, our clients in the healthcare field, are working to improve the quality of care and increase patient satisfaction. And in the technology sector, VMware is technology that makes any service ubiquitous, efficient and within reach.

It is easy for an organization to tolerate fuzzy thinking, let costs rise and lose sight of their mission. We’re proud of the committed work our clients do remain at the vanguard of higher education, healthcare and technology, and we see many good things ahead for them. We are inspired as we go into 2014.

Highlights from our clients’ 2013:

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Corporate Naming Lessons From Naming People

Marilyn Monroe

Many Hollywood stars have changed their names and gone on to successful careers that would be hard to imagine if they hadn’t made the switch. For example, Marilyn Monroe’s real name is Norma Jeane Mortensen.

Back in the 1970s, Herbert Harari, a psychologist at San Diego State University, found evidence that teachers discriminate against “oddly” named pupils. Eighty teachers were asked to grade four different papers written by fourth and fifth grade students. No matter which papers the names Elmer and Hubert appeared on, they averaged one full grade lower than the same papers attributed to Michael and David.

Since that time, other researchers have noticed the strong first impression that names create and demonstrated their role in creating expectations for the people they’re attached to (“What’s in a Name? Maybe it’s a student’s grade!”).

Corporations can also have loser names, something that can be confirmed by research or general intuition, and such names can unfairly and negatively influence perceptions of their performance or potential.

Changing a “Loser” Name
Many Hollywood stars have changed their names and gone on to successful careers that would be hard to imagine if they hadn’t made the switch. Archibald Leach became Cary Grant. Marion Morrison became John Wayne. Norma Jeane Mortensen became Marilyn Monroe.

While name changes in the corporate world are possible, the process is more complicated. New corporate names need to be accepted and supported by employees, customers and investors, and they can’t infringe on the good will of other corporate names.

Professional firms and corporations often get consumed by trying to preserve equity in existing names. Advertising agency Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn had a name that was a tongue twister, so they switched to the initials BBDO, just as PricewaterhouseCoopers became PwC.

But if thoughtful enough, corporate name changes can benefit corporations as much as—if not more than—they benefit individuals.

Lessons Learned
Through the work we’ve done with past clients like GE, Disney and Adobe, we’ve put together a list of tips that may help you through a name change:

  • Individuals and companies have a choice in how they name themselves
  • Some names can be perceived as losers and some as winners
  • Loser names can be successfully changed to winning names
  • It’s important to live up to the conveyed or implied promise of a name
  • Short names are generally more impactful than long names
  • There is a fine line between names that are unique and names that alienate
  • Don’t let “equity” in ineffective names prevent you from developing better names

The main reason companies give for not fixing a sub-par name is that they don’t want to lose their “brand equity.” But, you have to give up something that’s not working to gain something that’s better. Advertising and promoting an ineffective name is throwing good money after bad.

Visit our website for more information on our naming services.

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Need a Creative Breakthrough? Reframe Your Approach

Leonardo da Vinci challenged convention with his thinking, as he demonstrated in his drawings of his flying machine. Similarly, we must be creative thinkers as we work to position our clients. (Courtesy Toronto Public Library)

Leonardo da Vinci challenged convention with his thinking, as he demonstrated in his drawings of his flying machine. Similarly, we must be creative thinkers as we work to position our clients. (Courtesy Toronto Public Library)

At Marshall, we’re not designers, but we appreciate the creative problem solving approach that visual designers employ. When we are called upon to position a client, we must find a way to describe their complex organization in a single compelling thought, which requires similarly creative thinking.

This can be a daunting task, especially with the multifaceted clients we work with. For example, we have several higher education clients, such as UC Berkeley and Caltech, who are known for being leaders across a breadth of disciplines. When we work with them on positioning, our goal is to develop one defining thought that’s clear enough for the organization’s audiences to understand, but broad enough so they aren’t limited by it. We call this strategic ambiguity, but that doesn’t mean that this thought can be vague. It still has to be true, differentiating and meaningful.

Along the way we might get stuck as we work to distill this “big idea” from the many important facts we hear. When we get stuck, the key is to approach the problem from a different perspective—to be unconventional.

Getting Unstuck

There are a few tips we can share that will help pull you out of your creativity slump, reframe your position and move ahead.

  • Do your homework. Early on, we immerse ourselves in the client’s world as deeply as we can—interviewing people inside and outside of the organization, spending time in their environment and looking for as much insight as possible. Then, if we need to shift the direction, we have plenty of research to go back to.
  • Listen for the truths. Identify multiple insights at the beginning of the process, instead of beginning the project with one narrow insight. It’s smarter to begin the creative process by thinking of all points of entry into an issue.
  • Go big right out of the gate. Keep your thinking as high level as possible. Look for analogies in other businesses or industries. This will enable you to rise above the details and look for organizing principles.
  • Make sure you’re solving the right problem. Sometimes we end up wrestling with issues—such as organizational or operational problems—that can’t always be solved through positioning or messaging. If you try to resolve the wrong problem, the solution will always be at odds with it.

Early on in our work with UC Berkeley, we saw them as a uniquely unconventional institution. But the idea of “challenging convention” was divisive, as for many it tied the school to the rebellious era of the ’60s and left-wing protests. We reframed our thinking and thought about Berkeley’s excellence across every discipline—a truly renaissance institution where breakthroughs often happen because disparate ideas collide daily. If Berkeley were a person, we thought, it would be someone like Leonardo da Vinci. We found Berkeley’s bigger promise in this renaissance spirit—reimagining the world, by challenging convention to shape the future.

Creative problem solving begins with being well informed, then taking a step back to free oneself of the details. When you let go for a minute, and look for the unconventional approach or reframe your path, new avenues will open.

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