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23.03.29 + Branding

Building a Brand Positioning to Remember

What do you remember about a brand? Director of Creative Strategy Mika Saulitis offers best practices in writing your brand positioning, and why less is often more.

Years ago I saw a positioning chart that was composed of thirteen—thirteen!—elements. There’s a lot that you can articulate about a brand: pillars and attributes, purposes and promises, visions and missions, beliefs and benefits, friends and enemies, value props and SWOTs. But taking a more-is-more approach muddies what, exactly, the takeaway—your differentiating position—is. It doesn’t firmly plant a flag in the landscape, it seeds two, three, four, or more.

There’s a simple question that you can ask—a litmus test, of sorts—to measure just how impactful a brand’s positioning is: do you remember it? If not, chances are that internal teams don’t either, and will find it difficult to act upon. The most important part of building an effective brand position isn’t deciding what to say, it’s deciding what not to say.

Fighting the Urge to Over- Articulate

There’s a mantra that we use at Trollbäck+Company: discard everything that means nothing. It helps ensure that every word in a position and every pixel in a design has a reason for being. This perspective helps shape not only which elements comprise a brand’s position, but how we articulate those elements through writing.

We’ve found that most clients don’t have time to study each layer of an intricate brand pyramid every time they need to create a marketing asset or a sales presentation. That’s why we aim to boil down positioning to its most essential elements and express them through sticky, punchy words and phrases that are as memorable as they are differentiating. The goal is to identify what’s absolutely essential, and discard everything else.

A Recipe for Simplicity

Effective positioning articulates the essential foundations of a brand, from which additional tactical or department-specific elements can be built. Value propositions and user benefits, for instance, can shape what and how you communicate externally. Brand personality and audience personas are essential for marketing and business teams, but not for HR or operations, so we often build these assets in separate documents.

That’s not to say these additional tools don’t have value, but that they offer a level of information that’s not instructive to the core positioning of the brand, or to the entire company. They’re manifestations of a position–not the position itself.

The Essential Building Blocks

While every client is different, we prefer to build a brand’s position around three elements: Purpose, Pillars, and Promise.

Purpose: This is the reason a company exists, beyond making money. An ideal purpose statement is typically 4-8 words in length, begins with a verb, and feels like an inspiring statement that everyone at the company can rally behind.

  • Nike: Inspire the athlete in everyone
  • Betterment: Make people's lives better
  • Crayola: Unleash originality in every child

Pillars: These are the essential tenets that define and differentiate the company. An ideal set of pillars are nouns (not adjectives—that’s your personality), and should feel distinct and diverse. You don’t want three synonyms that circle around one territory.

  • Apple: Creativity, simplicity, humanity
  • Adidas: Leadership, betterment, performance
  • Disney: Innovation, storytelling excellence, customer focus

Promise: This is what you uniquely offer, or what you do better than anyone else; a singular, pinpointed idea. If you’re tempted to use an Oxford comma or a preposition like “by” or “through,” that’s usually a sign that you’re trying to say too much.

  • Amazon: The earth’s most customer-centric company
  • Planet Fitness: A judgment-free zone where everyone belongs
  • FOX: Breakthrough entertainment that breaks through in pop culture

The above framework ensures that a brand’s positioning is easy to understand, remember, and act upon; it’s how to articulate a strategy. But deciding what the strategic pathway is, that’s a separate endeavor which requires a deep assessment of the company, competitive landscape, and culture at large. It’s typically a multi-week or multi-month process to get to the stage of being ready to articulate a position. But once you’re there…

The Earth, Wind, & Fire Test

There’s perhaps no better mantra—and no catchier opening to a song—than Earth, Wind & Fire’s September: “Do you remember?” That is, can you easily recite every element of your brand positioning? The examples above are from some of the most successful—and complex—businesses in the world, and yet they’re able to distill their essences into simple, intuitive ideas.

If you find yourself constantly needing to reference a document to remember your brand’s positioning, that’s a sign that it’s trying to do too much. Keep it simple, make it memorable, and let that Earth, Wind & Fire earworm play in your head.


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