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Opinion: It’s All About Positioning and Proposition

It’s easy to get distracted by the latest new platform or digital development and forget about what’s most important in marketing: positioning and propositions, says Dave Tallon.

So, here’s the thing. Out there, in the real world, it’s brutal. Relentlessly unforgiving. It’s a fight. A war. Ideas carefully hatched in a room, get destroyed, misinterpreted, misused (Dublin’s Portal anyone?), misunderstood or worse, completely ignored. So, before stepping out to holler your thing, understanding WTF you’re going to say, about what, to whom and how, is critically important. Existence (alone) is futile. You need to be understood. Or more accurately, your value needs to be understood. Which isn’t easy.

It’s the basic stuff. What are you? What do you do? Why does it matter? Where do you fit in? Things like attention, reach, frequency, distinctive assets, share of voice, clicks, views etc, are all important, but without two things as old as methuselah’s pot, they’re just rubber bullets. Good positioning and a solid proposition.

Miyamoto Musashi, the great Japanese philosopher and swordsman, said “The primary thing when you take a sword in your hands is your intention to cut the enemy, whatever the means. Whenever you parry, hit, spring, strike or touch the enemy’s cutting sword, you must cut the enemy in the same movement. It is essential to attain this. If you think only of hitting, springing, striking or touching the enemy, you will not be able actually to cut him.”

It’s the same for brands. All the faffing about is useless, unless positioned to succeed, and to cut, with a sharp relevant proposition. That’s the goal. Continuing with the fencing analogy, having identified who you’re targeting (for another time), positioning is finding your best stance to give yourself an advantage vs you opponent. And a good proposition is the best way to make a mark. It’s about being intentional, with every move.

Let’s take a quick look at both.

Positioning, what’s that all about?

When we make decisions about anything, context matters. We determine value (good or bad) in relation to an alternative. How does this compare to the others I could choose (or lack of)?

Positioning is being clear about where you want to sit, relative to the competitors, in the minds of the people you’ve identified as your best prospects. Fulfil bars aren’t really that good for us. But compared to chocolate bars, they are.

Baileys is an indulgent drink. But compared to cake, not so much. Trump is a charlatan, but compared to politicians, his supporters think he’s refreshing.

Being clear about who you’re competing with, is incredibly useful. Finding the right frame of reference, helps highlight your strengths. It can re-frame a brand, or a category.

When Lucozade repositioned from a product that “aids recovery” to one that “replaces lost energy”, it re-framed the brand and the category from sick beds, to running tracks. Positioning can re-frame categories, competitors, and the value a product or service delivers.

Weak positioning, can leave buyers or prospects confused about what your product is, the value you offer, and why it should matter.

Trump is positioned as the common man, an anti-politician, and a liberator. For mindless supporters, he’s freeing Americans from the lies of the establishment. A unique, honest broker, bringing real truth. A smart business man too, who knows what’s what. He isn’t going to beat politicians (he can’t win that fight), he’s going to beat politics (he can win). That’s good positioning.

Propositions, what are they all about?

Rosser Reeves’ Unique Selling Proposition was conceived in 1961, as a way “to do away with product puffery” and focus on the unique benefit. The more single minded, the better. Although unique has been mostly dropped now (deemed unattainable), the single minded benefit has survived. And as the great Al Ries said in 1981 “in communication, as in architecture, less is more. You have to sharpen your message to cut into the mind. You have to jettison the ambiguities, simplify, and then simplify it some more if you want to make a long-lasting impression”.

Nothing’s changed. Propositions are the essence, the core, the tip of the spear. As Al Ries said “Your job is really not a communication project in the ordinary meaning of the word. It’s a selection project. You have to select the material that has the best chance of getting through”.

Propositions, like strategy, are sacrifice. You can’t go North and South at the same time. They force decisions. They focus. We remember “I have a dream”, “Yes we can”, “Make America Great Again”, not much else. Although there’s growing list of proposition types, like brand, advertising, product value, employer value etc, and lots of methods and frameworks, they should all be trying to do the same thing. Single minded focus on what matters most to the receiver, not the sender. To sell. That’s the timeless power of good propositions.

It’s hard to remember what really matters in marketing and communications. A waffle bias, and a layer of gibberish industry speak, creates confusion. We can get distracted by pipes and platforms and forget about what’s most important. Positioning and propositions though, remind us of the timeless simplicity and importance of figuring out where to play and how to win. And in a fight, they’re more often the things that matter most.

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