30-second summary:

  • Agencies and consultants have proposed many buzzwords as the answer to everything. These are second and third-tier, with brand de-positioning a true source of competitive advantage
  • De-positioning involves highlighting a positive feature about your product or service, that indirectly shines a negative light on the competition
  • Todd Irwin, CSO and Founder of Fazer, unravels de-positioning, how to put it into practice, and looks at Starbucks and Apple as two masters of de-positioning

Todd Irwin HeadshotTrends and buzzwords come and go. In my twenty-plus years in the branding business, I’ve heard that the answer to all a strategy needs is “disruption,” “differentiation,” “relevance,” “a unique selling proposition,” “a unique customer experience,” or “personalization.”

The most recent cure-all is something called “brand purpose.” This idea centers around the idea that “What” you do, and “How” you do it, aren’t as important as “Why” you do it. This “Why” is supposed to be something bigger than selling products. Customers should connect with this Why and buy from you.

To be clear, all these aspects of brand strategy have value, but many agencies and consultants sell them as the most critical element of a brand. They just aren’t. They are second or third-tier at best.

Enter De-Positioning

How a brand positions itself in the market has been a tried-and-true strategy going back to agency legend David Ogilvy. However, the most effective approach, the one that drives customers to choose your brand over the others, is something that few brand strategists talk about. It’s called de-positioning.

Simply put, de-positioning is when you highlight a positive feature about your brand that, by doing so, shines a negative light on the competition. This differs from calling out competitor brands directly in a print or digital ad. Instead, you highlight a positive feature that fulfills a customer’s desire or solves a pain point—but this is one that competitors don’t have or can’t do very well.

Target desires and pain points

De-positioning is a strategy that addresses the most important things customers are looking for when they’re on their buying journey: desires and pain points.

Desires: “I want or need something for a reason, and I’ve decided that I’m going to buy it.”

Pain Points: “I have an issue that needs to be solved by the best product or service solution.”

This juncture is where the popular brand purpose strategy falls apart. Buyers don’t start their buying journey thinking, “Let me go out and find a company with brand purpose.” Instead, customers think, “I need something. Let me go buy it,” or “I have an issue. Let’s find something that solves it.”

Simple motivations such as these have never changed. And they are not going to change, despite marketing leaders proposing that brand purpose is what the customer cares about most or that brand purpose is the fundamental driving force behind a company’s marketing strategy. It’s just not going to happen.

De-positioning highlights what your company can do for your customers that competitors cannot. At the same time, it appeals to their deepest needs, concerns, and desires. It’s efficient in a way. You can promote your product’s strengths while simultaneously pointing out the flaws or shortcomings of your competitors.

Your competitors’ weaknesses create the customer need or pain point in the first place. You fill that gap by providing a solution that relieves the customers’ pain and satisfies their expectations. This ability should become your company’s primary brand mission and message.

De-positioning first, then business strategy

What makes de-positioning effective is its authenticity and simplicity. It is about creating an association without overtly spelling it out and knocking the customer over the head with it. A brand needs to own that singular idea in the customer’s mind and deliver everything with its brand positioning top-of-mind.

As such, de-positioning should be the number one growth driver for your business. It must sit at the top of the funnel of a brand strategy. With the overall branding — composed of multiple layers of stories, images, language, and sub-themes — bolstering and aligning with the main de-positioning idea, it all must come from where you have positioned your brand in the market.

De-positioning can also inform your larger business strategy. I have seen business leaders that, in the process of mapping their brand strategy to their business strategy, found business opportunities they had missed entirely. Once they became aware of these, they returned to the drawing board. They adjusted their products to benefit from these newly identified opportunities.

This shows not only the power of positioning a brand correctly but also the importance of doing it as early as possible. Positioning and de-positioning should be the top-of-the-funnel platform that the brand stands on. It can thereby inform the overall brand narrative. And since the positioning will be with the company for life, getting it wrong or doing it too late can lead to lots of re-work. And, in some scenarios, a loss of profits.

Apple and Starbucks: Masters of brand de-positioning

Apple, the expert in brand and brand positioning, displayed a recent example of brilliant de-positioning. As the company lost the battle in voice assistants, with Forbes calling Siri an ugly stepchild to Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant, Apple—which will never concede defeat—chose to redirect its focus to privacy, thereby de-positioning the competition who truly can’t deliver it. Apple’s competitors all use and share consumer data to teach their algorithms and perfect the all-knowing capability of their voice assistants. However, this also happens to be a significant pain point for customers.

Apple observed that customers are deeply suspicious of this surveillance and are yearning for privacy. Since transparency is the customers’ pain point, Apple de-positions the competition by positioning its brand as the “guardian of privacy.”

In truth, Apple’s use of de-positioning based on privacy is a bit of an outlier because by doing so, the company adds a positioning layer. Its de-positioning strategy of privacy now stands alongside the company’s original positioning idea, which is usability. Typically, only one positioning idea is the foundation of a business. For example, Volvo owns the idea of safety, and Disney positions around wonder and magic. But Apple now owns both usability and privacy.

Starbucks announce 'third place' in a de-positioning moveAnother excellent example is Starbucks, the creator of a concept called “the third place.” There’s home, there’s work, and then there’s Starbucks, a community and destination driven by coffee. Can you name another omnipresent coffee house where you can linger in armchairs, access free Wi-Fi, eat lunch, and use the bathroom? You cannot. This illustrates how the company de-positions its competitors, and with this strategy, Starbucks keeps winning. They have created a category that Dunkin’ and other café brands simply cannot deliver.

Why brand de-positioning should define your 2023

The best message and brand positioning platform to lead and invest in is what is most relevant to a customer. Their needs. Their desires. Your ability to solve their pain points.

Once you’ve created a strong brand that works to position itself in the market by de-positioning the competition, your business will grow more efficiently. Then, in turn, you can invest in your company’s purpose. It’s easier to communicate your purpose and improve the world if you have the resources to do it. Start with de-positioning and watch your profits – and purpose – thrive in turn.

Todd Irwin is Chief Strategy Officer and Founder of Fazer. Fazer is a brand strategy and creative agency offering 30+ years of experience that helps businesses compete. Some of these brand campaigns have helped companies like Nikon, Coca-Cola, Verizon, Walmart, Pepsi, Ann Taylor, Macy’s, and The New York Times (to name a few) increase their relevance in our competitive and rapidly changing business environment.

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