It is increasingly challenging to make meaningful connections that support growth in today’s highly competitive buying environment and rapidly changing world. People now have access to what seems like endless brand choices, primarily due to technological advancements that have reduced the barriers to market entry and made it easier for consumers to compare product and service options. More than a quarter of consumers say they switch brands more often today than ever before. Brands must be thoughtful and strategic about their brand positioning to stand out, connect with their audiences and establish brand loyalty.
Strategically positioning and intentionally cultivating brands is essential to success, whether an organization is launching a new product, introducing a new service or completely reimagining its business. Strategic brand positioning enables organizations to make authentic connections — with their people, partners, customers, investors and communities. These memorable connections build better brands with higher levels of affinity, engagement and trust.
Brand positioning is more than creating an organization’s logo and visual identity. A brand is the strategic articulation of an organization’s goals, purpose, values, workplace culture and desired market position. It boils the business strategy down to an emotional connection — sparked through a memorable and consistent brand story supported by strong visual communication.
The organization’s purpose, mission, values and strategic goals are interconnected and need to support one another to shape a compelling brand that authentically represents who the organization is now and where it’s headed in the future.
Business benefits of a strategically aligned brand
There are significant business benefits to having a strategically aligned and differentiated brand that resonates with internal and external audiences. These include:
- Clear competitive differentiation: People have many choices for products and services — and they have more each day. Organizations must quickly communicate, via their brand stories, why an audience should choose them over other high-performing competitors and new market entries.
A strong brand position articulates why a brand is uniquely different, in addition to defining who the brand is, what they do, why they’re good at it and why it matters. It should be eye-catching, memorable and spark emotion. Organizations establish deeper connections with their targeted audiences when they effectively articulate and visually demonstrate their differentiation in the market.
- Stronger brand affinity and loyalty: People increasingly want to do business with organizations that have shared values. The 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer found that 64 percent of customers are belief-driven buyers. These buyers use their wallets to vote, believe brands can be a powerful force for change, and expect brands to represent them and solve societal problems. These buyers are more likely to choose, switch, avoid or boycott a brand based on its stand on societal issues.
An organization’s brand position should align with its core values to clarify what the company stands for to attract like-minded stakeholders who are more likely to remain loyal to the brand. Research has found that businesses with the highest loyalty scores grow their revenue about two-and-a-half times faster than industry peers and deliver two to five times the shareholder returns over 10 years.
- Improved brand experience and trust: Audiences trust brands more when they know what to expect from them and when the brand delivers on that expectation. A well-executed brand position shows up consistently wherever the brand does — internally, externally and through digital and in-person interactions.
Brand positioning should guide not only how a business communicates but also its operational decisions and processes. The actual experience should be reflective of the brand. Brands that don’t align their customer and employee experiences with their promises create mistrust that hurts loyalty.
- Greater employee engagement: Just as consumers do, employees increasingly choose employers based on whether their values align with the brand’s core values. Businesses that consistently bring their values-aligned brand positioning to life through the employee experience can better attract, recruit and retain values-aligned employees. These employees are more likely to be engaged at work and committed to the organization’s success. Gallup found that more engaged employees produce better outcomes, positively impact customer experience and acquisition, and are more likely to remain with their organization.
The marketplace owns brands
Marketplaces own every brand, contrary to the myth that marketers and advertisers can control how people respond to their brands. Customers, employees, partners, investors and communities decide whether a brand is authentic and trustworthy. They will either support a brand’s direction or reject it if they see inconsistencies in its operations. The business strategy and operations must back up a brand’s position.
Patagonia is an example of a company that had to change its business operations because it wasn’t acting in line with its brand promise. Patagonia’s core brand values center on creating products that limit ecological impacts, cause no unnecessary harm and protect nature. The outdoor retailer launched hiking boots, but when it eventually recognized the negative environmental impact it was driving with its shoes, it stopped producing them. Patagonia couldn’t in good conscience (or in line with its brand) continue making and selling these boots; the marketplace would have called the company out for its brand inconsistency, and they likely would have lost loyal customers.
The marketplace changes regularly, creating an always-evolving environment that requires organizations to revisit their brands regularly. As an organization and its industry change, leaders should ensure their position still makes sense and that there is still alignment across the business and its operations. The goal should not be to change the brand every few years but to reassess how the company activates it in the marketplace.
Organizations should start with the end in mind when identifying a brand position that will resonate with audiences and advance the business. It should consider: Where is the organization trying to go? How can the brand help the company reach its purpose or mission and fulfill its goals? What behaviors does the organization need to live by every day to align with its brand promise? The following strategic inputs can guide businesses down a path toward a compelling, differentiated brand position.
1. Determine the brand’s trajectory
A brand’s position should align with where the organization is today, but it should also propel the brand forward toward its desired future. A business re-evaluating its brand should first assess its corporate strategy and path to growth. For example, is the organization viable, growing and effectively serving customers as it stands today? If not, what adjustments does it need to make to its business strategy and operations to ensure its future success? Once the organization aligns with these decisions internally, it can better determine the brand positioning that will help it reach its business goals.
One of Beehive’s clients was undergoing a significant merger of three hospital systems into one. The merger caused significant disruption among employees and patients because it was nesting all three systems under one of the system’s brands. Patients from the legacy systems weren’t sure if they would receive the same care, and employees didn’t understand workplace expectations. The organization had to carefully consider the new brand’s growth trajectory, operations, strategy and business model before establishing a new brand position and promise. It also had to ensure alignment to a single purpose and set of values to deliver a consistent, believable and trustworthy brand experience.
2. Evaluate cultural macro trends
Macro trends are broad directional shifts experienced across many demographics that have a measurable impact on behavior and cultural norms. Assessing these factors in relation to the organization’s positioning helps the business stay relevant and strategically positioned to address emerging trends. Examples of macro trends to consider when undergoing brand work include:
- How do increasingly high expectations among consumers and employees affect the organization?
- How does the rate of technological change impact the brand’s position?
- How does declining trust affect how the organization brings its story to life?
- What other political, economic, societal, technological, legal and environmental macro trends influence the business and impact the brand?
3. Assess the competitive market
A competitive landscape analysis evaluates an organization’s key competitors to help it assess its brand’s current position in the marketplace — a critical step to identify what makes it uniquely different. A competitive analysis answers the following questions:
- Who are the top competitors the organization should consider?
- Where is the brand currently positioned compared to these competitors?
- Does that positioning align with where the organization is heading strategically?
- If not, what ownable territory exists that the organization can claim?
- What does the marketplace say about the brand? How does that compare to what the organization wants to evoke?
No company can be everything to all people. People choose brands that align best with their values and aspirations. A competitive landscape analysis identifies the leading characteristics of competitors and the type of customers competitors are likely to attract. These insights help an organization claim a unique, ownable marketplace territory and identify the brand characteristics most likely to resonate and connect with its ideal customers.
4. Understand how brand translates internally
There’s a common misconception that a brand is only externally facing. In actuality, living the brand internally is as important as how the brand shows up in the marketplace. An organization that puts a stake in the ground to claim a particular brand position must ensure the employee experience mirrors it. Employees must also understand the brand position, their role in it and why it matters for the position to be brought to life effectively. Most importantly, they must believe in the brand and its promises.
Nike is an example of the importance of the power of internal brand. The athletic retailer launched campaign ads celebrating female athletes, in line with its commitment to break barriers for all athletes. Meanwhile, news broke of sexual harassment and gender discrimination at the company. Employees called a foul on Nike; the company couldn’t tout female empowerment externally when its internal practices didn’t match its message.
A quick breakdown of trust occurs when an organization’s external message misaligns with the internal experience. Companies must bring their brand to life through their workplace culture and values or risk damaging employee recruitment, retention and engagement.
These key strategic inputs provide organizations with the insights necessary to shape a brand position that establishes authentic and memorable connections with audiences.
Only after strategically evaluating an organization, marketplace trends and competitors should a business decide how it brings its brand to life. Strategic brand consulting tools are available to guide decisions that inform brand expression, including the brand’s personality and visual representation and how to apply it consistently across channels.
Applying a brand persona across the customer journey
A brand persona is how an organization’s brand would manifest as a human. It provides direction for bringing a brand to life by assigning it a character, personality and tone of voice. This persona, just like a human, has goals and aspirations, challenges, motivations and skills. It’s up to brand strategists to envision what those would be if an actual person embodied the organization. Organizations can identify dimensions of the brand’s personality using attributes and adjectives commonly found on personality trait spectrums, including rational vs. emotional, analytical vs. creative, introvert vs. extrovert and many more.
Once created, a brand persona becomes a filter for what the brand would or wouldn’t say and how they would say it (tone of voice). Beyond messaging for communicators, personas provide graphic designers with strategic insights to help them envision how the brand should appear visually through colors, images, icons and typography.
Organizations must apply brand personas consistently across an entire customer journey for them to be effective. Customer journey maps identify all of the key cross-channel interactions each of the organization’s targeted audiences has with a brand, including where they find, engage, buy and stay in touch with the business.
The key to a brand effectively embodying its persona is to apply it to each step of the customer journey map. At every touchpoint, customers should feel like they are meeting with and talking to the same person. This brand consistency sets expectations for what customers should expect when interacting with a brand, building trust and loyalty that promotes a positive experience.
Developing the market-facing brand story
Two key components bring a brand position to life: the articulation of the brand story and the brand identity. A brand articulates its positioning through many forms, including messaging and visuals. The brand story should always align with brand voice guidelines and support the strategic brand position, regardless of the format or channel. It should consistently and cohesively make clear who the organization is, what it stands for and believes, and how it’s different from competitors.
Brand voice guidelines distill the brand positioning down to adjectives and rules that help communicators deliver a consistent message and tone wherever the brand shows up. These guidelines are critical as the brand activates its position across numerous channels, formats and internal initiatives, including sales and marketing materials, sponsorship and events, digital and social media, media relations and internal communications.
A brand identity is a visual reflection of the position the organization wants to claim. It includes all of the visual elements (e.g., logo, colors, typography) an organization uses to represent itself to its audiences. Designers should use strategic outputs from brand positioning work, including competitive research, brand personas and voice guidelines, to create visual elements that support the brand’s direction, position and personality.
Considerations for multi-product companies:
Organizations with multiple products should thoughtfully consider how they structure their brand hierarchy with naming conventions and product maps. There are many brand hierarchy models to follow, including a Branded House (e.g., FedEx), Endorsed Brands (e.g., Virgin), House of Brands (e.g., Procter and Gamble) or Hybrid (e.g., Coca-Cola). The chosen brand hierarchy influences how the organization structures future growth and names and positions products. Different hierarchies may call for different approaches to brand personas, messaging and visual identities.
Designing a brand identity to support the strategic position
Brand positioning is more than a brand’s visual identity. However, a refreshed visual brand can be a strong signal to the marketplace that an organization is doing something different or changing gears. It creates an eye-catching platform that starts conversations with audiences about what is changing.
Like brand voice guidelines, visual brand guidelines provide standards for how an organization should use graphic elements of a brand, including the logo, brandmark and typography, regardless of where and when the brand shows up to ensure consistency of look and feel. This consistency matters. Survey respondents indicated that their revenue would increase by 33% on average if their organizations always presented their brand consistently.
Mood boards are an effective way to inspire and guide the creation of a brand identity that reflects and aligns with the strategic brand position. Mood boards bring all of the visual elements of a brand (e.g., colors, icons, photography, imagery, gradients, logo treatments) together for an opportunity to react: What feelings do the visuals evoke? Do those feelings match the emotions the brand is trying to convey? Will the brand resonate with the targeted audiences? Will it stand out in the industry?
strong, compelling and differentiated brand position establishes authentic connections and builds brand affinity internally and externally. Organizations that support their brand position and promise through clear and consistent actions, behaviors and operational decisions will see a measurable impact on their business.
Organizations that align their workplace culture, core values and internal experience with their brand position create stronger relationships with employees, resulting in greater employee engagement and retention. Externally, brands will attract values-aligned customers, build greater trust and deliver a more positive customer experience when they deliver on the brand position and experience they promised.
Measuring the business impact and value of a brand
Traditional methods to evaluate the business impact of brand include brand awareness and equity studies and corporate valuations that tie a brand to a dollar amount. Organizations can also adopt social listening practices or conduct voice of customer surveys to routinely assess what people are saying about the brand in the market and on social media to evaluate whether sentiment matches the brand’s intention.
Another way to evaluate the strength of a brand is to see how well it performs during a disruptive time. No organization wants to find itself in a crisis, but the reality is that most will at some time. An organization in crisis may or may not have the brand equity and trust to emerge from the crisis successfully. Challenging business times like crises require organizations to take a hard look at themselves and assess the following: Have we proven that we do the right thing over time? Have we kept our promises? Have we built trusted relationships with our audiences?
How effectively a brand has delivered on its position and promises can determine how difficult it is for an organization to emerge from a crisis. It may even be the determining factor of whether the organization can emerge — or if it was the final straw for the audiences and business.
Looking outside and inside to differentiate and grow
Strategic positioning paired with a strong brand identity holds power to establish memorable connections that build better brands for a better world. Beehive Strategic Communication has supported numerous organizations with strategic brand positioning services. We develop brand positioning that resonates with both internal and external audiences, first looking outside and then inside to differentiate brands and support their growth. But we don’t stop there. We’re nimble and fast, with deep experience not just making brand recommendations but also rolling out and activating brands in their marketplaces.
Is your organization searching for a strategic brand positioning firm? We’d love to discuss how our approach to strategic brand consulting can help your business grow with purpose.
About Nicki Gibbs, EVP, Strategy
Nicki Gibbs leads strategy and services development at Beehive Strategic Communication. She has more than 20 years of strategic communication experience at Twin Cities PR agencies and on behalf of clients ranging from family-held businesses to multi-national organizations. Nicki helps companies discover, articulate and activate their authentic brand positions to reflect their purpose and values, and to meet the changing needs of the marketplace. Nicki’s ability to imagine what’s possible creates contagious enthusiasm that moves businesses forward.