Mark Ritson on branding: Why are brand positionings made so complex?

Over the past five years I have observed some outrageously successful brand executions. But for the most part, I have watched large organisations wasting millions of euros on attempts to position their brands in ways that can never succeed. In this two-part column, I will share the two great brand positioning lessons I have learned. This week: simplicity - or rather, the lack thereof.

Ultimately, if we are successful, positioning will drive the company's behaviour to such a degree that it will appear in customer research as the things customers notice about that company. Unfortunately, most companies have such complicated positioning at the heart of their brands that there is no chance that this simple process will occur. Instead of a simple, tight definition of what the brand stands for, we find brand keyholes, triangles, wheels and dictionaries - layer after layer of complexity that will only serve to kill the brand's execution.

It's like the game of Chinese whispers. Whisper a complicated word into the ear of the first person in the group and by the time it reaches the end of the chain it has warped into something different. Whisper a simple word and it stays the same along the line. In most companies the positioning is so complex that even the originating brand manager, on closing the laptop holding the presentation, can't remember what it was. What hope, then, for the consumer at the end of a chain that spans strategy, marketing, sales and retail before reaching them?

Why so much complexity? The main reason is that brand managers believe the positioning is so important, and has taken up so much time and resources, that complexity equals greater impact. In reality, less is more. Finding one word for the brand is much harder than finding eight. Positioning is not like throwing shit against a wall - the more you throw at it, the greater the chance of something sticking.

Equally guilty in the great complexity scandal are the brand consultants driven more by billable hours than brand results. Creating super-complex triangles and concentric circles containing multiple terms such as brand personality and brand essence ensured their fees were greater than the likelihood of their client's brand effectiveness.

The foremost key to success in branding is to create a tight positioning statement. A positioning that captures the essence of the offering in a way that is accessible to all members of the organisation and appeals to consumers. This is incredibly difficult, but I can tell you brand wheels and triangles just do not work. The old-school approach of a simple, tight positioning statement is about to enjoy a renaissance as senior managers realise how grossly ineffective their highly complex previous efforts were.

The greatest initial test for brand positioning is whether your brand manager can remember it unaided. Then ask your chief executive. Then ask the porter from downstairs who meets more customers than your chief executive and brand manager combined. If all three come up with the same basic concept, you are in the 1% of companies who are in with a chance of brand-building.

Next week: the scandalously generic ways in which brands are positioned, why most companies opt for the same tired old brand values, what they are and why they don't work.

- Mark Ritson is assistant professor of marketing at London Business School

30 SECONDS ON ... FUTILE BRAND POSITIONING TECHNIQUES

- Brand wheels: core benefits at the heart of the brand surrounded by more tangible product features and image associations on either side of the circle. Beloved of FMCG companies.

- Brand keyholes: core values on top of a long list of brand associations and product features. Popular with brand consultants.

- Brand dictionaries: a list of clarifying terms for a brand - each must then be defined with respect to the brand. Terms usually include brand essence, brand associations and brand personality. Popular with management consultants.

- Brand pyramids: influenced by Maslow's hierarchy of needs, the pyramid begins at the bottom with basic functional attributes, moves up to emotional attributes and then gradually rises through values and personality to reach the zenith of the pyramid with brand essence.

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