Testing positioning: why marketers are wasting their time

Honestly, I don’t know if a majority of consumer goods companies test their choices for positioning statements, but the ones with which I have worked certainly did not. Sony never tested anything. Their practice was inspired by a belief that their marketers knew how to market, and would never trust their customers to tell them how to position their brands. Dove cleansing bar (yes, it’s not a soap) never tested either. They felt that their brand identity was so well established that it was patently obvious if a position would or wouldn’t work. To be clear, these companies did do research to better understand how their brands could better engage customers, but they never tested positioning statements with customers. So why do most companies ignore the wisdom of the Sonys and Doves of the world and put themselves through such a frivolous exercise?

Before examining the dubious reasons behind researching a positioning statement, let’s agree on what it is. A positioning statement is a document used by marketers to put forth a single-minded idea about what their brand wants to stand for in the minds of customers. Companies use a positioning statement as the central tool to inform marketing and communications decisions to convince customers that the intended reason for why they should engage with the brand is the actual reason they engage with the brand. It’s a proposition, and it is framed in the following standard template:

Brand X is (insert frame of reference) that (insert what the brand does for customers, also called the brand promise) because (reasons to believe the brand promise) so that (insert how customers should feel after engaging with the brand).

Here’s an example: Mercedes-Benz is the premiere luxury vehicle that gives you an unparalleled driving experience because every detail is of the highest standards so that customers feel an enhanced status in life.

To show how this tool works, it inspired the tag line, “The best or nothing,” brilliantly capturing the idea that customers who buy the brand are uncompromising in their life choices. The positioning statement is therefore aspirational—how Mercedes wants their customers to feel about their brand—and not actual—how potential customers should feel about the brand having never owned or driven one. Further, the positioning statement is, ironically, an internal document that customers will never see. So why, for heaven’s sake, would one test a positioning statement that A) customers will never be exposed to, and B) customers will never appreciate until the company tells them how to think? Testing positioning statements is like asking people to imagine an experience about which they know nothing. And it’s the marketer’s job to put forth how customers should imagine the experience. So testing a positioning statement is asking customers to do the marketer’s job. It’s a blatant abdication of responsibility.

Some will say that asking customers to evaluate positioning statements assures the company of where the bulls-eye is in their minds. In other words, “tell us how to market our brand to you.” There are two problems with this line of thinking:

  1. The majority of customers don’t have a clue about marketing strategies, and
  2. The majority of customers don’t really know, at heart, what they want or why they want it.

This might sound cynical, but it’s not. It’s just human nature. Ask customers if they would feel like revolutionaries if they just used a laptop computer, and they would say, “are you kidding me?” But Apple showed them how to imagine this reality (Think different). Ask customers if they feel better about themselves if they just used a shampoo, and they would say, “yeah, right; washing my hair boosts my ego.” But L’Oreal showed them how to think this way (Because you’re worth it).

Most people would never admit that they don’t really know what they want deep down inside. It’s a humiliating proposition. It takes issue with their intelligence and self-awareness. But the uncomfortable fact is that people are so confident in their ability to be self-determining that they lose sight of their real motives. I often ask research subjects, “What are you buying when you buy X?” If the answer is convenience or taste or any other functional attribute, I know that they are not really aware of what their purchase intends. People feel good about themselves when they build things. So people don’t buy housewares and hammers and lumber from Home Depot; they buy pride (You can do it. We can help.). People are anxious that they won’t be able to find all they need to work at an office efficiently. So people don’t buy pens and blotters and desk chairs from Staples; they buy reassurance (Yeah, we got that).

So marketers, don’t test positioning statements; test the creative ideas and marketing moves that stem from the statements—tag lines, advertising, packaging, web sites, etc. These are measurable tactics that will yield how well you are delivering on your brand’s position. Don’t believe me? Then consider this: I should have tested the idea of blogging before I did it. I would ask you, “should I write?” even before you’ve ever read what I will be writing. Now tell me, doesn’t that sound inane?

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