Brand positioning vs brand stories: too many cereals and not enough zombies

In Ries and Trout’s pioneering theory of brand positioning the aim is to cut through the noise of ‘me-too’ products to establish a window or niche in the consumers mind. The metaphor always left me with an uncomfortable sensation of a growing number of windows and a shrinking amount of space in which to fit them.  

In 1981 when Ries and Trout’s bestseller was published (Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind) few can have truly foreseen the true extent to which our attention would be fought over with the growth of the Internet, wireless devices and the explosion of social media.

Yet we are soaking up—and sharing—relentless streams of information. Most of us are ‘wired in’ every minute of our waking lives and happy to be so. The difference is that the dialogue is truly two-way and open-ended. The consumer is rapidly becoming king and it is the nature of the story that rules.

Unlike models of positioning, we seem to have an infinite and zealous appetite for stories. It seems our brains can only cope with so many reasons to buy cereals, but our minds don’t have to justify forking out to see yet another zombie film. Where products agonize to find a unique and innovative space, Hollywood is happy to dress up a tried and tested formula again and again with amazing success. You’ll still get blockbusters and turkeys but they are essentially variations on a theme.

Our minds are structured for stories—not product benefits—and no matter how predictable or familiar the tale, we are happy to hear it told and retold in as many ways possible. Stories capture our imagination in ways that straightforward messages and data can’t.

It’s no longer about where this product fits into your mind -and life; it’s where the causes, morals, attitudes and prerogatives of the brand can fit with your life. Many great stories are built around a struggle, and a hero on a mission who fights for what they believe in. At a basic level this informs the way to interact. What are a brand’s basic beliefs? What is a brand fighting for? Who are they fighting? Marmite’s move to a campaign of ‘love or hate’ was a master stroke in the story stakes. They accepted there were people who genuinely disliked the product and encouraged the tension and conflict that are inherent in great stories. What results is a passionate defence of your brand by die hard advocates.

Photo: Hammier than ham campaign for SPAM
Photo: “Hammier than ham” campaign for SPAM
Photo: Hammier than ham campaign for SPAM
Photo: ”Hammier than ham” campaign for SPAM

For one of our UK client brands, SPAM© Chopped Pork and Ham, we were dealing with perceptions that the brand was irrelevant and old-fashioned’. The story we built for them combined a self-deprecating statement and a taste-differentiating product benefit. By embracing the story of ‘Hammier than Ham’ the brand has permission to laugh at itself, underline its unique taste and have a dig at so-called superior ‘ham’ to boot. In an archetypal sense this has a whiff of the outlaw about it. It flies against perceptions of canned food and current diet trends and in doing so creates its own tension and conflict. SPAM© fans have come out of the cupboard in their tens of thousands on Facebook to eulogize about the brand and proudly stand up to its defence in the face of any criticism.

So before you turn to ways of positioning a brand, look at the stories you could tap into first. Check your brand’s back story to see what the brand’s original cause was and what it was fighting for.  Where is the tension, the challenge, and how can you make the most of it? How can you exploit being the underdog, and whom or what could be the unlikely hero? When you struggle to find a brand positioning start to think like Hollywood.  You’ll find there is always room for another twist on the story—no matter how many times its been told.

About the Author

Ant Philips_Kerbang

Ant Phillips is the Creative Strategist of Kerbang. He has over 25 years’ experience as a Copywriter and Brand Consultant and is currently a Creative Strategist at Brand Storytelling Agency, Kerbang.

Kerbang have always believed in the power of the brand story and for many years utilized brand stories in our brand positioning work. We believe it’s so important to brands today, that we have now geared our entire agency process to helping our clients tell compelling brand stories.