Concepts of Brand Identity and Positioning
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Published: Thu, 22 Feb 2018
A brand is not the name of a product. It is the vision that drives the creation of products and services under that name. That vision, the key belief of the brands and its core values is called identity. It drives vibrant brands able to create advocates, a real cult and loyalty.
Modern competition calls for two essential tools of brand management: ‘brand identity’, specifying the facets of brands’ uniqueness and value, and ‘brand positioning’, the main difference creating preference in a specific market at a specific time for its products.
For existing brands, identity is the source of brand positioning. Brand positioning specifies the angle used by the products of that brand to attack a market in order to grow their market share at the expense of competition.
Defining what a brand is made of helps answer many questions that are asked every day, such as: Can the brand sponsor such and such event or sport? Does the advertising campaign suit the brand? Is the opportunity for launching a new product inside the brand’s boundaries or outside? How can the brand change its communication style, yet remain true to itself? How can decision making in communications be decentralised regionally or internationally, without jeopardising brand congruence? All such decisions pose the problem of brand identity and definition – which are essential prerequisites for efficient brand management.
Brand identity: a necessary concept
Like the ideas of brand vision and purpose, the concept of brand identity is recent. It started in Europe (Kapferer, 1986).The perception of its paramount importance has slowly gained worldwide recognition; in the most widely read American book on brand equity (Aaker, 1991), the word ‘identity’ is in fact totally absent, as is the concept.
Today, most advanced marketing companies have specified the identity of their brand through proprietary models such as ‘brand key’ (Unilever), ‘footprint’ (Johnson & Johnson), ‘bulls’ eyes’ and ‘brand stewardship’, which organise in a specific form a list of concepts related to brand identity. However, they are rather checklists. Is identity a sheer linguistic novelty, or is it essential to understanding what brands are?
What is identity?
To appreciate the meaning of this significant concept in brand management, we shall begin by considering the many ways in which the word is used today.
For example, we speak of ‘identity cards’ – a personal, non-transferable document that tells in a few words who we are, what our name is and what distinguishable features we have that can be instantly recognised. We also hear of ‘identity of opinion’ between several people, meaning that they have an identical point of view. In terms of communication, this second interpretation of the word suggests brand identity is the common element sending a single message amid the wide variety of its products, actions and communications. This is important since the more the brand expands and diversifies, the more customers are inclined to feel that they are, in fact, dealing with several different brands rather than a single one. If products and communication go their separate ways, how can customers possibly perceive these different routes as converging towards a common vision and brand?
Speaking of identical points of view also raises the question of permanence and continuity. As civil status and physical appearance change, identity cards get updated, yet the fingerprint of their holders always remains the same. The identity concept questions how time will affect the unique and permanent quality of the sender, the brand or the retailer. In this respect, psychologists speak of the ‘identity crisis’ which adolescents often go through. When their identity structure is still weak, teenagers tend to move from one role model to another.
These constant shifts create a gap and force the basic question: ‘What is the real me?’
Finally, in studies on social groups or minorities, we often speak of ‘cultural identity’. In seeking an identity, they are in fact seeking a pivotal basis on which to hinge not only their inherent difference but also their membership of a specific cultural entity. Brand identity may be a recent notion, but many researchers have already delved into the organisational identity of companies (Schwebig, 1988; Moingeon and Soenen, 2003).
There, the simplest verbal expression of identity often consists in saying: ‘Oh, yes, I see, but it’s not the same in our company!’ In other words, corporate identity is what helps an organisation, or a part of it, feel that it truly exists and that it is a coherent and unique being, with a history and a place of its own, different from others.
From these various meanings, we can infer that having an identity means being your true self, driven by a personal goal that is both different from others’ and resistant to change. Thus, brand identity will be clearly defined once the following questions are answered:
- What is the brand’s particular vision and aim?
- What makes it different?
- What need is the brand fulfilling?
- What is its permanent nature?
- What are its value or values?
- What is its field of competence? Of legitimacy?
- What are the signs which make the brand recognisable?
These questions could indeed constitute the brand’s charter. This type of official document would help better brand management in the medium term, both in terms of form and content, and so better address future communication and extension issues. Communication tools such as the copy strategy are essentially linked to advertising campaigns, and so are only committed to the short term. There must be specific guidelines to ensure that there is indeed only one brand forming a solid and coherent entity.
Brand identity and graphic identity charters
Many readers will make the point that their firms already make use of graphic identity ‘bibles’, either for corporate or specific brand purposes. We do indeed find many graphic identity charters, books of standards and visual identity guides. Urged on by graphic identity agencies, companies have rightly sought to harmonise the messages conveyed by their brands. Such charters therefore define the norms for visual recognition of the brand, ie the brand’s colours, graphic design and type of print.
Although this may be a necessary first step, it isn’t the be all and end all. Moreover, it puts the cart before the horse. What really matters is the key message that we want to communicate. Formal aspects, outward appearance and overall looks result from the brand’s core substance and intrinsic identity. Choosing symbols requires a clear definition of what the brand means. However, while graphic manuals are quite easy to find nowadays, explicit definitions of brand identity per se are still very rare. Yet, the essential questions above (ie the nature of the identity to be conveyed) must be properly answered before we begin discussing and defining what the communication means and what the codes of outward recognition should be. The brand’s deepest values must be reflected in the external signs of recognition, and these must be apparent at first glance. The family resemblance between the various models of BMW conveys a strong identity, yet it is not the identity. This brand’s identity and essence can actually be defined by addressing the issue of its difference, its permanence, its value and its personal view on automobiles.
Many firms have unnecessarily constrained their brand because they formulated a graphic charter before defining their identity. Not knowing who they really are, they merely perpetuate purely formal codes by, for example, using a certain photographic style that may not be the most suitable. Thus Nina Ricci’s identity did not necessarily relate to the company’s systematic adherence to English photographer David Hamilton’s style.
Knowing brand identity paradoxically gives extra freedom of expression, since it emphasises the pre-eminence of substance over strictly formal features. Brand identity defines what must stay and what is free to change.
Brands are living systems. They must have degrees of freedom to match modern market diversity.
Identity: a contemporary concept
That a new concept – identity – has emerged in the field of management, already well versed in brand image and positioning, is really no great surprise. Today’s problems are more complex than those of 10 or 20 years ago and so there is now a need for more refined concepts that allow a closer connection with reality.
First of all, we cannot overemphasise the fact that we are currently living in a society saturated in communications. Everybody wants to communicate these days. If needed, proof is available: there have been huge increases in advertising budgets, not only in the major media but also in the growing number of professional magazines. It has become very difficult to survive in the hurly-burly thus created, let alone to thrive and successfully convey one’s identity. For communication means two things: sending out messages and making sure that they are received. Communicating nowadays is no longer just a technique, it is a feat in itself.
The second factor explaining the urgent need to understand brand identity is the pressure constantly put on brands. We have now entered an age of marketing similarities. When a brand innovates, it creates a new standard. The other brands must then catch up if they want to stay in the race, hence the increasing number of ‘me-too’ products with similar attributes, not to mention the copies produced by distributors. Regulations also cause similarities to spread. Bank operations, for example, have become so much alike that banks are now unable to fully express their individuality and identity. Market research also generates herdism within a given sector. As all companies base themselves on the same life-style studies, the conclusions they reach are bound to be similar as are the products and advertising campaigns they launch, in which sometimes even the same words are used.
Finally, technology is responsible for growing similarity. Why do cars increasingly look alike, in spite of their different makes? Because car makers are all equally concerned about fluidity, inner car space constraints, motorisation and economy, and these problems cannot be solved in all that many different ways. Moreover, when the models of four car brands (Audi, Volkswagen, Seat and Skoda) share many identical parts (eg chassis, engine, gearbox), for either productivity or competitiveness purposes, it is mainly brand identity, along with, to a lesser extent, what’s left of each car, which will distinguish the makes from one another.
Diversification calls for knowing the brand’s identity. Brands launch new products, penetrate new markets and reach new targets. This may cause both fragmented communications and patchwork images. Though we are still able to discern bits and pieces of the brand here and there, we are certainly unable to perceive its global and coherent identity.
Why speak of identity rather than image?
What does the notion of identity have to offer that the image of a brand or a company or a retailer doesn’t have? After all, firms spend large amounts of money measuring image.
Brand image is on the receiver’s side. Image research focuses on the way in which certain groups perceive a product, a brand, a politician, a company or a country. The image refers to the way in which these groups decode all of the signals emanating from the products, services and communication covered by the brand.
Identity is on the sender’s side. The purpose, in this case, is to specify the brand’s meaning, aim and self-image. Image is both the result and interpretation thereof. In terms of brand management, identity precedes image.
Before projecting an image to the public, we must know exactly what we want to project. Before it is received, we must know what to send and how to send it. As shown in Figure 7.1, an image is a synthesis made by the public of all the various brand messages, eg brand name, visual symbols, products, advertisements, sponsoring, patronage, articles.
An image results from decoding a message, extracting meaning, interpreting signs.
Where do all these signs come from? There are two possible sources: brand identity of course, but also extraneous factors (‘noise’) that speak in the brand’s name and thus produce meaning, however disconnected they may actually be from it. What are these extraneous factors?
First, there are companies that choose to imitate competitors, as they have no clear idea of what their own brand identity is. They focus on their competitors and imitate their marketing communication.
Second, there are companies that are obsessed with the willingness to build an appealing image that will be favourably perceived by all. So they focus on meeting every one of the public’s expectations. That is how the brand gets caught in the game of always having to please the consumer and ends up surfing on the changing waves of social and cultural fads. Yesterday, brands were into glamour, today, they are into ‘cocooning’; so what’s next? The brand can appear opportunistic and popularity seeking, and thus devoid of any meaningful substance. It becomes a mere façade, a meaningless cosmetic camouflage.
The third source of ‘noise’ is that of fantasised identity: the brand as one would ideally like to see it, but not as it actually is. As a result, we notice, albeit too late, that the advertisements do not help people remember the brand because they are either too remotely connected to it or so radically disconnected from it that they cause perplexity or rejection.
Since brand identity has now been recognised as the prevailing concept, these three potential communication glitches can be prevented.
The identity concept thus serves to emphasise the fact that, with time, brands do eventually gain their independence and their own meaning, even though they may start out as mere product names. As living memories of past products and advertisements, brands do not simply fade away: they define their own area of competence, potential and legitimacy.
Yet they also know when to stay out of other areas. We cannot expect a brand to be anything other than itself.
Obviously, brands should not curl up in a shell and cut themselves off from the public and from market evolutions. However, an obsession with image can lead them to capitalise too much on appearance and not enough on essence.
Identity and positioning
It is also common to distinguish brands according to their positioning. Positioning a brand means emphasising the distinctive characteristics that make it different from its competitors and appealing to the public. It results from an analytical process based on the four following questions:
- A brand for what benefit? This refers to the brand promise and consumer benefit aspect: Orangina has real orange pulp, The Body Shop is environment friendly, Twix gets rid of hunger, Volkswagen is reliable.
- A brand for whom? This refers to the target aspect. For a long time, Schweppes was the drink of the refined, Snapple the soft drink for adults, Tango or Yoohoo the drink for teenagers.
- Reason? This refers to the elements, factual or subjective, that support the claimed benefit.
- A brand against whom? In today’s competitive context, this question defines the main competitor(s), ie those whose clientele we think we can partly capture. Tuborg and other expensive imported beers thus also compete against whisky, gin and vodka.
Positioning is a crucial concept (Figure 7.2). It reminds us that all consumer choices are made on the basis of comparison. Thus, a product will only be considered if it is clearly part of a selection process. Hence the four questions that help position the new product or brand and make its contribution immediately obvious to the customer. Positioning is a two-stage process:
- First, indicate to what ‘competitive set’ the brand should be associated and compared.
- Second, indicate what the brand’s essential difference and raison d’être is in comparison to the other products and brands of that set.
Choosing the competitive set is essential. While this may be quite easy to do for a new toothpaste, it is not so for very original and unique products. The Gaines burger launched by the Gaines company, for instance, was a new dog food, a semi-dehydrated product presented as red ground meat in a round shape like a hamburger. Unlike normal canned pet foods, moreover, it did not need to be refrigerated, nor did it exude that normal open-can smell.
Given these characteristics, the product could be positioned in several different ways, for example by:
- Attacking the canned pet food market by appealing to well-to-do dog owners. The gist of the message would then be ‘the can without the can’, in other words, the benefits of meat without its inconveniences (smell, freshness constraints, etc).
- Attacking the dehydrated pet food segment (dried pellets) by offering a product that would help the owner not to feel guilty for not giving meat to the dog on the basis that it is just not practical. The fresh-ground, round look could justify this positioning.
- Targeting owners who feed leftovers to their dogs by presenting Gaines as a complete, nutritious supplement (and no longer as a main meal as in the two former strategies).
- Targeting all dog owners by presenting this product as a nutritious treat, a kind of doggy Mars bar.
The choice between these alternative strategies was made by assessing each one against certain measurable criteria (Table 7.1).
The firm ended up choosing the first positioning and launched this product as the ‘Gaines burger’.
What does the identity concept add to that of positioning? Why do we even need another concept? In the first place, because positioning focuses more on the product itself. What then does positioning mean in the case of a multiproduct brand? How can these four questions on positioning be answered if we are not focusing on one particular product category? We know how to position the various Scotchbrite scrubbing pads as well as the
Scotch videotapes, but what does the positioning concept mean for the Scotch brand as a whole, not to mention the 3M corporate brand? This is precisely where the concept of brand identity comes in handy.
Second, positioning does not reveal all the brand’s richness of meaning nor reflect all of its potential. The brand is restricted once reduced to four questions. Positioning does not help fully differentiate Coca-Cola from Pepsi-Cola. The four positioning questions thus fail to encapsulate such nuances. They do not allow us to fully explore the identity and singularity of the brand. Worse still, positioning allows communication to be entirely dictated by creative whims and current fads. Positioning does not say a word about communication style, form or spirit.
This is a major deficiency since brands have the gift of speech: they state both the objective and subjective qualities of a given product. The speech they deliver – in these days of multimedia supremacy – is made of words, of course, but even more of pictures, sounds, colours, movement and style. Positioning controls the words only, leaving the rest up to the unpredictable outcome of creative hunches and pretests. Yet brand language should never result from creativity only. It expresses the brand’s personality and values.
Creative hunches are only useful if they are consistent with the brand’s legitimate territory. Furthermore, though pretest evaluations are needed to verify that the brand’s message is well received, the public should not be allowed to dictate brand language: its style needs to be found within itself. Brand uniqueness often tends to get eroded by consumer expectations and thus starts regressing to a level at which it risks losing its identity.
Table 7.1 How to evaluate and choose a brand positioning
- Are the product’s current looks and ingredients compatible with this positioning?
- How strong is the assumed consumer motivation behind this positioning? (what insight?)
- What size of market is involved by such a positioning?
- Is this positioning credible?
- Does it capitalise on a competitor’s actual or latent durable weakness?
- What financial means are required by such a positioning?
- Is this positioning specific and distinctive?
- Is this a sustainable positioning which cannot be imitated by competitors?
- Does this positioning leave any possibility for an alternative solution in case of failure?
- Does this positioning justify a price premium?
- Is there a growth potential under this positioning?
A brand’s message is the outward expression of the brand’s inner substance. Thus we can no longer dissociate brand substance from brand style, ie from its verbal, visual and musical attributes. Brand identity provides the framework for overall brand coherence. It is a concept that serves to offset the limitations of positioning and to monitor the means of expression, the unity and durability of a brand.
Why brands need identity and positioning
A brand’s positioning is a key concept in its management. It is based on one fundamental principle: all choices are comparative. Remember that identity expresses the brand’s tangible and intangible characteristics – everything that makes the brand what it is, and without which it would be something different. Identity draws upon the brand’s roots and heritage – everything that gives it its unique authority and legitimacy within a realm of precise values and benefits. Positioning is competitive: when it comes to brands, customers make a choice, but with products, they make a comparison. This raises two questions. First, what do they compare it with? For this, we need to look at the field of competition: what area do we want to be considered as part of? Second, what are we offering the customer as a key decision-making factor?
A brand that does not position itself leaves these two questions unanswered. It is a mistake to suppose that customers will find answers themselves: there are too many choices available today for customers to make the effort to work out what makes a particular brand specific. Communicating this information is the responsibility of the brand. Remember, products increase customer choice; brands simplify it. This is why a brand that does not want to stand for something stands for nothing.
The aim of positioning is to identify, and take possession of, a strong purchasing rationale that gives us a real or perceived advantage. It implies a desire to take up a long-term position and defend it. Positioning is competition-oriented: it specifies the best way to attack competitors’ market share. It may change through time: one grows by expanding the field of competition. Identity is more stable and long-lasting, for it is tied to the brand roots and fixed parameters. Thus Coke’s positioning was ‘the original’ as long as it competed against other colas. To grow the business, it now competes against all soft drinks: its positioning is ‘the most refreshing bond between people of the world’, whereas its identity remains ‘the symbol of America, the essence of the American way of life’.
How is positioning achieved? The standard positioning formula is as follows:
For … (definition of target market) Brand X is … (definition of frame of reference and subjective category) Which gives the most … (promise or consumer benefit) Because of … (reason to believe).
Let us look at these points in detail. The target specifies the nature and psycho-logical or sociological profile of the individuals to be influenced, that is, buyers or potential consumers.
The frame of reference is the subjective definition of the category, which will specify the nature of the competition. What other brands or products effectively serve the same purpose? This is a strategic decision: it marks out the ‘field of battle’. It must not under any circumstances be confused with the objective description of the product or category. For example, there is no real rum market in the UK, yet Bacardi is very popular. This is because it is perfectly possible to drink Bacardi without realising that it is a rum: it is the party mixer par excellence.
Another example illustrates the strategic importance of defining the frame of reference. Objectively speaking, Perrier is fizzy mineral water. Subjectively, however, it is also a drink for adults. Seen in the light of this field of reference, it acquires its strongest competitive advantage: a slight natural quirkiness. As we can see, the choice of the field of competition should be informed by the strategic value of that field: how big, how fast growing, how profitable? But it also lends the brand a competitive advantage through its identity and potential. Perceived as water for the table, Perrier has no significant competitive advantage over other fizzy mineral waters, even though this market is a very large one. However, when viewed in relation to a field of competition defined as ‘drinks for adults’, Perrier becomes competitive again: it has strong differentiating advantages. What are its competitors? They include alcoholic drinks, Diet Coke, Schweppes and tomato juice.
The third point specifies the aspect of difference which creates the preference and the choice of a decisive competitive advantage: it may be expressed in terms of a promise (for instance, Volvo is the strongest of all cars) or a benefit (such as, Volvo is the ‘safety’ brand).
The fourth point reinforces the promise or benefit, and is known as the ‘reason to believe’. For example, in the case of the Dove brand, which promises to be the most moisturising, the reason is that all of its products contain 25 per cent of moisturising cream.
Positioning is a necessary concept, first because all choices are comparative, and so it makes sense to start off by stating the area in which we are strongest; and second because in marketing, perception is reality. Positioning is a concept which starts with customers, by putting ourselves in their place: faced with a plethora of brands, are consumers able to identify the strong point of each, the factor that distinguishes it from the rest? This is why, ideally, a customer should be capable of paraphrasing a brand’s positioning: ‘Only Brand X will do this for me, because it has, or it is …’
No instrument is entirely neutral. The above formula was created by companies such as Kraft-General Foods, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever. It is designed for businesses that base competitive advantage on their products,
and works perfectly for the l’Oréal Group which, with its 2,500 researchers worldwide, only ever launches new products if they are of demonstrably superior performance. This fact is then promoted through advertising.
There are cases where the brand makes no promise, or where the benefit it brings could sound trivial. For example, how would you define the positioning of a perfume such as Obsession by Calvin Klein in a way that clearly represented its true nature and originality? It would be wrong to claim that Obsession makes any specific promise to its customers, or that they will obtain any particular benefit from the product apart from feeling good (a property which is common to all perfumes). In reality, Obsession’s attractiveness stems from its imagery, the imaginary world of subversive androgyny which it embodies. In the same way, Mugler appeals to young people through its inherently neofuturistic world, and Chanel stands for timeless elegance.
What actually sells these perfumes is the satisfaction derived from participating in the symbolic world of the brand. The same is true of alcohol and spirits: Jack Daniel’s is selling a symbolic participation in an eternal, authentic untamed America. To say that Jack Daniel’s is selling the satisfaction of being the finest choice would be a mere commonplace, like the tired old cliché that customers are satisfied at having made a choice that set them apart from the masses (a classic benefit stated by small brands attempting to emphasise their advantage over large ones).
Faced with this conceptual dilemma, there are three possible approaches. The first of these is to define positioning as the sum of every point that differentiates the brand. This has been Unilever’s approach: the 60page mini-opus known as the Brand Key, which explains how to define a brand across the entire world, starts with the phrase: ‘Brand Key builds on and replaces the brand positioning statement …’. There are eight headings to Brand Key:
1. The competitive environment. 2. The target. 3. The consumer insight on which the brand is based. 4. The benefits brought by the brand. 5. Brand values and personality. 6. The reasons to believe. 7. The discriminator (single most compelling reason to choose). 8. The brand essence.
Fundamentally, therefore, this collection forms the positioning of a brand. However, the concept that most closely resembles positioning in the strict sense of the word is referred to here as the ‘discriminator’. McDonald’s also adopts a similar reasoning (see Figure 7.3). Larry Light defends the idea that positioning is defined when this chain of means-ends is completed (this is a parallel concept to the ‘ladder’ – moving from the tangible to the intangible):
My position is that two tools are needed to manage the brand. One defines the brand’s identity, while the other is competitive and specifies the competitive proposition made at any given time in any given market. This is the brand’s unique compelling competitive proposition (UCCP). Thus the tool called ‘brand platform’ will comprise, first, the ‘brand identity’, that is to say, brand uniqueness and singularity throughout the world and whatever the product. Brand identity has six facets, and is therefore larger than the mere positioning. It is represented by the identity prism. At its centre one finds the brand essence, the central value it symbolises.
Second, the brand platform comprises ‘brand positioning’: choosing a market means choosing a specific angle to attack it. Brand positioning must be based on a customer insight relevant to this market. Brand positioning exploits one of the brand identity facets. Positioning can be summed up in four key questions: for whom, why, when and against whom? It can be represented in the form of a diamond, the ‘positioning diamond’ (see Figure 7.2, page 176).
In positioning, the brand/product makes a proposition, plus (necessarily) a promise. The proposition may additionally be supported by a ‘reason to believe’, but this is not essential. Marlboro presents its smoker as a man – a real man, symbolised by the untamed cowboy of the Wild West. No support is offered for this proposition; no proof is necessary. It is true because the brand says so. And the more often it is repeated, the more credible it becomes.
In this way the brand’s proposition, which forms the basis of the chosen positioning at a given moment in a particular market, may be fuelled by various ‘edges’ contained within the brand’s identity:
- a differentiating attribute (25 per cent moisturising cream in Dove, the smoothness and bite of Mars bars, the bubbles of Perrier);
- an objective benefit: an iMac is user friendly, Dell offers unbeatable value for money;
- a subjective benefit: you feel secure with IBM;
- an aspect of the brand’s personality: the mystery of the Bacardi bat, Jack Daniel’s is macho, Axe/Lynx is cool;
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