Nick Wreden on brand positioning

There is a heated discussion on the LinkedIn discussion group “Branding 3.0” about “What is your position on brand positioning?”  A number of marketing professionals on both the corporate and agency side have weighted in.  Most are drawing on their experiences of what actually works and what doesn’t.  Real world, not theoretical.

One of the most cogent critiques of brand positioning comes from Nick Wreden, 

Nick Wreden wrote:

“Positioning” was a great theory for the mass economy, but it is about as relevant to branding today as vinyl LP is to music for the following reasons: 

1. Top executives are demanding accountability from marketing. Yet “positioning” is unmeasureable. Can anyone say, “our positioning is 6% better than last year’s” or “our positioning is 2% better than our competitor’s” or, even more important, “we’re receiving a 12% ROI on our positioning.” 

2. This is a peer-to-peer world, where brands are defined by customers, not by companies, based on their economic, experiential or emotional value. “Positions” are top-down, hierarchical statements from corporate execs or their agencies. Do we automatically believe what companies tell us, or do consumers form their own opinions based on the brand’s execution? 

3. The theory of “positioning” is based on a false premise. It basically assumes your mind is like a parking lot, and all a brand has to do is to drive itself into an empty parking space in your mind. What consumer, bombarded by 5K messages a day, has empty slots for your brand? 

4. Marketing strategies must be customer-centric. Yet “positioning” theory, with its emphasis on competition (always be 1 or 2 in the mind, find a “position” not occupied by competitors, etc.) is shaped by the competition. Success will always be defined by how proactive you are in respect to customers, not about how reactive you are to competition. 

On the discussion board there are also a number of passionate defenders of the brand positioning model.  One of the best and smartest is Carlos Carrion.  He was one of the executives at Telefonica during the pivotal years when the company consolidated dozens of local brands into a single Telefonica brand.  The success of that branding strategy is evident today in the enduring strength of the Telefonica brand.

2 Responses to “Nick Wreden on brand positioning”


  1. 1 Nick Wreden March 24, 2009 at 10:05 pm

    Thank you for picking this up. I wrote the above on the fly, but if I had to re-do it, I would add two more bullets:

    Lack of competitive advantage: Every agency promises “positioning” skills. Every new CMO promises to “re-position” the company. Even dry cleaners and other small businesses are urged to “position” themselves. If you are following the same “strategy” as everyone else, how can you differentiate yourself? In other words, if you buy into the “blue ocean” way of thinking, how are you going to achieve new inroads into new markets using the same 40-year-old path everyone else is following?

    Risk of losing touch with markets: If you accept the fact that markets are turbulent and fast-changing, then “positioning” yourself in relation to the market and competitors is a dangerous proposition. This helps explain why “re-positioning” activities are as common as dandelions after a spring rain. It is better to understand how the resources of an organization can best meet the economic, emotional and experiential requirements of customers.

    Again, the easiest ways to date yourself as a creature of the ’80s is to wear plaid pants or proclaim your faith in “positioning.”

  2. 2 rringer March 25, 2009 at 4:07 pm

    Nick, thank you for the additional thoughts on Positioning.

    As for those plaid pants…are you trying to tell me I’ve made a fashion faux-pas?


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