Paul Simons: why understanding positioning and proposition is the key to telling a brand story

The holy grail of developing outstanding communication can get derailed by confusion and misunderstanding of some basic laws. Being didactic can be boring at times but sometimes it is worth the energy for all concerned.

I mentor post grad business school students each summer to help them produce quality dissertations; they must get a pass mark to get their MA/MBA/MSc. These are bright, well-educated people but I find every time they struggle to reduce data and information down to a clear direction. The didactic point is about two words – positioning and proposition.

I also find the same issue often with clients at times; the intellectual process of working this out seems to get lost due to an oversupply of information that creates a need to say too much. It can be a ‘woods from the trees’ conundrum.

Years ago Saatchi & Saatchi developed a new campaign for British Airways with the end-line ‘The world’s favourite airline,’ continued by M&C (below). It was a masterstroke of taking a fact and converting it into a pithy thought that positioned BA as the leading airline in the world. Further it implied a proposition for travellers of BA being the best. In research this line is remembered today by a big proportion of regular travellers.

Back in the ‘90s HHCL produced a campaign for the AA with the thought ‘The fourth emergency service.’ When I saw that for the first time I thought “I wish we had done that,” it was another clever twist of thinking. It was very powerful bit of positioning and contained a clear proposition. The positioning was obviously aligned to the police, ambulance and fire services and the proposition was the implication that the AA was of the same calibre in an emergency.

A further source of confusion is the role of ‘end-lines’ in communication. There has always been debate and disagreement about end-lines with a decent percentage of copywriters anti them. On the other hand a decent percentage of clients think they need one and end up with irrelevant drivel nobody can a) remember and b) link to the brand.

The value of a strong end-line is where it clearly expresses a strategy, is very memorable and joined at the hip with the brand. Dave Trott was and is a master at achieving this, some of his classic campaigns being ‘Ariston on and on,’ ‘Hello Tosh gotta Toshiba,’ ‘Designed well, built well, Honeywell.’

When we pitched for the European launch of PlayStation the challenge was how to leapfrog over the established brands. We concluded ‘power’ was a strong position to grab and own if possible so we ended up with ‘Do not underestimate the power of PlayStation’ as the brand propaganda. This idea allowed us to develop creative work for any client brief with a consistent thought. Therefore over several years the core strategy was reinforced over and over again which helped PlayStation become the number one brand for a long time.

A few years ago my colleague and friend Giles Keeble and I were helping some business friends on the launch of a new piece of packaging kit that guaranteed keeping temperature-sensitive items at the correct temperature on long journeys, such as sending fish from Italy to New York. They needed an idea that would clearly position their kit to a B2B audience. Giles came up with ‘From A to B at a constant C.’ A genius bit of thinking and writing. It condensed a product fact with a proposition. Sadly the venture never got off the ground, for a variety of reasons.

The challenge with clients quite often is the reluctance to distil down to a clear thought their ‘elevator pitch;’ many times I’ve confronted the criticism of making things ‘simplistic’ or ‘it’s more complicated than that’ for example.

However what most folk forget is all of us have limited space in our mental filing cabinet to recall the millions of messages out there.

On page two of Ries and Trout’s book on positioning they say, “Positioning is what you do to the mind of the prospect.” The thesis is about the focus of communication being to plant a little flag in the mind of the recipient. This requires some sort of memorable shorthand that is easily recalled at the right moment.

The process is akin to splitting hairs and, done well, can be remarkably rewarding. Understanding the difference between positioning and proposition and how to combine them with a brand name is worth gold dust to the brand owner.


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