The Evolution of Brand Positioning in the Information Age

Imagine this: You get on your laptop or mobile device and Google “bike brand reviews.” Normally, you don’t go past the first few results, and you almost never click to the next page. But this time you do. Eventually you reach the tenth results page, and once there, a fresh set of ten more pages populates, then ten more after that, and so on (mind you, this is just for bike reviews!).

What does this mean? Your search journey is essentially a microcosm of the age we find ourselves in as consumers, with access to incredible amounts of information for just about everything — the Information Age.

As far as the marketing world is concerned, this has incredible implications. The Information Age is altering the way marketers devise their strategies, most notably when it comes to positioning.

Positioning is a classic principle of marketing strategy that brands utilize to either penetrate a market, or to continually re-emphasize their identity to the consumer masses. It’s a brand’s efforts to influence consumers’ perceptions so they occupy a certain “position,” relative to competing brands, in the eyes of the consumer.

When you think of brands like Volvo, Toyota, State Farm, and Dove, what do you think of? These brands have spent the majority of their existence preaching their market position to consumers. Just take a look at the following ads:

Volvo: The “safest” cars

Toyota: The “reliable” vehicles

State Farm: Your “good neighbor”

Dove: Champions of natural beauty

These brands are certainly iconic, and they definitely reside in the upper echelon of their respective markets, but let’s not forget the age we as consumers now live in — the Information Age. And this abundance of information makes positioning more difficult for brands and marketers.

Absolute Value in the Age of Information 

If you’ve read Itamar Simonson and Emanuel Rosen’s Absolute Value: What Really Influences Customers in The Age of (Nearly) Perfect Information, you know all about the concept of absolute value. For those of you who haven’t, I’ll give you a quick run down.

In the Age of Information, consumers have access to an incredible amount of product and service insight each and every day, across multiple devices — from their computers and phones, to their tablets and TVs. And while this can be extremely useful for consumers, it’s aggravating for marketers.

Why? Because information overload has jacked up the buyer journey. It’s taken the power out of marketers’ hands and placed it right in the hands of consumers.

With said access to any and all information about a product, service, or entire brand, consumers have the power of absolute value: the ability to realize the full value of a product or service before they actually buy it, instead of relying on the relative value to inform their purchasing decision (and then later realizing the actual, full value).

There is an abundance of consumer reviews on products, which allows potential buyers to know what it would be like to actually own that specific product. In fact, as a buyer, you’re more likely to believe a consumer review because it’s from a peer or expert, as opposed to a brand proclaiming its product or service’s excellence.

So what does this mean for brands that have worked so hard at positioning?

It means the game has changed.

The Problem with Positioning

Let’s go back to Toyota. If I’m interested in buying a reliable car, Toyota can tell me theirs is the most reliable car all day long. They can use their TV commercials while I watch LeBron James’ greatness during the NBA Finals, or their 15-second YouTube ads before I watch Drake’s music videos, to position themselves under the “reliability” banner — but ultimately, I have the power.

When I actually search for “reliable four-door cars,” and I see the praise Nissan’s Altima has been receiving for its reliability (even more so than Toyota), which car do you think I’m going to go test drive first? Which car do I end up buying? Most likely, it’s the Nissan.

This idea of information abundance implies a dilution of brand positioning.

There are clearly reputable brands in different markets that have positioned themselves well. But in today’s world of information overload and absolute value, this positioning doesn’t really take the cake anymore. If a brand positions itself a certain way, but consumers are saying it’s not that way, the brand doesn’t win out very often.

So, how do these market-leaders reassert themselves into the conversation? Do they fight it with guerilla marketing, and seek maximum exposure of their brand, products, and services in hopes of clouding the available information? No, probably not. And even if they did, it’s doubtful that it would work.

But, it’s not as if brands are completely paralyzed.

Adopting Authenticity

Instead, brands need to rethink the utilization of positioning as a strategy. They need to adopt brand authenticity. The brand and its offerings should show and reinforce to consumers that the brand really practices what it preaches — especially as far as their position is concerned.

If you’re not the most reliable car on the market, don’t position yourself as such! That angle has been used before! Consumers will easily figure this out, and not only will your position not stick, but your customers’ trust in you will tank.

The more authentic a brand is, the less “positioning” you’ll need to do, because you’ll be owning what you are. By that point, your customers will know what you’re all about, and it will be less likely they’re going to be influenced by, or even feel the need to exhaust, the entire arsenal of informational resources at their disposal to determine what to buy and who to buy it from.

Finding it hard to be authentic? Take some tips from Simonson and Rosen. Highlight the real advantage your product or service has over your competitors — an advantage that won’t deter buyers to a different brand even after extensive research. Mobile phone manufacturer HTC learned this the hard way.

Released in 2011, the HTC Status was positioned as the “Facebook Phone,” because of its unique Facebook button on the phone’s front side that glowed any time the user had something share-worthy (after a picture or video was taken). The target audience, mostly teens and young adults, easily figured out any and all smartphones have sharing capabilities. Eventually deemed the “Failbook Phone,” its reception was just a big ol’ “eh.” This just goes to show that those shiny position statements formulated in the boardroom aren’t Information Age-proof.

If you’re having a hard time discovering your product’s real advantage, or you still find consumers aren’t taking the bait, let your consumers dictate the brand and its position themselves. This doesn’t mean you market your coffee as “the only coffee to actually taste like dirt!” if that’s what people are saying. It means you take a step back, listen to what people are saying, and adjust as needed.

In this day and age of endless information and connectivity, marketers have extremely limited control over the actual segments that purchase their products. Don’t limit your reach by establishing a particular position and refusing to budge when it isn’t working out.

Ultimately, marketing strategy, like positioning, isn’t dead — it’s just evolving. There are prominent changes in our environment that impact consumers and how they make decisions. And as brands and marketers, we need to adjust accordingly, as opposed to living-or-dying by classic principles that no longer make sense.

Written by Boyd Jardaneh on June 13, 2016

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Written by
Boyd Jardaneh
Digital Analyst