The media and internet abound with essays on what’s essential to creating great brand positioning. While the exact commandments vary a bit from marketer to marketer, several are well covered:

  • “A good positioning must be single-minded about how you’re different.” (Thou shalt not be all things to all people.)
  • “A good positioning must be grounded in how your brand solves a problem for your target audience.” (Thou shalt not be different for the sake of being different.)
  • “A good positioning must be aspirational and enduring.”
    (Thou shalt not change your positioning every time you need a new campaign.)

Clients often say that while the positioning statement should guide everything we communicate, the statement itself is an internal north star, and isn’t external-facing.

But if the buck stops there, therein lies the rub.

At some point, in some form, we have to articulate our positioning to our audience. The question is, how? A great idea expressed five different ways can elicit five very different reactions. In fact, we have seen over and over again that often you can have an insightful, differentiated positioning—but if the language you use doesn’t resonate with your audience, it doesn’t matter.

Thankfully, an effective language strategy can help you make it matter. Here are just three ways we’ve seen this play out:

You may think your positioning is different…but does it SOUND different to your audience?

A few years back we worked with a brand in bottled water—a space so crowded and easily commoditized that how you tell your story is as important as the story you tell.  The brand identified that their differentiated value was all about the purity of their water. In particular, their process for purifying water was special and better than any other waters out there.

However, we found that while consumers DID want purity, the more we talked about the steps involved in the process, the more they felt it sounded like every other bottled water.  (And, when we got technical with language like “reverse osmosis” and “state of the art filtration,” the more consumers actually started questioning why a natural resource needed so much manhandling.)

Instead, the language strategy that best paid off the positioning required us to shift from talking about all they DO to the water to what they DON’T do. Like saying, “We never add anything into the water. And we don’t try to artificially enhance the pure finished product with salts or minerals intended to change the flavor.” Suddenly consumers started seeing a difference in the brand compared to others, in a way that made them much more likely to purchase our client’s brand over the competition.

You can solve a problem…but does your language make it relevant?

Many templates for simple positioning statements begin with identifying the target customer. For [these people,] we are [blank]. Even here, the way you articulate who you’re targeting can mean the difference between a marketing campaign that builds the business and one that maintains the status quo.

I have worked with an insurer who specializes in serving an affluent clientele. They know how to cover this segments’ needs better than others, and they go the extra mile every time with service.  For years they staked their claim as the “original affluent insurer.” Only problem? Their target audience didn’t consider themselves “affluent.” They had the right assets and net worth, but in their minds, they rejected the label. They could always picture someone they knew who was better off, who seemed to be in a different economic stratosphere. And so this positioning actually had the target audience thinking they should tune out because they weren’t “rich enough” for this insurer to want to cover them.

Instead, we found it was much more effective to use language that spoke to what the audience had achieved—they were “successful” or “accomplished,” versus what status they had.

Your positioning can be aspirational…but will your audience find the language you use credible?

Finally, it’s critical to bulletproof your positioning so that your audience is willing to believe it—even if it’s aspirational, they need to have enough reason to trust that you can eventually deliver on your brand’s promise.  

For one animal health company, they distilled their positioning based on a lot of foundational work about what their audiences (in this case, veterinarians and food producers) wanted: real partnerships for results that matter.  They had good evidence to support that the idea that no animal health company today was really able to partner with their customers the way this brand could: they didn’t have the scale and breadth, the history, or the relationships. Even better: their audience did want to feel partnered.

That said, when we tested this language with vets and food producers, they rolled their eyes.

“They don’t split the risks and the costs and the profits with me, so they’re not a partner.”

“I’m the one up at 4am taking care of the cow! It’s not a partnership; I’m your customer.”

When we framed the same idea in terms of how the company was all about “supporting customers and its businesses,” the conversation shifted. Potenial customers heard something different. Instead of an arrogant pharma company seemingly overstating their role, they heard a company that really “got” them, and was willing to make THEM the hero of the story—which in turn made them much more likely to engage.

About the Author: Written by Michael Maslansky, CEO, maslansky + partners, New York City, NY. He can be reached at: