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For brand positioning, many companies use models such as the brand key or the brand steering wheel. Other figurative models include the brand pyramid, the diamond, or the lighthouse. 

These models usually contain elements such as functional and emotional benefits, values, and personality, as well as differentiating factors,  “reasons to believe,” the brand essence, and the competitive environment. Ideally, consumer insights will form the brand’s customer-centric foundation. 

But in the age of digitalization, are such models still current and relevant? Even long-established brands are now finding themselves challenged to adapt to the market’s flexible demands. 

In their 2016 book Agile Markenführung (“Agile Brand Leadership”) (Springer Gabler), Annette Bruce and Christoph Jeromin describe how brands can – despite the market’s fast pace maintain and develop long-term marketing positioning. Here we have compiled key points for you: 

Brand positioning in dynamic markets

Brands continue to furnish suppliers and consumers a high material and, above all, immaterial benefit, by providing customers a specific brand promise and provide orientation. In addition, brands embody a quality indicator that offers trust – thus enabling customers to identify with the brand and to signal status. 

This dynamic means that brands have an important value-creation function arising from the relationship between supplier and customer. It is not merely a matter of providing a conceptual basis for communication and advertising: brands are facing new challenges because they are caught between continuity and dynamism. 

Brands in the field of tension between continuity and dynamics

Today, numerous changes are occurring with customers, competitors, and marketers. 

Multi-optional customers

On the one hand, customers are developing into multi-optional customers by becoming hybrid customers. As a smart shopper, for example, hybrid customers strive for optimum value for money. In so doing, they exhibit different, yet quite stable behaviors. By contrast, multi-optional customers behave in an unstable,  varying manner. This dynamic manifests itself in diverse eating styles, for example. 

In addition, as relinquish their communication sovereignty, they are democratizing. In the process, social media both positively and negatively reinforce what’s transmitted via word-of-mouth. Rating portals equalize between suppliers and customers the level of information about products and quality. 

Furthermore, co-creation presents an opportunity to use brands to involve users and customers more directly in the product development process. Equally important, customers use brands on the internet as part of personal self-presentation. 

Differentiating from the competition

Competition is becoming increasingly differentiated. It no longer suffices merely to examine one industry’s offerings. Instead, it’s vital to take an overarching look at the links between customer needs and the solutions on offer. For example, Karstadt, for decades Germany’s favorite department store, has found itself replaced by Amazon. 

Private labels offer a differentiated range of “value-for-money” brands, by combining attractive prices with the quality and image promise held out by higher-priced brands. Providers such as mytaxi are forming disruptive business models that allow more direct contact between drivers and users. 

Beyond that, social commerce and share economy platforms are allowing many users, including private ones, to sell their own services on the market. 

Merging of sales channels

The complex media landscape of the many new online channels is rendering it difficult to build a strong brand with the aid of one-sided mass communication. Using content marketing, companies can post useful content that enables dialogue with customers. 

Sales channels are merging: increasingly, companies are offering both off- and online services, while customers are jumping back and forth between the two channels or using them in tandem. 

Brand positioning – redefined

What do all these developments portend for brand positioning models? The authors formulate the risk that brand keys contain numerous facets and thus risk becoming confusing.  There also arises the question of feasibility: after all, it is not always clear how management can translate abstract formulations such as innovation, quality, or service into concrete action measures. Another issue is how a brand model having a long-term focus can flexibly adapt to short-term currents. 

The brand-market connector as the new brand key?

The authors present a new, less complex positioning model: the “brand-market connector,” to be used in agile brand management. As a model, the brand-market connector is characterized by an attempt to strike a balance between planning and action as well as between continuity and change. 

Agile brand management includes flexibility, adaptive planning, and rapid coordination: 

  • Non-negotiables: brand positioning is translated into accessible, company-wide principles intended to increase brand management’s the action orientation 
  • Continuous feedback processes: the early warning system of brand management, enabling an adjustment of the marketing mix or, if necessary, the brand strategy 
  • Market intelligence: data comprised of well-founded information about all market players and external influencing factors 

“Brand-market connector” 

In contrast to the original brand key, the authors’ model now includes only three key elements: 

  1. Deliverability: What is the obligatory value proposition in the market? (company perspective) 
  2. Desirability: What needs does the brand fulfill? What creates attractiveness and identification potential? (customer perspective) 
  3. Differentiation: How does the brand sustainably differentiate itself from the competition? (competitive perspective) 

The goal is to engage these three elements to reduce the redundancy of existing positioning models. The authors also emphasize that brands take greater account of the complexity of networked markets. 

The central element continues to be the customer perspective, which strengthens market research’s role for the future. The reason why is that qualitative insights into the needs of customers will continue to take center stage. Successfully implementing continuous feedback processes about customers, competitors, and companies requires measurement of satisfaction and brand perceptions in various dimensions.

Of interest to you: 

Brand management between tradition and transformation