Is your Brand Positioning Really Helping you Drive Better Brand Performance?

Brand Strategy /
Posted on 23rd May '19


Is your Brand Positioning Really Helping you Drive Better Brand Performance? 

Pretty much every brand leader that we have ever worked with would recognise the challenge posed by Jack Trout in the title of his book from 2000 – Differentiate or Die: Survival in Our Era of Killer Competition, and it’s no surprise that pharma and healthcare brand teams invest heavily in defining how it is that they will make their brand stand out in the increasingly crowded markets in which most of them play.Differentiate or Die - Jack Trout, book cover.

Hundreds and hundreds of hours and often millions of dollars, euros, pounds or Swiss francs are regularly invested in developing positionings that, it is hoped, will provide the foundation for this all-important differentiation.

However, in the work we do as research and brand strategy specialists, partnering with pharma and healthcare teams on some of their most strategically important brands, we often see the fruits of all this hard work and investment go to waste. Frequently we see bland positioning statements that do little more than fill a page of the brand plan, failing to clearly define what the brand really aspires to mean to its target customers or to inspire and guide the various people and teams that need to execute against it.

In our article we share our view on why this happens and, more importantly, how to avoid this. We look at how you can develop a positioning for your brand that will shape what everyone responsible for delivering your brand says and does to bring your brand to life for your customers. Ultimately, to  drive the enduring value essential for the success of your brand and your business.


Brand Positioning: A Definition

Ask the members of most brand teams or other colleagues in your organisation what they think positioning is and the likelihood is you’ll get multiple different answers. So, before we jump in, let’s start with our perspective on what positioning is and isn’t.

We very deliberately use the term “brand positioning” not positioning or product positioning. Although a strong brand is almost always built on a foundation of a strong product, effective positioning goes beyond simply product attributes. It captures brand meaning.

We therefore define brand positioning as the unique place you want your brand to own in the mind of your customers.

At first glance this might be very similar to most other definitions. At a high level it’s about capturing a brand’s differentiation, why a customer would choose the brand vs alternatives. Nevertheless, there are some key nuances that are included, that are not always fully understood, that we feel are critical if you want to develop great brand positioning:

  • Brand positioning is a forward-looking tool, a choice brand teams make about what they want their customers to think and feel about their brand. In most cases, especially in the early stages of a brand lifecycle, this will be something that largely doesn’t yet exist, that has to be built over time through consistent and cohesive brand communication and other activities.
  • Brand positioning is defined by customer perception, this may not necessarily be the same as product reality. Robust data that provides the evidence of your brand’s differentiation is clearly important, but at the end of the day this evidence is only the startpoint. The critical driver of brand choice is not what the brand actually delivers but what your target customers believe the brand delivers.

So, with a clear idea of what brand positioning is, let’s take a critical look at the current approach most pharma and healthcare companies use to develop and capture their brand positioning…Pitfall Icon

Some Pitfalls of the Traditional Positioning Approach

The positioning development process in most pharma companies tends to include many of the same components. Lots of testing of TPPs, rounds of internal workshops that result in a range of alternative (often quite similar) written positioning statements that then get tested in market research, and then often weeks or even months of final wordsmithing to agree a final positioning statement, before a final senior level sign off.

Later in our article we’ll go on to discuss an alternative to the traditional positioning statement, but first, let’s examine the areas where we tend to see positioning statements fall short.

Where’s the customer unmet need?

In recent years there have been positive moves across the healthcare industry to become more patient and customer centric, to focus on uncovering insights into customer and patient needs and experiences and to ensure product development is focused on the areas of greatest customer unmet need. All very important foundations for building strong, sustainable brands. But is this trend really being pulled through into the positioning statements that are being developed?

We have come across some client positioning frameworks that absolutely do this but, in general, our experience has been that this is the exception rather than the rule. Most frameworks place little or no emphasis on the customer need, beyond high level description of them as a target audience, e.g. for severe asthma patients or for advanced metastatic breast cancer patients who have failed on hormonal therapy. Good descriptions for a regulatory label, but less good for the teams who need to bring to life your brand to life, who can only bring real clarity and richness with a good understanding of the underlying customer problem that your brand is designed to solve.

In most cases, lots of research will have hopefully gone into shaping your brand’s positioning statement. However, if you want your brand to deliver against what your customers really need and want, surely it makes sense that the one-page framework, that guides execution by your internal teams and external partners, has to explicitly capture a distillation of all this work? 

No strategic choice

Strategy is about choice. It’s about not just what you choose to do but also about what you choose not to do.  This mantra applies just as much to brand positioning as it does to any other element of your business and brand strategy.

Too often we come across what we call “kitchen sink” positionings, that try to weave in every feature and benefit that a brand does or could deliver. At first glance these positioning statements seem fine, but on further interrogation they give limited clear sense of what the brand is and isn’t. Furthermore, and most importantly, they fail to truly pinpoint what is really unique and special about the brand – the core thing that will ultimately drive customers to endorse, prescribe or use it ahead of the other alternatives on offer.  Yes, it is sometimes difficult to choose, particularly when that choice process involves many different stakeholders, all with different perspectives and often representing very different markets. It may seem like a good compromise to include multiple ideas at the heart of your brand positioning, but we’ve all hear the phrase “try to be all things to all men and you’ll be nothing to nobody” – strategic suicide in the era of “differentiate or die”.


Features not benefits

In a world where evidence-based medicine is becoming increasingly important and pharma and healthcare companies invest billions in generating huge swathes of high quality, robust clinical and real-world evidence for their products, it’s no surprise that data is king.

Whilst the strength of the evidence base for a product is absolutely of critical importance, it is by no means the be-all and end-all.  Too often we see brand teams who think that all they need to do to win is put their stellar new data out there and customers will come running.  Sometimes this is enough but, more often, it is not.  Healthcare professionals, like most other humans living in this incredibly busy age of information overload, need and want companies and brands to distil, simplify and communicate the “what’s in it for me”, not leave it for them to work it out for themselves.

They want brands to join the dots for them. This means building brand positioning that highlights the key evidence that provides the reason to believe for a brand, and it also means taking that extra step to crystallise the unique and high value customer benefit(s) those reasons to believe support.


Generic or non-existent higher order benefits

Functional positioning statement paper rip.

Expressing the brand benefits as improved survival, better protection or superior treatment outcomes.  Rarely do these brand positionings ladder up to the emotional or social benefits that they want their brands to be associated with.

We know from the huge study of academic research in the last 30 years – from psychology, neuroscience and behavioural economics – that human decision making is largely non-rational.  HCP decision making, like all other forms of human decision making, is driven by how people want to feel or how they want to be perceived, not just their functional needs and goals.  Yet rarely do the brand positioning statements of pharma and healthcare brands capture these aspects or, if they do, they tend to be so generic that it’s no surprise so many creative campaigns seem to follow a similar theme and lack that all-important differentiation and real resonating connection to the customer, and to the disease in question.

You might want your brand to enable “patients to live life to the full” but rarely, we would argue, is that level of thinking enough in defining what you want your brand to stand for in the minds of your customers.  Really effective brands should be clear about what a high-level benefit like ‘freedom’ really is in the context of their brand. What is “living life to full” for the patients that their brand targets, what specifically does the brand help them do or avoid having to do, how does that relate to what the product is and how it is both better and different from competitors?  Only when you have answered those sorts of questions and distilled the answers into your brand positioning will you have a foundation from which to build real, sustainable differentiation


Limited guidance for brand execution

Any strategy is only as good as the execution and the same goes for executing your brand positioning.  If your brand positioning is the primary strategic framework that guides your brand execution, surely it should direct and inspire this process?  In our experience, rarely does the traditional positioning statement do that.  At best, there may be a clear emotional benefit or territory that creative agencies can build from, and often there are some key functional benefits and reasons to believe that any communication should include, but usually that’s as far as it goes.  If you leave different agencies, different markets and different functions to interpret your brand positioning, you can be fairly certain they won’t all interpret it in the same way.  They may like the autonomy and creative freedom to put their own spin on the brand, but does this really help build a coherent, cohesive brand that truly reflects the hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars, euro, pounds or swiss francs that have been invested in developing your brand positioning.  Probably not!


A new vision:  Integrated brand positioning journey

So if the traditional approach to developing positioning in pharma/healthcare seems to be bedevilled by so many problems, how should it be done differently to make it more fit for purpose in this era of killer competition?

For us, it has to start with the customer.  If brand positioning is about defining the unique place you want your brand to own in the mind of your customers, you must start by getting into the mind of your customer – whether that be a healthcare professional, patient or even a caregiver.  This means high quality, insightful market research.  Not the sort that simply “tests” positioning statements or TPPs, but thoughtful research that delivers real richness and provides a deep understanding of not just what customers do now or might do in the future but also the why they do it or might do it.

Whilst this research must be the critical foundation, it is absolutely the means not the end.  We believe it needs to be informed by, directed by and deliver against the strategic and commercial imperative.  For us, this means any research, and the specialists who conduct it, must operate as part of a single integrated team working alongside strategic and commercially-orientated specialists who have what is best for the brand at the front and centre of their thinking.  We call this process the integrated brand positioning journey – an iterative, multi-stage process that invariably incorporates one or more rounds of market research, and multiple cross functional team workshops.

The approach generally covers three distinct, sequential phases:

Stage 1: Defining the opportunity space
This covers the key strategic question “where will you play”.  Ensuring brand teams crystallise and make a choice about the customer unmet need space that they aim to target.

Stage 2: Brand Positioning Platform Development
This stage then hones and focuses, to define how the brand will win in the agreed opportunity space, developing an output that we call the brand positioning platform.  Much more than the traditional positioning statement, this framework is designed to address many of the inadequacies of the traditional positioning statement, providing a foundation for more emotive, customer centric brand building.

Stage 3: Brand Positioning Engagement and Activation
A final distinct stage focused on bringing to life and embedding the brand positioning platform for the key internal and external teams that will need to execute against it.

By the end of this tried and trusted approach, our aim is to ensure everyone is aligned behind and fully understands all aspects of the brand positioning platform – the insight upon which it is built, the strategic choices the brand team have made and the critical components that need to be adhered to in order to successfully bring the brand to life for customers.  Then, and only then, will the brand be primed to deliver the powerful and enduring differentiation it needs to survive in this era of killer competition.

Positioning Case Study - NSCLC


Want to see if your brand positioning is helping you drive better brand performance?

Take a look at our 6 point infographic!

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