A Case Against Positioning

If you’re in the business of shaping beliefs and generating support for a product, company, cause or organization, you need to check out the The Belief Economy by my friend David Baldwin.

It’s a heartfelt plea for brands to embrace a new approach to marketing by standing for something beyond the functional benefits of their products.

In Chapter 4, “Why You Should Think of Your Brand as a Verb,” Baldwin cites a seminal paper PARAGRAPH published 12 years ago on the difference between a brand position and a brand purpose.

The paper was written and distributed before social media was a thing and five PARAGRAPH websites (and many broken links) ago. So for many of Baldwin’s readers that have been fruitlessly searching for the paper online, we’re resurrecting it here.

Baldwin’s book lays out a well-researched and systematic approach to building a brand that has a clear purpose and compelling point of view. It’s an all-you-can-eat buffet of wisdom and instruction. If you’re simply looking to whet your appetite on the importance of turning your brand into a verb, we hope you enjoy checking out our original paper, circa 2005, “A Case Against Positioning.”

And for those that have yet to pick up The Belief Economy, you are missing out.


Positioning just might be the worst thing you can do for your brand.


At this very moment, somewhere in America there is a meeting going on in a conference room that resembles the one right down the hall from you. A group of marketing executives — perhaps alongside their advertising agency counterparts — are struggling to define their brand’s position. “It needs to be something short and simple. We need to own a word in our customers’ minds. Like Volvo with safety.”

Volvo, at least in my experience, has always been universally recognized as the textbook example of how to position a brand. For the past couple of decades, Volvo has been the best “positioned” car brand in the minds of Americans.

It has also consistently ranked near the bottom in sales for European imports behind BMW and Mercedes. Having such a strong positioning has helped Volvo stay in the game but hasn’t done much more for them than that.

Hundreds of miles from our first meeting, there’s quite a different conversation going on. The marketing executives at Volvo’s American headquarters are trying to figure out how to be seen as more than just a safe car. They realize that saying “safe” louder and more often isn’t going to get them past BMW.

You see… Volvo’s positioning has become just as much a curse as it has a blessing.


To be clear, the concept of positioning has profoundly revolutionized marketing. For the most part, it has improved the way marketers communicate with consumers. And perhaps most notably, positioning put a spotlight on the idea that marketers are in the business of changing perceptions — not producing ads. All good things.

But positioning is no longer a useful marketing construct. Owning a focused, meaningful image in the mind of consumers should always be our goal. But how we create that image should change.


Positioning emerged in the 70’s as an antidote for an over-communicated society. The theory goes as follows: people’s minds are an oversaturated sponge without much room for anything new. The savvy marketer will concede to this fact, strive to simplify their message by owning one word, and then reinforcing the ownership of that one word through all communications. That will give a brand its best opportunity to be accepted and remembered in a consumer’s mind.

The result has been a world full of marketers scrambling for ownable adjectives like kids after Easter eggs.

We’re no longer dealing with just an over-communicated society. We’re now also dealing with an over-produced society. When positioning was first introduced, there were only a few serious competitors in each category. There was an adjective for each of them to own.

Starting a business is easier than it has ever been. And technology has made it possible for the smallest of businesses to compete with the big boys. There are more products than ever. More brands than ever. And still just a limited number of adjectives.

If positioning is all about finding a niche, what do we do when all the niches are gone?


As marketers, we must realize that consumers are able to handle more complex messages than they were back in the 60’s and 70’s. Affixing our brand to a single adjective locks us into a dumbed-down, static position in an increasingly dynamic world.

Would you really want to spend time with someone whose whole existence can be summed up in two or three words? We want to surround ourselves with people who are interesting and engaging, multi-faceted with many skills and talents.

Maybe Americans feel the same way about brands.

Sales statistics show that consumers grow tired of music groups that seem to produce the same album over and over again and actors who fail to venture into new roles and genres. While there is a lot to be said for brands that are consistent and dependable, the biggest winners in the marketplace are the brands that prove to be anything but predictable.


If Peter Drucker was right when he said, “Business only has two basic functions: marketing and innovation,” then positioning is only a half-solution. It is not designed to help companies innovate.

Positioning is a competitor driven, not customer driven, approach. It relies on understanding what others in a category are saying in order to identify something that has yet to be said. It’s mired in the existing reality. It’s about today not tomorrow.

Avis is #2 and “trying harder.” (Actually, they’re now number three.) Their classic positioning line carved out a place for them in the minds of consumers that on its own could never get them past Hertz. What they needed was a platform for communicating AND innovating. Enterprise used innovation, not a catchy slogan, to become the largest rental car company in the U.S.


Each brand should focus its energy on defining a purpose rather than a positioning. A purpose provides a platform for not just communicating but for developing innovative new products and services. And in many cases it gives a brand the freedom to enter new markets if it should choose to do so. (Think Apple with iPod.)

The main distinction between a positioning and a purpose is this: A positioning takes a product and manipulates its meaning to consumers. A purpose takes a company and increases its value for consumers.

To try to explain the delicate task of how a brand can identify its purpose in a brief paper like this would be irresponsible. But there are two changes of perspective that are needed for any marketer looking to begin this sort of exploration.

FOCUS ON THE OPPORTUNITIES NOT THE COMPETITION. Managing a brand by reacting to what competitors are doing is like driving in the rearview mirror. It’s only a matter of time before you veer off the road. As marketers we should spend more time imagining what our brand can become than worrying about what our competitors are doing. Try writing a strategy presentation without even referencing the competitors. It will eliminate a lot of the manufactured limitations we impart on our brands.

FOCUS ON WHAT YOUR BRAND CAN DO RATHER THAN WHAT IT CAN SAY. A purpose is all about movement and progress. Rather than simply pouring all your time and money into an analysis of how your product measures up to competitors, spend some time exploring how you might complete the following sentence: Our brand aspires to ___________. A good brand purpose should be the catalyst for powerful actions not just colorful conversations.

The great thing about a brand purpose is that it provides a clear, constant source of direction while simultaneously offering enough room for a brand to evolve as customer mindsets, the marketplace, and business objectives change.

And it gives us permission to call an end to the exhausting quest for that one perfect adjective.