Brands aren’t built in a vacuum. Customers evaluate your brand in relation to their pain points, your competitors, and a mix of market factors you can’t control. To communicate the right competitive idea at the right time, you must know where you stand between your customers and competitors. 

Brand strategists use de-positioning to communicate the right idea, at the right time, in the most competitive way. In a nutshell, de-positioning strategy analyzes your brand within its competitive landscape to define a ‘hero pain point’ you can solve and make it your advantage. 

Your hero pain point is the unmet need you solve better than anyone else. You de-position competitors by filling in the gap between your customers’ needs and your competitors’ shortcomings. You de-position those competitors by communicating it strategically. De-positioning isn’t negative campaigning, though how it steals share from competitors can be pretty savage. 

These five examples illustrate some de-positioning best practices any brand leader can use to 

Lesson #1: Don’t stay still

Remember Blockbuster, the once-ubiquitous video store that Netflix crushed on its way to the top? Blockbuster believed its incumbent status and in-store experience were enough to defend its market share against a scrappy challenger with no special information, infrastructure, or technology.

Unfortunately for Blockbuster, Netflix had the most potent strategy for brand impact – de-positioning. Netflix’s cofounders were Blockbuster customers, so they understood the hero pain point they could solve – ‘customer experience.’ Starting with mail-order movie rentals, Netflix muscled its way into the segment by removing friction for the customer, then used the same strategy to disrupt and dominate it. 

Unlike Blockbuster, Netflix elevated the experience and removed friction for customers wherever it could – shipping DVDs, launching subscriptions, then streaming content. When Netflix began producing original content, the final few Blockbuster stores were already closing. Netflix needed a new ‘hero competitor’ to focus on, which brings us to Lesson #2.

Lesson #2: Don’t silo brand

In 2018 Netflix singled out the online game Fortnite as its hero competitor, admitting that “we compete with (and lose to) Fortnite more than HBO.” In the battle royale for consumer screen time, Fortnite didn’t just steal a significant share from streaming services. Netflix’s toughest cross-category competitor became a generation-defining social phenomenon, de-positioning everything else onscreen by making customer pain points its core purpose. 

De-positioning provides an explicit shared vision for the brand experience, but if brand and business strategies aren’t aligned, that vision is neither accurate nor actionable. Beyond brand, de-positioning intersects with growth strategy, product development, and every other discipline that impacts your competitive strategy.

Fortnite’s evolution from a regular battle royale game into a true multimedia ecosystem was powered by permission from its privately-held parent company, Epic Games. Epic let Fortnite sidestep the typical siloes that constrained its competitors, and the brand changed the game in its customers’ image, combining gaming, social media, and streaming into a singular experience. With its well-integrated business model, product design, and marketing approach, the Fortnite brand was able to challenge preconceived notions about what consumers want out of games. 

Fortnite’s ‘freemium’ business model de-positioned competitors on ‘access’ while, paradoxically, paving the way for unlimited in-game revenue. Millions of kids became invested in the game before asking their parents to buy anything. Despite periodic fluctuations in popularity and FTC fines for unethical sales and billing practices, Fortnite’s launch strategy – inviting everyone to play – created a critical mass of players and a degree of cultural relevance that no competitor has managed to beat.

Lesson #3: Zero in on a hero

To de-position well, your brand must own a singular idea in your customer’s mind, the way Volvo stands for ‘safety.’ That competitive idea relates to a ‘hero pain point’ you solve or a ‘hero competitor’ you de-position on behalf of customers. Sometimes your hero competitor is a company type and not a specific brand. Apple’s ‘Get a Mac’ campaign made PCs Apple’s hero competitor by portraying them as so tired and out of touch that being a ‘Mac’ became a personal identity. Within the campaign’s first year, Apple saw a 39% bump in sales. 

More recently, the megabrand de-positioned Amazon and Google on the hero pain point of ‘privacy’ after the companies violated customers’ privacy to train their voice assistant algorithms. Today, Apple still positions itself as the ‘Guardian of Privacy,’ with a brand story about designing privacy into every new Apple product and feature from the beginning. Despite disappointing post-pandemic earnings across the tech industry’s top brands, better-than-expected earnings demonstrate the strategy’s continued efficacy.

Lesson #4: Stay on strategy

Chobani Founder Hamdi Ulukaya credits the brand’s stratospheric success to one decision – his insistence that the product live in the dairy aisle instead of the gourmet section. Ulukaya didn’t want to launch a specialty brand – his goal was to fill a gap for customers in the dairy aisle, where he found the products to be “disgusting, sugary and watery.” 

Chobani didn’t enter the yogurt category per se – it transcended yogurt as a solutions brand. The solutions-forward approach worked – the upstart Chobani broke through big CPGs’ stronghold on shelf space by placing its product with the generic yogurt options. Since then, Chobani has stayed on strategy as a solutions brand, retaining the flexibility to expand wherever opportunities arise.

Chobani made CPG history by making the most of its modest advantages – a strategy every business can use. Chobani beat the CPG industry’s 70 to 90% failure rate to capture more than 20% of the U.S. yogurt market, and its growing portfolio of products continues to disrupt the dairy case.

Lesson #5: Define your disruptive difference

In a segment dominated by stoner clichés, Azuca entered the Cannabis marketplace with a sophisticated culinary-inspired brand consumers would be proud to buy into. But sophisticated adults weren’t buying edibles – the pain point was the user experience. Edibles had always been a joke. If you powered through the terpene-forward flavor, you might experience a painfully-long onset time, a laughably long-lasting high, an impromptu trip to the moon, or all three at once. 

Azuca’s tagline validated those objections and countered them in two words everyone can understand. ‘Edibles, perfected’ positioned Azuca as the solution, spotlighting the pain points no other edibles brand wanted to discuss. As cannabis continues to steal US market share from alcohol, edibles have eaten into cannabis flower sales and become a multi-billion dollar industry.

De-positioning is a competitive strategy that highlights a relevant gap between your customers’ needs and your competitors’ shortcomings. It positions your brand as the solution.

  1. Don’t stay still: Be like Netflix and never stop de-positioning. 
  2. Don’t silo brand: To move the needle, align brand and business strategies.
  3. Zero in on a hero: Highlight what you solve for customers that competitors can’t
  4. Stay on strategy: De-positioning isn’t one-and-done – it’s a discipline.
  5. Define your disruptive difference: Transform your category with de-positioning.

Cover image source: Bits and Splits