If my twenty-plus-year tenure in branding has taught me anything, it’s that as much as we love trends and buzzwords, ultimately, they come and go. If you’ve been around this industry for any length of time, you’ve heard that the answer to all your strategy needs is disruption, differentiation, relevance, unique selling propositions, or personalization. Most recently, the cure-all is brand purpose. Because “What” you do, and “How” you do it, aren’t as important as “Why” you do it. This “Why” is supposed to be something bigger than selling products. Let’s get something straight, all of these aspects of brand strategy have value, but a lot of agencies sell them as the most important element of a brand, and plainly speaking, they just aren’t. They are second or third-tier at best.

“Ask not how your branding agency can help you change the world. Ask how they can help grow your business.”
-Todd Irwin

As agency legend David Ogilvy once said, the most important strategy a company can deploy is “how a brand positions itself in market.” And when we’re talking about brand positioning as a strategy, the most effective approach, the one that drives customers to choose your brand over the others, is something that few brand strategists talk about — It’s called de-positioning.

You might think de-positioning sounds negative, but it’s not. De-positioning, simply put, is when you highlight a “positive feature” about a brand, and this positive feature shines a “negative light” on the competition. Not in the way that “negative campaigning” does. Instead, you highlight a positive feature that fulfills a customer desire or solves a pain point – one that competitors don’t have or can’t do very well.  

De-positioning is a strategy that addresses the most important things customers are looking for when they’re on a buying journey: desires and pain points. These are the core reasons buyers buy — number 1A and number 1B. 

Desires: “I want or need something for a reason, and I’m going to buy it.”
Pain Points: “I have an issue that needs to be solved. I need someone to help me, and it has to be the best solution.” 

Buyers don’t start their buying journey thinking, “Let me go out and find a company with brand purpose.” That’s completely ridiculous. Instead, customers think, “I need something. Let me go buy it.” “I have an issue. Let’s find something that solves it.” These motivations have never changed and are not going to change, despite a slate of headlines by agency and marketing leaders proposing that brand purpose is what the customer cares about most or that brand purpose is the driving force behind a company’s marketing strategy. It’s just not going to happen.

De-positioning highlights what your company can do for your customers that competitors cannot while appealing to their deepest needs, concerns, and desires. Your competitor’s weaknesses create the customer need or pain — a gaping hole in the market. You fill that gap by providing a solution that relieves the customers’ pain and satisfies their expectations. This ability becomes your company’s main brand mission and message. 

Apple, the master of brand positioning, displayed a recent example of brilliant de-positioning. As the company lost the battle in voice assistants (Apple never loses, right?) with industry leaders calling Siri an ugly stepchild to Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant, Apple chose to redirect its focus to privacy, de-positioning the competition who can’t deliver it. Apple’s competitors all use and share consumer data to teach their algorithms and perfect the all-knowing capability of their voice assistants. But, this also happens to be a major pain point for customers. 

Apple, which was slowed down in its domination of the voice assistant market, observed that customers are deeply suspicious of this surveillance capitalism and are yearning for privacy. Since transparency is the customers’ pain point, Apple de-positions the competition by positioning its brand as the “guardian of privacy.” 

An interesting point here is that Apple’s example is a bit of an outlier in the sense that by doing this, it adds an additional positioning layer. Its de-positioning strategy of “privacy” now stands alongside the company’s original positioning idea, which is usability. Typically, only one positioning idea is the foundation of a business — for example, Volvo owns the idea of safety, and Disney positions around magic — but Apple now owns both usability and privacy.

Another excellent example is Starbucks, which owns a concept called “the third place”. You have your home, your work, and then you have Starbucks, a coffee-driven community destination. Can you name another omnipresent coffee house where you can linger in armchairs, access free Wi-Fi, eat lunch, and use the bathroom? You can’t. This illustrates how the company de-positions its competitors, and with this strategy, Starbucks is crushing it. They are the anti-Dunkin’. Now, Starbucks is even extending its “third place” idea digitally by creating a series of branded NFT collections that initiate community membership and access to exclusive experiences and perks. 

What makes de-positioning effective is its authenticity and simplicity. It’s about creating an association without necessarily spelling it out — a brand needs to own that singular idea in the mind of the customer, and deliver everything with its brand positioning top of mind.

Since the de-positioning idea is why customers will buy from your company, we must identify it as the number one growth driver. It must sit at the top of the funnel of a brand strategy. With the overall branding — composed of multiple layers of stories and sub-themes — bolstering and aligning with the main de-positioning idea, telling a deep story, it all has to come from the place where you have positioned the brand in the market. 

The strength of all of this? De-positioning can also affect business strategy. I’ve seen business leaders that, in the process of aligning their brand strategy to their business strategy, found business opportunities they had completely missed. Once made aware, they went back to the drawing board and adjusted their products to benefit from the newly identified opportunities. Surprised? Don’t be. It happens.

This shows not only the power of positioning a brand correctly, but also the importance of doing it as early as possible. Positioning, and de-positioning, should be the top-of-the-funnel platform that the brand stands on so it can inform the overall brand narrative. And since the positioning is going to be with the company for life, getting it wrong, or doing it too late can lead to lots of re-work — and, in some scenarios, a loss of profits. 

So why are so many agencies pushing brand purpose as the top of the brand strategy funnel? Is it because it’s trendy? Brand purpose is valuable. I recommend all brands invest in it, but it’s not the number-one most relevant message to lead with. The best message, the best brand positioning platform to lead and invest in, is what’s most relevant to a customer. Their need. Their desire. Solving their pain points.

Once you’ve created a strong brand that works to position itself in the market by de-positioning the competition, your business will grow more efficiently. This will, in turn, enable you to invest in your company’s purpose. After all, it’s easier to improve the world if you have the resources to do it.  

Cover image source: Federica Galli