Richard B-Blog

Supercharge your Brand positioning with Behavioural Science

How Behavioral Science can Supercharge (your) Brand Positioning 

Positioning: a science of perception?

The art of positioning was created by Al Ries & Jack Trout in the early 80’s with their book “Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind”  (Ries & Trout, 1985), during the golden age of television and mass-retail. Their method would suggest that positioning is about “manipulating what’s already in the mind”, “retying connections that already exist” and “finding an open hole in the mind and become the first brand to fill it”. In some sense, their approach was an anticipation of the Brain System 1 metaphor: the intuitive system that behavioural scientists explore in order to show how most of our decisions are rapidly made: by activating simple associations and heuristics.  

Here is an example of a typical brand positioning statement:

Figure 1: Brand Positioning Statement © Beloved Brands –

In terms of advertising strategy, Ries and Trout would insist on having a brand associated with only one key word in the prospect’s mind, acknowledging that simplicity always beats complexity in the way people sort brands in their head. They would also recommend  “hammering” the message with multiple repetition to make sure it gets in (when TV was the dominant medium). This way, people would make instant associations that build differentiation and preferences such as: “Avis, we try harder”, “Nike just do it”, or “M&M melts in your mouth, not in your hands”.

Ries and Trout’s influence on marketing practices has been tremendous, and positioning statements are now classic frameworks that can be found in brand bibles – next to brand missions, purpose, values and other equity assets. Derived frameworks are still in use today, and they have been recycled to help start-ups formulate their “elevator” pitch. (Moore, 2014)

Figure 2: Game Storming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Gamechangers © Gray, Brown & Macanufo (2012)

However, this approach of betting only on influencing preference by manipulating perceptions, has led brand managers to focus on talking about themselves (“my product, my benefit, my difference”) and less about how they help their consumers. We have therefore seen big organizations slowly allowing brand stories to develop further away from product reality or retail experience – consequently leaving room for new competitors to fill this gap.

Positioning is all about behavior

With digital transformation and new ways of reaching consumers in a media landscape dramatically changing, new models have emerged. New players have started to disrupt traditional markets where product differentiation had become minimal, and pricing overly expensive. Many legacy brands didn’t see the threat as they were still competing on brand stories to defend their competitive advantage while relying too much on premiumisation strategies (e.g. the 6th blade on the razor) to drive value.

Start-ups have realized they could capture this consumer value by going direct to consumers and offering better value for money. They have refocused on what matters most to satisfy consumers: serve their “jobs-to-be-done” in a better way than current solutions (Christensen, 2005). This is how new value proposition frameworks have emerged (see Figure 3 below: derived from positioning, but with an essential change in perspective. It is not about what a brand has to say, and how to make it persuasive, but about what brands are doing with their products and services to help solve consumers’ daily issues; changing – if needed – the whole brand model and value delivery system. (Osterwalder, Smith, Pigneur, Bernada, & Papadakos, 2014)

Figure 3: Value Proposition Template © Osterwalder, A., Smith, A., Pigneur, Y., Bernada, G., & Papadakos, T. (2014)

A good example of this is the Dollar Shave Club, a lifestyle club brand offering cheaper grooming products for men. Their product quality is consistent thanks to subscription & home-delivery system, so men can always feel at their best. Its value delivery model tackles excessive retail pricing as well as the discomfort of stretching the use of current razor until the next purchase. It removes the friction of frequent store visits, as well as the risk of falling short. Its marketing campaign focuses on service outcomes, adding lifestyle and a humorous tone, making it distinctive and viral. As the name says, men would understand that you get a lot better service from your dollars.

The Evolution of Marketing Frameworks: where do you stand?

This evolution reveals that traditional positioning statements used to be a persuasion scheme. A communication framework that serves mainly brand interests which:

  • aim to change customer attitude using benefits and “reason-why’s” attributes e.g. “here is my promise, believe me it’s good for you because…”
  • aim to win preference with selling arguments e.g. “it’s different, it’s better, it’s for you…”
  • start with a consumer insight i.e. a tension, a problem, a trade-off that serves as a springboard for dramatizing a brand solution

However, in practice, it was not rare to see positioning statements trying to justify brand relevance where the problem was formulated after the brand promise was created.

In contrast, a Value Proposition Framework is more of a behavioural problem-solving scheme, aiming at improving customer experience and creating value through:

  • a goal-centred approach focusing on the outcome, the jobs-to-be-done not the task or functionalities: what is my customer trying to achieve? What jobs is he hiring my product for? This “jbbd” formulation has helped reverse the perspective: starting with the consumer utility.
  • forcing marketers to become obsessed with improving experience (not brand image, as this is only a resulting factor) e.g. “how can your brand HELP me, the consumer, improve my everyday life? By reducing pains ? By creating alternative gains?”

This framework is first and foremost inspired by behavioural observations and an in-depth knowledge of consumers aspirations, fears, values etc. It also challenges the value proposition versus broader alternative uses or solution scope, not just direct competitive products. “Here is what our product can do, is very different from “here is what you can do with our product” said Jason Fried, founder of Basecamp in Rework (Fried & Heinemeier Hansson, 2010). It should be added that it is also probably different from what consumer’s themselves would say the product is doing for them.

Behavioral Science Frameworks: Reflection of real-life journeys

To better drive behaviours, marketers need to walk in their consumers’ shoes, starting with decoding how they will interpret their value proposition in the very situation where they form their judgement. Indeed, we as consumers, have many faces: users, shoppers, netizens, parents etc. and our trade-offs are very much dependant on which side of us is activated in the situation we are deciding: is it the fast-thinking shopper, the concerned citizen or perhaps the greedy consumer?

Observing consumers whenever and wherever they make decisions then becomes a lot more reliable than them asking questions in focus groups or via questionnaires. Decoding what biases are at play when consumers decode marketing elements (such aspack, formats, communications) is also key to debiasing the design or message accordingly.

In context, the consumers’ experience of brand reality is also very different depending on touchpoints: online packaging does not have the same triggers as that on in a real shelve; group purchase does not work the same in store with the family as with friends online. Context-based behavioural research using choice scenario is then critical to discover the rules of place where you would like to play.

Unfortunately, many marketers start with crafting their concept first, then they design the mix, and end up choosing the channels. They often discover too late that their brand can’t properly express its promise in the context of choice. That is why we believe they should think backward instead: first explore expected behaviour in place of the moment when the itch of the need or the choice occurs, to create behavioural-science informed designs that work in real life and trigger desired behaviours.

Indeed, the best functional product is not always the most successful on the market: it can be beaten by the most available one, or the good-enough one that chose to be affordable. To help marketers think in terms of outcomes of the trade-offs people make in context, not in terms of product characteristics, we have included the situational factor in our framework. This way we force the consideration of perception biases and heuristics embedding execution into strategy. This is because “execution is the only strategy consumers will see”(Alan-George Lafley, 2008).

To force marketers to formulate positioning from the consumer point of view, we have also voiced it using the subject “I” instead of “us”. The framework is formulated with essential questions inspired from behavioural science, that the brain is seeking to answer to reach its goals, as though a consumer could hear the inner voice of the brain decoding all its senses. Consumers don’t buy value-proposition statements – they buy and consume real items, that they can compare, touch and feel, and get implicit answers from.

Our Behavioural Science Positioning Framework

The “little inner voice” of a consumer’s brain is trying to get answers to four main questions that should help a brand reverse-engineer the perceived positioning. Although they may look obvious, writing the answers from the point of view of the consumer is a challenge: all answers should be informed by consumer sourced behavioural insights research (not what consumers say!). To help you formulate them, we have added 3 sub-questions about the specifics that the story you write should answer.

When completed, this framework reads as if you could hear the little voice of a consumer’s brain, senses and biases decoding product and marketing cues. Some of these thoughts may not be fully conscious in real life, but simulating the brain’s voice (not the consumer’s) helps surface them as they are happening anyway. Although you may be tempted to get these answers from your own thinking, we strongly advise collecting them from listening and observing your customers, using appropriate context-based research techniques (and avoiding focus groups or quantitative questionnaires).

This framework is focused on helping marketers design lovable experiences. It is complementary to the traditional positioning ones that are more focused on helping them clarify their communication. It can also be used as a mirror exercise that helps positioning statements move beyond wishful thinking, whose reality lies only in marketing plans. As famous anthropologist Gregory Bateson used to say: “language often implicitly highlights one of the points of view to describe a reality… for this reason, two descriptions are better than one” i.e. the point of view of the brand and that of the consumer (marketing positioning vs perceived positioning).