illustration of avoiding hole in the ground

Brand positioning. It was a concept pioneered by branding legends Jack Trout and Al Ries in the 1960s. Today, it’s the essential foundation on which comprehensive B2B marketing plans are based—from print campaigns to digital engagement, from sales outreach to recruitment efforts, and from content strategy to customer journey mapping.

Brand positioning defines a company’s unique value to stakeholders. It represents where the business sits in relation to competitors, what fundamental needs it meets and the differentiated experience it offers customers, employees, partners and/or investors.

Brand positioning is also the B2B CMO’s touchstone. It’s their starting point for planning consistent, differentiating outreach and stakeholder communications that drive people to choose (and stay loyal to) the brand. When activated strategically across organizational and business planning, it can influence everything about a company, from its recruiting practices to innovation strategies and tech investments.

Get it right, and brand positioning will increase sales, attract more qualified talent and create a healthier workplace culture. But what does “right” look like? And why does it sometimes go wrong?

To help CMOs and other brand leaders find the answers, we’ve outlined some of the biggest B2B brand positioning mistakes we encounter—and how to avoid them.

Read on to ensure your brand positioning strategy drives maximum value creation for your business.

Mistake #1: Rushing the Research

Research is fundamental to the success of any B2B brand positioning project. It sheds light on employee, customer and marketplace perceptions of the business—revealing the ideas, attributes and differentiators that can form the basis of a truly distinctive brand.

Far too often, we see organizations cutting the research phase of a project short or eliminating essential components of it altogether. When asked why, their rationales include:

  • Budget constraints
  • Timeline considerations
  • Assumptions that internal stakeholders already have all the insights they need

Please don’t make this mistake.

In our experience, comprehensive research is the single most important contributor to a high-impact B2B brand positioning strategy. Not only do fresh insights often challenge (or even contradict) existing assumptions. They can unearth the details and nuances that transform run-of-the-mill ideas into positioning concepts that can truly set a company apart.

We’ve found that the most effective brand ideas are built on a rich assortment of research findings:

  • Internal perceptions combined with external perspectives
  • Qualitative insights accompanied by quantitative data
  • In-depth competitive analysis supported by a broader breakdown of industry trends

There is no one-size-fits-all approach. But deep insights—no matter the mix—reveal so much about stakeholder perceptions and how a business can engage people powerfully through new brand positioning.

With all the value such research can unlock, why underinvest?

Mistake #2: Blending in Rather than Standing Out

One of our most common client discussions revolves around what it means to have a differentiated brand positioning strategy.

In general, brands that set themselves apart prioritize the intangible over the tangible, the emotional over the functional and the “why” over the “what.” This is what differentiates the Disneys, the Nikes and the Apples of the world from all the rest. While these are consumer brand examples, they demonstrate how boldly a company can differentiate itself by trusting its deep audience understanding and daring to stand for something beyond any one product.

In our work for B2B companies, we often come across brand positioning concepts that are based on what an organization does or has. They focus on the company’s services, capabilities, features and functionalities rather than its deeper purpose or the fundamental benefit it provides to stakeholders. We call this “functional positioning.” It’s informative. Not inspiring.

For many B2B companies, functional positioning may seem like the easiest or most logical approach. But it makes brand differentiation incredibly difficult, as capabilities tend to be very similar within any given competitive set. And it isn’t nearly as effective at forging the emotional connections that lead to increased sales and loyalty.

The tendency to lean into functional positioning is particularly prevalent in the B2B tech industry, where businesses are always racing to be the first to launch cutting-edge capabilities. When “what” gets all the attention, however, it’s at the expense of more resonant messages about what the business’s technologies enable. Customers aren’t as excited about newness as they are about solving problems.

In our view, differences in capabilities or services are often too small to warrant space in brand positioning. And even when there are significant differences, remember: the competition is bound to catch up sooner or later.

The most powerful brand positionings are enduring. Rising above minor variations on the same service-related themes, they offer customers a sense of continuity within their fast-moving markets. Whenever competitors inevitably do catch up, there’s still a compelling brand narrative at work.

This brings us back to the need for thorough research—which can uncover the more substantive story beneath surface-level capabilities and services. Once a company knows what differentiates it beyond today’s service lines, their B2B brand messaging can become more customer-centric and purpose-driven. Their brand positioning can sustain the company’s growth over a longer term.

Mistake #3: Assuming Your Branding Positioning = Your Tagline

We’ve partnered with several brand teams who started out believing taglines and B2B brand positioning strategies were one and the same. But a tagline—even a great one—does not a brand positioning strategy make.

A tagline is great shorthand for a business’s brand story. It can play a significant role in rallying the organization around a new, single brand idea or promise. But on its own, it can’t build widespread brand awareness, recognition and consideration.

The strongest brands leverage taglines as just one brand expression among many, supporting it with more substantial and detailed verbal strategy components (e.g., a positioning statement and audience messaging). Even more critically, experiential elements must bring the brand to life for internal and external audiences, inviting them to a relationship and a meaningful shared journey.

Relying too much on taglines, companies can miss marketing opportunities to shape people’s perceptions across:

  • Employee experience and culture
  • Customer experience strategies
  • Events and trade show programs
  • Content strategies (including thought leadership and social campaigns)
  • Elevator pitches and talking points
  • Sales presentations

Brands can keep channel-specific engagements fresh and interesting by addressing the needs of each audience, tailoring interactions or content to fit their context. But whether browsing the company’s website or visiting their trade show exhibit, every stakeholder should experience the same clear, consistent brand experience. Every message should tie back to the brand positioning strategy.

The more we work with our clients on meeting diverse goals, the more they appreciate the rigor involved in activating their brand positioning in more ways than one. We work with them to develop comprehensive marketing strategies—plans that may include a tagline but never rely on it as a platform.

Mistake #4: Underestimating the Power of Employees

If we’ve said it once, we’ve said it 1,000 times: B2B brands are built from the inside out.

Given the importance of personal relationships and intellectual capital in the B2B world, employee engagement is fundamental to any effective B2B brand positioning strategy. Employees must grasp and understand your strategy for the business to succeed. They must also feel inspired to “live the brand” and provide a consistently aligned experience to clients, prospects and beyond.

We urge our clients to think of employees as their most valuable brand ambassadors—and to invest in their buy-in accordingly. If employees aren’t engaged? At best, companies miss out organic brand advocacy that drives greater brand awareness and consideration. At worst, they risk breeding skepticism or even disillusionment within the very people who are most essential to their success.

We employ a range of tactics to rally our B2B clients’ employees and harness their brand-building power:

  • In-depth workshops can educate teams about the rationale behind a rebrand and introduce tactics for incorporating brand values into day to-day work
  • Internal-facing brand tools like brand guidelines and messaging frameworks can serve as quick and easy references

Providing these experiences and tools make people feel considered and included. That alone can motivate more personal investment.

The most effective way to create employee enthusiasm around a brand positioning strategy? Make it real for your people. Update and adjust elements of both the customer and employee experience to better align to the brand.

When your brand’s authenticity is beyond question for your team, that’s inspiring.

Mistake #5: Setting It and Forgetting It

The final common mistake we see is letting B2B brand positioning go stale. Sometimes it takes a few years to become outdated. In the fastest-moving verticals, it can happen much sooner. Regardless, given the significant initial investment organizations make, we always want it to be current, strategic and driving value creation.

Not every out-of-date brand positioning strategy needs a complete overhaul. (We would never suggest changing strategies completely every few years.) It may just need to be injected with new life after a period of neglect. Whenever there are changes in the marketplace or stakeholder priorities change, a brand positioning strategy may simply no longer resonate as strongly as it should.

We think about brand as a dynamic entity—almost like a living thing—that requires continual monitoring, nourishment and sometimes, adjustment. So we encourage our clients to “think beyond the launch.” Companies must plan to invest in brand-related marketing activities over the long term, well after a brand positioning concept has been developed and announced to the world for the first time.

Core tenets of a B2B brand positioning concept should remain relatively evergreen. But to keep important audiences engaged, they should be brought to life in new ways across all marketing channels. Examples include:

  • Regular advertising campaigns that highlight the most current, relevant elements of your brand positioning
  • New customer experience initiatives that continue to add depth and dimension to the brand story, focusing on how the business continues to meet timely or evolving needs
  • Employee engagement and culture initiatives that celebrate the business’s most enduring reasons for being in the context of new market realities or challenges

Research, once again, can help B2B brands reevaluate the strength of their positioning and uncover opportunities to refine their strategies. Regular brand studies can measure internal and external perceptions. Leaders can then understand where the brand positioning stands and take any necessary steps to keep it resonant and effective.

While there are many ways B2B brand positioning can go wrong, avoiding these common mistakes will help ensure you get it right. You’ll know that you’ve been successful when you see a positive impact on customer and employee engagement—and on the bottom line.

To learn more about building brand positioning to drive long-term value creation, contact us.

Originally published September 17, 2020.

About the author

Julia Mulcrone

Julia Mulcrone is a Senior Strategist at DeSantis Breindel. She draws on a combination of analytical and creative skills to help organizations build strong brands that help them forge powerful connections with their audiences.

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