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 built—from digital engagement to advertising campaigns, 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 business planning and operations, it can influence everything about a company, from 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 brand positioning 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 beliefs, attitudes and emotional drivers that can inform a truly distinctive brand strategy.

Too often, we see organizations cutting the research phase of a project short or even eliminating essential components 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 high-impact B2B brand positioning. Not only do fresh insights often challenge (or even contradict) existing assumptions. They can unearth the details and nuances that transform middle-of-the-road 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

In general, well-differentiated brands prioritize the intangible over the tangible, the emotional over the functional and the “why” over the “what.” This is what sets the Disneys, Nikes and Apples of the world apart from everyone else. While these are consumer brand examples, they demonstrate how boldly a company can claim their own differentiated identity. These businesses trust how deeply they understand their audiences and dare 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. These strategies focus on the company’s services, capabilities, features and functionalities rather than its deeper purpose: the promise it fulfills for stakeholders. We call this “functional positioning.” It’s informative but rarely emotionally compelling.

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. 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 B2B tech. These businesses are always racing to be the first to announce some new cutting-edge capability. But when “what” gets all the attention, it’s at the expense of more resonant messages about what the company’s technologies enable. Customers aren’t as excited about newness as they are about solving problems.

In our view, differences in tech capabilities or services need to be remarkably meaningful to warrant consideration during brand positioning. Remember: even when there are significant differences, the competition is bound to catch up.

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. They ensure that the company’s brand narrative will remain compelling.

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

Mistake #3: Assuming Your Brand Positioning = Your Tagline

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

A tagline is great shorthand for a business’s brand story. It can play a significant role in rallying the organization around a single new 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 them 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 journey that they’re eager to share.

By 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. Whether browsing the company’s website or visiting their trade show exhibit, every stakeholder should experience the same clear, consistent brand experience.

The more we work with our clients on meeting diverse goals, the more they appreciate the rigor involved in activating their brand positioning strategy 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 to accomplish all things.

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 effective B2B brand positioning. Employees have to 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, investors, everyone.

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

We recommend a range of approaches for rallying our B2B clients’ employees and harnessing their brand-building power:

  • In-depth workshops can educate teams about the rationale behind a rebrand and introduce tactics for living new brand values every day
  • Internal-facing brand tools like brand guidelines and messaging frameworks can serve as quick and easy references, making it easy for workforces to strengthen the brand through consistency

These experiences and tools can make employees feel considered and included. But to create genuine enthusiasm around a brand positioning strategy? Update and adjust elements of both the customer and employee experience to make the new brand feel real because it is.

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 companies letting their brand positioning go stale.

Whenever there are changes in the marketplace or stakeholder priorities shift, a brand positioning strategy may simply no longer resonate as strongly as it should. Sometimes it takes a few years for a brand to feel outdated. In the fastest-moving verticals, it can happen much sooner. Regardless, given the initial investment organizations make, we always want their brand positioning to stay current and strategic—continuing to drive value creation.

We think about brand as a dynamic asset 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 assessments over the long term, well after a brand positioning concept has been developed and announced to the world for the first time.

Not every out-of-date brand positioning strategy needs a complete overhaul. We would never suggest changing strategies completely every few years. But after a period of either neglect or change, the brand may need a fresh look and injections of new life.

This monitoring also helps businesses identify the invaluable tenets of their positioning that are evergreen. Foundational promises and points of value can continue to strengthen the brand through:

  • Regular advertising campaigns that highlight the most current, relevant facets of the brand
  • 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

Research, once again, can help B2B brands reevaluate the strength of their positioning and uncover opportunities to refine their strategies. Leaders can track internal and external perceptions of the business and take any necessary steps to keep their story differentiating and effective.

While there are many ways B2B brand positioning can go wrong, avoiding these five common mistakes will help ensure you leave no value on the table. You’ll know you’ve been successful when you see a positive impact on customer and employee engagement—and on your bottom line.

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

Originally published September 17, 2020.

About the author

Anne DeAcetis

Anne DeAcetis is a strategist at DeSantis Breindel. She is fascinated by how brands can inspire employees, fortify business partnerships and delight consumers to loyalty—by design.

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