Positioning Against Active Inertia

By: Jeff Cowart, MAH | jcowart@barlowmccarthy.com

The inflexibility and even arrogance of holding current position when evidence of threat or opportunity is substantial is perhaps the most common characteristic of failure for companies, products, leaders, causes, political candidates – or even business initiatives.

Positioning is the concept that one’s business, or department, or product, or personal place is relative to variables in the environment. To know where we stand, we must honestly assess these variables that include economic, product, customer service, culture, ideology, and other such factors. Less enlightened leaders and individuals tend to isolate these factors from each other – create silos – and they assess position, performance and competitiveness out of context.

Richard D’Aveni, the Bakala Professor of Strategy at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, says: “Whenever I’ve asked senior executives to map the positions of their company’s brands and those of key rivals, we end up confused and dismayed.” Donald Sull, a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management, writing in Harvard Business Review in 1999, labeled the phenomenon of stuck position as “active intertia,” the “tendency to follow established patterns of behavior – even in response to dramatic environmental shifts. Stuck in the modes of thinking and working that brought success in the past, market leaders simply accelerate all their tried-and-true activities. In trying to dig themselves out of a hole, they just deepen it.”

All of the attributes of whatever is being positioned are critically and contextually linked. These attributes in total are what strategists define as brand. A company, a department within the company, a product, a CEO, a political candidate, a person – all of these have a brand whether they know it or not. And, the failure to recognize and manage this brand as an outcome of positioning strategy is one of the most frequent roots of less-than-optimum performance or personal dissatisfaction.

Part of the problem in understanding positioning is the introduction of the word “brand” into the discussion. “Brand” today seems to have become interchangeable with the word “marketing.” Much of this confusion is caused by advertising and marketing agencies where the sole goal is to produce and sell marked-up creative to achieve their own revenue targets. With glam and sizzle they sell advertising look and feel and clever phrases to clients that do not necessarily align with optimal strategic positioning.

Positioning is the strategy that puts meat on the bones of brand and marketing. Positioning is built on the trinity of declared intent, message and connection. Declared intent is always filtered through an honest and thorough analysis of strategic variables and environmental scan. Only after this is nailed down can message be clearly and powerfully defined. Message and declared intent then drive the connection strategy.

Effective and powerful brand can only be built once positioning is clearly defined and understood. Marketing and advertising then take the outcome of the positioning work and select precision-targeted channels and tactics to create audience connectivity. Positioning strategists are sometimes marketers and marketers are sometimes positioning strategists – but not often. The two disciplines are uniquely different though inextricably linked.

Without the overlay of a strong positioning strategy, marketing and advertising activity tends to unfold in typically disjointed campaigns that may or may not enhance audience perception, achieve growth, sell product, adequately define a cause, or achieve optimal return on investment. Without active positioning strategy in place, we put the brand and marketing cart before the horse. We become the keepers of the flame of active inertia.

The Barlow/McCarthy team specializes in helping our clients establish strong position, message and connection strategies to drive growth, develop physician practices and engagement, strengthen existing marketing programs, track outcomes, and deliver results. To find out more contact Jeff at:  jcowart@barlowmccarthy.com

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