Ask Lindsay

Positioning

What’s the #1 mistake made when crafting a brand positioning?

Lindsay Says

Today I’ll discuss the top mistake made when building a brand positioning, which is choosing table stakes as your positioning.

Critical Caveat

Before I get into the details of that, however, I need to take a step back and clarify something important. The top mistake made in the realm of brand positioning is to not do it – to not deliberately identify your most powerful positioning, and instead, to let the market decide this for you.

Positioning happens, whether or not you are driving it. If you allow yourself to be positioned by the market, it most likely will not be your optimal brand position for growth. So the number-one mistake is to underestimate the importance of brand positioning by not intentionally claiming your brand position at all.

Now that we have that out of the way:

For businesses that do carefully create a brand positioning, the most common pitfall is choosing a positioning idea that is not ownable and differentiated. What I see frequently is a business pinning its brand on a benefit that is not only not unique to the market – it’s a must-have for anyone in the space. This is often referred to as a category benefit. I like to call it table stakes.

What does “table stakes” mean in brand positioning?

Let’s say you’re selling pancake mix. Except in special circumstances, you cannot focus on a category benefit of pancakes, such as “comfort food on Sunday mornings.” That is something all pancake brands offer, so you have to focus on something that only you bring to the pancake experience.

What special circumstances?

You can get around this rule if your brand dominates the category. For example, since Clorox Bleach is the majority share of the bleach category, they can focus on category benefits – like whitening and disinfecting – rather than Clorox Bleach-specific benefits, like “It’s the brand that Mom used.”

So what should a non-dominant brand do?

If like most companies, your pancake brand is not (yet) dominant, it’s vital to avoid relying on table stakes for your positioning. Otherwise your marketing will drive demand for the entire pancake category, rather than driving demand disproportionately to your own business. Again, that is okay if your brand is the pancake category, but for the rest of us, our budgets need to grow demand for our business in particular.  Here’s how to approach this:

  1. Identify all the things you are particularly good at.
  2. Isolate which of these are unique in the market.
  3. Determine which of these resonates with your target audience.

In the case of pancakes, it could be that your mix is healthier, or you have innovative ingredients, or your recipe is faster to make, or you deliver a traditional Swedish-style pancake. What matters is that a) you uniquely own this special thing in your market, and b) your customer cares about this thing you uniquely bring.

Do the Work

It’s tempting to complete Step 1 above, and maybe Step 2, and then stop. Identifying ideas while isolated at your headquarters is easier and less costly than going out and interacting with your target customers. But Step 3 is imperative. Without it you are basing your brand positioning on an unverified hunch. This legwork is the key to a brand positioning that will drive your business to success.

Let’s follow how this plays out:

You identify several things that you are especially good at, and after cross-referencing with competitors, isolate the ones that only you can deliver. Say you have the healthiest ingredients and you are the only Swedish-style pancake mix out there. Then you reach out to your target audience and as a result of that, you learn that when it comes to pancakes, customers don’t care about healthy. But they do like the appetizing consistency and look and taste of your Swedish-style pancakes.

Avoiding Table Stakes

Voila – the data has spoken. You choose a positioning around your Swedish idea, rather than around being healthy, and of course in place of simply being yummy on Sunday mornings.

You may still be healthy, and you will still be yummy on Sunday mornings. In fact, you better be, because you are pancakes! Yummy on Sunday mornings is table stakes in the pancake category. It’s important for you to cover, but it’s not enough to hang your brand on. For your brand to be ironclad, it needs to be differentiated, ownable and captivating to your customers.


Our rigorous, scientific approach to brand positioning helps our clients claim their most optimal position to drive growth. Visit our case studies to find out more.