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What is my brand’s mental file folder?

Lindsay Says

People can only buy from your business if they have first paid attention to it. And attention is a scarce resource these days.

You can make space for your business in your customers’ busy brains – but only if you position yourself so that you’re not taxing their attention. Brand positioning helps you help your target customers think of your business. Imagine brand positioning as filing your business in the right folder in your customer’s mind. If she knows where to put you as a mental file folder, she will keep you. If she knows where to look for you, she will find you.

File Folder Fail

Near my office is a storefront with a giant sign indicating that the business’s name is “Inspire.” The windows feature photos of fit women in fashionable athleisure clothing with a moody gray backdrop. For months while walking by, I had assumed the store sold athleisure clothing and continued walking by. One day, I learned to my surprise, that “Inspire” is a Pilates studio.

I practice Pilates, and I work in the neighborhood of this Pilates studio. I imagine that I fit squarely into Inspire’s target customer profile. But they did not get me even to notice that it was a Pilates studio. They did not capture my attention, and that was a major miss. The sign did not legibly post the word Pilates, so there was nothing to help me see and organize this business as a Pilates or fitness studio. All they gave me was the evocative name “Inspire” and images of women in athleisure clothing, so I never invited them into my head. The lack of clarity made it difficult for me to attend to them, so I did not attend to them.

The purpose of brand positioning is to make your offering easier for your customers to see, buy, and be loyal to. Sometimes business leaders are so excited about the loyalty part, that they forget that before someone can be loyal to a business, she needs to know that the business exists. As a fitness and Pilates enthusiast, I have in my head a mental file folder for holding those types of businesses, but I did not know that the storefront near my office was one of those businesses. Consequently, I barely even glanced at it.

Mental file folders help at all stages of engaging with your customers – see, buy and love – because they contextualize your business. They help customers by giving them a doorway in, so they don’t walk by unaware.

Their Scarcest Resource = Your Biggest Opportunity

When my grandmother was growing up, there was one type of toothpaste she could buy from her town’s single grocer. Now there are 30 square feet of shelf space at my local grocery store devoted to toothpastes with comically specific claims. While waiting in line might have been my grandmother’s downtime to daydream, for me it is uptime – time to attend to myriad demands from my phone. Even after returning texts, checking headlines, and sending a calendar invite to a colleague while waiting in line, I leave the store with my toothpaste and a vague sense that there is more I should have attended to.

With so much stimulation and access, your customers’ scarcest resource – the resource getting ever scarcer, in fact – is attention. To begin a relationship with a customer, you must first get your customer’s attention, and they have very little attention to give. This establishing and harnessing of attention is the beginning of the utility of brand positioning.

Give Your Customers a Deal on Their Attention

One way we manage a lot of cognitive stimuli is with what I think of as mental file folders. We have mental file folders for most everything we deem worthy of our attention. Good brand positioning makes it easier for your audience to attend to you. If you precisely tell them in which mental file folder you belong, it takes less effort for them to pay attention to you.

Notice how the word “pay” often goes with the word “attention.” When you are asking your audience for their attention, you are asking them to pay you something – something increasingly dear. Asking someone to pay attention to your business, your brand, your offering, your message, is asking them to part with their mental money. Do not let your message, your proposition, be a squandering of your audience’s mental money. Make it worthwhile.

Start by making it easy for customers to find you. If you’ve positioned your brand in the optimal mental file folder, people can more easily learn about you, bond with you, and buy what you are selling. They can then be loyal to you and even evangelize you to their friends. If you’ve made it easier for customers to notice and remember your brand, they will be more likely to choose it.

First File Folder, Then Files

People perceive their world with respect to their accumulated knowledge and experiences.

Your business can help customers perceive you accurately – or at all – by making it easier for them to incorporate you into their minds. Know what mental file folder you fit in before you show them your file. Before you tell them how you’re going to change their lives (your file), help them see what the heck you even are (the file folder). Then they can more easily perceive you.

Brand Positioning Focuses Employee Attention Too

Who else is short on attention? Your employees. This is where brand’s power really mushrooms. Employees are pulled in a hundred directions in each moment, and they yearn for the clarity and focus and purpose a brand positioning illuminates. You’ll be able to motivate and retain the employees who delight in delivering on this brand positioning, and you can start attracting candidates who resonate with your brand.

And remember: as a leader, you too are an employee. And a human! You also fall prey to the overwhelm of attention scarcity. Consistently, the leaders I work with say that through the brand strategy development process, they not only created a brand strategy for marketing and customer-facing motives but they wound up finding much-needed clarity for themselves.

5 Steps to Earning Audience Attention

To make it easier for your business to grow, make it easier for your customers to pay attention to you. Here are the steps to establishing a brand strategy that will work with, rather than against, our natural modes of attention. I’ll use a fictional Pilates studio as an example.

  1. Define Your Target Customer
    Who is this person you want to reach? What are her wants and needs? For example, say your target customers are fitness enthusiasts who do or are considering doing Pilates.
  2. Find Your File Folder
    Helping customers orient themselves to you is the single most useful thing you can do to grab your audience’s attention. What is the file folder in their heads that you could be part of? For example, the fitness enthusiast considering Pilates may think of this as exercise. That is a frame of reference, the file folder you belong in. You have made it less costly for them to pay attention to you, because they already know what exercise is, so now you can piggyback on that and tell them how you offer unique exercise.
  3. Establish Your Brand Promise
    What is the benefit that you uniquely bring this customer, in this context? How is that benefit meaningful to her and unique to your strengths? For example, your Pilates studio brand promise may be: “Makes You Look and Feel Strong to the Core.”
  4. Offer Reasons to Believe
    How can you demonstrate that your benefit is true? Your Pilates studio might tell customers that the founder is trained by the creator of Pilates, and this is the number one Pilates studio in your city.
  5. Provide an End Reward
    In the end, how is your customer better off? Why is your brand promise big and meaningful to her? For example, your brand helps customers feel they are living their best lives.

Your Brand is a Relationship

Your business can’t reach, much less bond with, a customer who doesn’t give attention to you. The more you can make your brand easy to pay attention to, the more likely you can enter into a thriving relationship with your audience.

You can’t skip ahead in a relationship – all valuable relationships begin with two parties paying attention to one another. Before you can have a friendship, you must meet one another. Before you can have a brand, your customer needs to know your business exists – you two need to meet.

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