Positioning a Brand in Experience Marketing

August 30, 2010

When we conduct brand-positioning exercises, our goal is to help our client define their brand so that it may be communicated in a straightforward and believable way. One of the first steps in the process is developing their unique selling proposition (USP), which separates them from other businesses and lays the groundwork for a positioning statement that is designed to be the foundation on which their content strategies are built.

But we've had at least one recent example where hours of working through buyer criteria and competitor analyses failed to result in the creation of a simple, complete USP. We ran straight into the biggest challenge of working with service providers: intangibility. Some of our clients—whether B2B or service-sector B2C—rely faithfully on the sum of the customer experience in their marketing and messaging. That presents a problem when trying to develop a USP, as it implies something more concrete:

It's unique

That may seem obvious, but there are a surprisingly large number of definitions for "unique." It really isn't enough to say your USP needs to be about how you stand apart from the competition; it needs to be about how your business beats the competition.

It highlights what you're selling

It could be widgets, sightseeing tours, car parts, or french fries, but it has to be something you're actually selling. You're not selling sunshine or happy faces.

It's a proposition

A USP isn't a mission statement—it's an offer to your potential buyers, so it needs to speak to their needs and their buying criteria.

You can see why this makes positioning an experience-oriented services company so difficult. In the eyes of a potential customer, what you offer may be entirely intangible—or even fungible, meaning you've got your work cut out for you if you want to earn their business.

Brand positioning without a unique selling proposition

Positioning your brand without stating what makes you unique and preferred in the marketplace is a tricky operation that tends to shift the balance of power even further toward the customer, so you have to be comfortable with losing control. Granted, there are plenty of marketers—particularly in the digital sphere—who still cling to the notion that a brand never owns its message; this isn’t the forum for arguing that point, but without a USP, you’re ceding a lot of ground.

Still, that’s not to say it can’t be done—you just have to let your markets and your actions position the brand. That means honing in on three core areas:

Message consistency

Focusing a brand’s message is a goal of our positioning exercises, and that’s achieved (in part) through using evidence to affirm your USP. Without evidence, the USP becomes another hyperbolic marketing claim; without a USP, the evidence is all you’ve got. That becomes your message, and you’ve got to be consistent in how, where, and why you communicate with prospects. If you are consistent, you will see that born out in the way your brand is discussed in the marketplace.

Effective targeting

Without a clear, tangible product or service, developing and refining your target markets becomes a delicate exercise in finding those who might be inherently receptive to your message. That means broad market segments aren’t very useful, so you need to drill down and develop specific buyer personas upon which you can base effective engagement strategies.

On-site execution

In experience marketing, nothing matters except the experience, right? You may not be able to articulate what you’re selling or doing, but a dissatisfied customer certainly will if you’re not providing the experience they expect; you have to back up the evidence you provided to get prospects in the door. Every customer touchpoint should be scrutinized to ensure it provides the proper context and reinforces the desired brand experience.

Of course, even if you stick to those principles, it’s going to be a challenge; there’s a reason experience marketing often is reserved for older, well-established brands. But those brands had to start somewhere.