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  Brand Positioning: Black hole

The most common positioning problem is when the consumer becomes confused about the meaning of a brand. The place on a positioning map where meaning is lost can be called a black hole.

By identifying black holes companies can prevent loss of meaning for their brands.

More products and marketing strategies probably fail due to poor positioning than for any other reason except simply failing to meet anyone's needs and wants. Yet positioning analysis is one of the oldest and most common techniques of marketing.

Positioning involves three steps:

  1. Finding the evaluative dimensions on which consumers make their choice of brand.
  2. Locating consumer perceptions of brands on a positioning map.
  3. Locating consumer preferences on a positioning map.

Many companies seem to do a poor job with this analysis or perhaps just forget that all marketing actions should be based on it. In the worst case, their brands end up in a black hole with no meaning.

Consumers stay away from brands that they don't understand, so being in a black hole means that sales will decline or the product will fail completely. What brands need is a straightforward core benefit proposition that tells a consumer what the brand means. This is easily implemented as a restatement of the brand's positioning. Nevertheless, so may companies get this wrong that it must be due to other factors outside of marketing logic. For example, hundreds of millions of dollars are wasted every year on advertising that bears no relationship to a brand's core benefit proposition. "Enjoy the ride" was not good positioning for Nissan, especially since that ride was downhill to smaller market share.

Consider how even the biggest brands can get themselves into a black hole. The reputation of Coca-Cola is the envy of corporations all over the world. Since their All-American, family, warm ("I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing") image was so hard-won, you would think that they would never do anything to hurt that—at least not after learning the once-in-a-lifetime lesson from New Coke—but then you would be wrong. A campaign of commercials showing mean-spirited people was so bad that Coke had to halt the ads and field angry calls from consumers and their own bottlers. One ad showed a young man returning to his parent's farm home after military service, the parents anxiously waiting on their porch, only to have him turn around and leave after they said they had no Coke. This surely leaves a feeling—but it's not warm and fuzzy. According to The Wall Street Journal, Coke "paid dearly for its ... uneven marketing."

Coca-Cola executives breathlessly announced a new ad campaign (designed to repair the damage from the earlier campaign) with a multimillion dollar budget and the slogan "Life Tastes Good." Despite the obvious fact that this slogan bears no relationship to any discernible core benefit proposition, Coke went ahead with the campaign anyway. Soon the The Wall Street Journal reported that Coke's Chief Marketing Officer said "the company is abandoning global ad campaigns after its big 'Life Tastes Good' campaign for Coca-Cola didn't pan out." "Life Tastes Good" meant nothing, and consumers knew it.

Note that a black hole is defined in terms of perceptions, not preferences. Coke (again!) launched its ill-fated C2 brand with half the calories of regular Coke. To the extent that they successfully communicated this "benefit" to consumers, a positioning map showing C2 straddling a calories axis (from none to normal) would rightfully put C2 on that line. So a half calorie drink does have meaning in the sense that it has half the normal calories. But consumers don't prefer a half calorie drink since they usually are either dieting or not dieting. C2 and Pepsi's Edge brand failed not due to lack of meaning but to lack of preferences. (The behavioral premise that consumers want to "half diet" might have been useful here.)

A true black hole has to have no meaning when only looking at evaluative dimensions and perceptions. Consider a positioning map for a pet food brand, say Pedigree dog food. Although the evaluative dimensions for such a map would probably not include type of pet (since type would be higher "up" on a Buyer Behavior Flow Chart and thus not an evaluative dimension used to position a brand against its main competitors), let's say the map shows type of pet (dog or cat) vs. type of food (wet or dry).

There is no problem with meaning for any brand on such a map unless it's positioned in the middle. Consumers would not understand a combination of wet/dry for a dog/cat, however popular the latter mutation might prove to be.

In general, though, a black hole is not in the center of a positioning map (since often the center is meaningful, say a mid-priced, mid-featured smartphone). A black hole is simply the place on a positioning map—if it exists—where meaning is lost.


Summary of the marketing logic

  • Brands with a clear meaning are considered by consumers; ones without clear meaning are not.
  • A core benefit proposition defines a brand's meaning.

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