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  • Bob Hoffman

POSITIONING, DIFFERENTIATION & FAME


A while back I published something called “The Three Word Brief.” In it I asserted that the primary objective of advertising should be to create fame. I also said that some of the shibboleths of the marketing industry, specifically differentiation and positioning, may be of value, but their value is secondary. The first job of advertising is to make a brand famous.

Fame is an unequaled advantage for brands (and for people, for that matter.) While the primacy of fame seems perfectly obvious to me, and has been stated over the years by many excellent advertising people, it is not widely recognized or discussed within the marketing and branding industries. Marketers, of course, can complicate the shit out of a salami sandwich. Consequently the idea that advertising should be focused on creating fame is often seen as too glib and simplistic.

I was not surprised to hear from marketing people who disagreed with me. The people I heard from generally made this case: Fame without “a reason” is empty and worthless. They said that positioning and differentiation are the first job of advertising strategy because they give substance to fame. In other words, positioning and differentiation are the factors that make fame productive.

I think this is wrong. In fact, I think it’s exactly the opposite. I think that fame, inherently, creates the strongest type of positioning and differentiation.

Fame has many positive but not necessarily logical associations. These include trust, social acceptance, and credibility. Any brand can try to differentiate or position itself by saying these words. But only fame has the unique ability to communicate these attributes without having to say them.

I think that the most powerful differentiator for any brand is being the most famous. I think the most powerful position for any brand is being the most famous.

Most marketing and branding "experts" believe that people have an understanding of the “meaning” of brands and the differences between brands, and based on these understandings, make purchase decisions in reasoned ways. Consequently, differentiation and positioning have become primary elements of brand strategy.


There’s no doubt that these beliefs have a certain logic and appeal to them. For many years I subscribed to them. They have allowed the marketing and branding industries to create a very believable and comfortable narrative for the past few decades about how brand strategy should be approached and what the key components of advertising strategy should be.

Today, however, I believe these ideas are mostly wrong. I believe consumers are annoyingly indifferent to the subtleties of most differentiation and positioning. Consumers see most products and brands in most categories as remarkably similar. The claims we concoct for differentiation and positioning are largely lost on them.


It’s not that the marketers are mistaken about differentiation and positioning, it’s that they underestimate the critical role that non-logical attributes, like fame, play in driving differentiation and positioning.

I don’t believe that consumers react very well to the logic of the marketing industry. I believe consumers react to brand associations — symbols, icons, images, aesthetics, slogans, melodies and other distinguishing but non-logical artifacts. I guess what I'm saying is that positioning and differentiation are more impressionistic than logical. (As an aside, I am very assiduously not using the terms “rational” and “emotional” in this argument. So many advertising crimes have been committed in the name of “emotion” that I cringe when I hear it. Instead I am using the terms “logical” and “non-logical” which are not synonymous with “rational” and “emotional.”)

Ask people on the street how McDonald’s is different from Burger King; how Nike is different from Adidas; how Coke is different from Pepsi. I don’t think you’ll hear the language of brand briefs. I think you’ll hear the language of symbols, images, slogans, and melodies.

Behavioral economics has demonstrated pretty convincingly that a lot of human behavior is driven by mental activities that we are not quite conscious of and are post-rationalized with logic. It would seem reasonable that brand preferences might also entail mental activities in which brand associations are the “first responders” and are subsequently rationalized with “logic.”

This brings us back to fame. I suspect most marketing and branding exponents think of positioning and differentiation as the cause, and fame as the effect. I think of fame as the cause, and positioning and differentiation as the effects.

There is nothing about marketing that is black and white, true or false. All we have are likelihoods and probabilities. Famous brands have failures all the time. Fame is no guarantee of brand success, but it’s the most reliable driver.


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