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Positioning From the Systems Thinking Perspective

Positioning belongs in all strategic marketing. Sustainable marketing requires systems thinking. The two can clash. How does the conflict between positioning and systems thinking manifest itself? How to resolve it? More importantly, how can positioning be done from a systems thinking perspective? By Peter Korchnak


Positioning = "the process by which marketers try to create an image or identity in the minds of their target market for its product, brand, or organization; relative competitive comparison their product occupies in a given market as perceived by the target market" Branding Strategy Insider

I position, you position

Though positioning happens in the mind of your customer, who considers the position of your product among all the available offerings, you can help create that position. Positioning entails

  1. discovering your customers’ needs
  2. determining how different products satisfy those needs and how they’re perceived (what’s their position in the customer’s mind)
  3. creating a distinct, unique, and valuable position in your customer’s mind for your product relative to the competition.

Another way of positioning from the competitive standpoint is to first decide who you’re not, and only then who you are. In some cases, brands place the difference from their competitors in the center of their marketing.

The world of consumer products is rife with positioning through explicit comparative advertising. A few examples: Suzuki SX4 vs. Mini Cooper; Audi A4 vs. BMW 3-series; Apple vs. Microsoft; Verizon vs. AT&T (I’m disappointed in you, Luke Wilson); Dunkin Donuts vs. Starbucks; you name it.

The idea behind explicit comparative positioning is to point out how a brand or product is different (opposite or better) from the main competitor. That the strategy may backfire is a topic for another post; for now, I believe the strategy is deeply flawed.

I recently listened to a company’s executives relate their difficulty in communicating the benefits of their product, which presented a novel alternative to a vastly dominant product category. In their pitch, they would first outline the current system and its flaws, and then proceed to highlight the superior performance of their product. I argued that the practice allows the audience to consider the new product through the lenses of the old one, and is therefore counterproductive.

Therein lies the problems with comparative positioning. By inviting your customer to first consider your competitor’s product and only then the advantages of yours, you 1) frame your product in your competitor’s terms, and 2) preclude considering your product on its own merits. I say, know who you’re not and how you’re better, say who you are and how you’ll improve your customer’s life (and the world).

Systems, systems on the wall

Your brand is an element of a system of brands in your product category; your product category is part of a system of all product categories; etc.

No element in the brand system is independent: your customer determines your brand’s position in her mind relative to the position of other brands. While that happens, she considers each brand not in isolation, but in relation to and connection with other brands. However, she doesn't think about brands first – she thinks about her need.

When deciding between brands (inputs), whether that happens rationally or emotionally, a complex interplay of brands takes place (transformation), with the final choice emerging as the winner (output). In the next round, your customer considers her experience (feedback) in making her next decision.

Rather than relative to the competition, positioning from the systems thinking perspective is relative to the need. Your customer chooses your product not because it’s better but because it satisfies her need in a way other products don’t.

Unlike traditional positioning, which is adversarial, positioning from the systems thinking perspective is complementary. Think not what your product does better than a competitor’s, but what specific need it satisfies. Under different circumstances, your customer will choose a different product.

Finally, in contrast to traditional positioning, which charts brand positions like dots in a cloud, brand positions from the systems thinking perspective are like nodes in a network. Units in a system are interrelated, and so are brands in the marketplace.

By way of an example, take coffee. Here in Portland, Oregon, I prefer local coffee shops like The Funky Door or brews like Stumptown; I can also choose based on proximity, other people’s recommendations, occasion, etc. On the road, Starbucks offers a reliable choice. I won’t get coffee at McDonald’s, even though I heard it’s alright, because I don’t like their business model and I prefer my coffee without the fast food stench. The last time I saw Dunkin Donuts anywhere was 100 miles from here in Eugene, Oregon, 6 years ago; back then I stopped there on the way to my construction job.

With coffee brands, as with all other product categories and brands, differentiation remains key, but it’s differentiation not from competitors, but on my need. Each coffee brand has its place in the system, where they complement each other, depending on my circumstances. Coffee brands constitute a map of interrelated products I consume over time.

Different people like different things at different times, at different places, for different reasons, and with different purposes. Systems-thinking positioning takes that into account. Positioning can and must be done with the systems thinking perspective in mind.

What do you think?


Peter Korchnak is a sustainable marketer, blogger, and speaker. As the principal of Semiosis Communications, he helps socially responsible businesses empower people, restore the planet, and achieve prosperity. On his Sustainable Marketing Blog and in his trainings and presentations he explores the intersection of marketing and sustainability. A Slovakia native and a Portland, Oregon resident, Peter enjoys guerrilla yardwork, ice hockey, trail running, and studying politics and culture.

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