Brand positioning vs. brand stories: it’s really both, not one or the other

A new paper by the Verse Group claims that brand positioning is dead, and in its place comes brand storytelling. Brand positioning, as Verse notes in this release on the subject, is the “theory that a brand should own one idea in a person’s mind.” Brand storytelling, in contrast, relies on a “complex interplay of emotions, experience, and sensations” to get the message across.

What’s this all about to begin with? Verse is responding to an Advertising Research Foundation report, based on three years of research, which found that storytelling-type TV advertisements are more effective than positioning-based TV advertisements at engaging the viewer.

According to an article in Brandweek (October 29, 2007), the ARF findings were clear. A total of 33 ads in 12 categories were analyzed by 14 “leading emotion and physiological research firms.” The study found, for example, that “Bud's iconic ‘Whassup’ (campaign) registered more powerfully with consumers than Miller Lite low-carb ads that essentially just said, ‘We're better than the other guys.’ Why? Because Bud told a story about friends connected by a special greeting.”

The ARF report emphasizes, as I have stated repeatedly, that brands “co-create” meaning with their consumers, rather than straightforwardly imposing meaning on them. The co-creation process is enhanced when brands are presented as stories rather than as one-dimensional aspects of meaning.

At the same time, the Brandweek article notes, storytelling ads are only “truly effective” when “the plots tie in to a positive brand message.” “When the emotional peaks align with the presence of the brand, or the impact of the brand in the story, the emotional connection with the brand is greatest,” says ARF Senior Vice President, Research and Standards Bill Cook in the article.

The reality is, it is brand positioning + brand stories that makes the brand work, not brand stories alone, and Verse Group misunderstands this completely. In trying to make a name for itself—ironically, in trying to position itself when the company is anti-positioning—Verse misses the mark. The company states, in very strong terms, that “‘brand positioning’ is perhaps the most misguided marketing idea in the past 30 years.” Nothing could be further from the truth. It is when brands are positioned effectively, and storied effectively, that they resonate with the target audience.

Verse is trying to put a semblance of ROI on brand stories. It says in its response to the ARF report that “paid media spending (is) estimated by Nielsen to be over $150 billion in 2006,” so that “even a modest increase of 10% in effectiveness would be equivalent to $15 billion.” Verse wants to “own” brand stories—it wants to be positioned as the company you turn to when you need one. But in the Brandweek article, Mark Truss, director of brand intelligence at JWT, cautions that the industry still doesn’t see the ROI, and therefore “marketers and advertisers are not going to embrace (this approach).”

My advice is to incorporate brand stories where possible, but center them on a strong positioning. This is the best approach to take to increase brand value.