Find Your Fit

The Secret to Brand Positioning: Your Competition

Know your competitive landscape

Keeping an eye on the competition is probably already a part of your daily life as an entrepreneur. You follow their announcements, launches, and pivots. You monitor the market share they’re taking up. Maybe you even pay attention to their brand decisions like photography and copy to make sure you look distinct in the eyes of the consumer. 

But even with all this analysis, many startup founders miss an important opportunity: to establish their own brand positioning with the help of their competitors. 

In case you aren’t familiar with the concept, brand positioning can be boiled down into the one quality your brand is known for. Al Ries and Jack Trout, who literally wrote the book on the subject, explain it as owning a concept in the mind of customers, one that sets you apart from your competitors: Apple is “innovation,” Volvo is “safety.” Good branding starts with an understanding of your positioning—you can then choose all the other elements as a way to support it. And good positioning starts with a deep understanding of the competitive landscape.

Volvo’s brand positioning is “safety.” Campaigns throughout brand imagery, billboards, social media and Volvo’s website.
Volvo’s brand positioning is “safety.” Campaigns like One of a Million and Lifesaver communicate that positioning. You’ll find consistent communication throughout brand imagery, billboards, social media and Volvo’s website. The brand also participates in the European voluntary car safety performance assessment program. Photos courtesy of Volvo.

So how do you approach that? Start by gathering basic information about your competitors, ideally 10–20 companies in your space. This should be a mix of direct and indirect competitors—think any brands that a customer might consider when shopping in your broad category. (For instance, Nike would list other athletic shoe companies, like Adidas, as well as other brands customers might go to for comfortable footwear, like Crocs.)

Then, ask yourself the following questions to better understand who your brand is in relation to your competition—and how you can come out on top. 

Brand Positioning: What categories are open—that you could fill?

Many branding experts agree that, in order to make sense of the world, consumers think in categories. As they come to love and trust certain brands, they slot them in as the “winners” in particular categories. Ries and Trout posit that it’s easier to fill a new category in the mind of a consumer than to try and beat a competitor they already love in an existing category. “Every category in the mind is either filled with a brand name, or it’s not,” they explain. “If the category is not filled, then it’s an open hole or position which your brand can easily occupy.”

That often means getting specific about which subcategory you can own, and sometimes even means creating a new category and working to make it important in the eyes of customers. Instead of trying to compete in the generic “grocery store” category, Whole Foods decided to bring the category of “organic grocery store” to the mass market, and quickly became the winners because of it. 

As you look at your competitors, ask yourself what subcategory your company could occupy. Make sure the subcategory wins, and your brand is more likely to win, too.

Whole Food’s brand positioning
Whole Food’s brand positioning is “highest quality natural & organic foods.” Campaigns like Real Food, High Standards and #MakesMeWhole communicate that positioning. Whole Food’s values and brand positioning are communicated throughout its stores, on bags, social media, the company’s lower-priced product line 365 and Whole Food’s website. Photos courtesy of Whole Foods Market.

What are your competitors bad at—that you’re great at?

You see this all the time in advertising and marketing: A subtle jab at a competitor to try and show why your product is clearly better. But, if you take a step back, you can actually use the weakness of your competitors to define a core positioning strategy that will set you apart for the long haul. Marketing professor and expert Scott Galloway calls this strategy laddering and describes it as “an attempt to de-position a competitor by highlighting one of your strengths, which just happens to be your competitor’s weakness.”

You can see this in action, as Galloway describes, in Apple’s recent shift to positioning themselves as the leaders in security, after realizing that was a big weak spot for their competitors.

You can see it in Taco Bell’s former “think outside the bun” marketing, in which they’re positioning themselves as more exciting than the standard burger fare offered by other fast food chains. You can see it in Bumble’s positioning as a dating app that focuses on helping women feel comfortable and empowered, compared to the awful experiences many have on other apps.

Start thinking this way, and you’ll see this approach all over the branding world. Pay attention, and then ask yourself what strengths you have compared to your competitors that you could capitalize on.

Bumble's brand positioning is "first move." Social media, ads and website.
Bumble’s brand positioning is “women empowered.” The overarching campaign First Move is based on Bumble’s positioning. The positioning is also reflected in its core app features: women make the first move, integrated AI-based warnings and photo verification of its users. Bumble’s brand positioning is consistent throughout social media, ads and the company’s website. Photos courtesy of Bumble.

How are they serving the customer—and what are they missing?

It’s counterintuitive, but when doing a competitive analysis to identify your brand positioning, you shouldn’t just be looking at your competitors. You’ll also want to look at the customers you’re targeting, what they want, and how well their needs are being served. If there’s something the customer wants that nobody is addressing, it could be a powerful opportunity for you to step in. 

It’s this line of questioning that helped many popular direct-to-consumer brands (think Casper, Warby Parker, Dollar Shave Club) rise to the top, when they realized that customers in nearly every category would love more affordable options delivered straight to their door. It’s how JetBlue differentiated itself after realizing that every other major airline forces customers to choose between comfortable amenities and cost—if they could find a way to provide both, they could win.  

Take a close look at the groups of people you and your competitors target, and ask yourself what they’re dealing with, what’s important to them, and where you could step in and provide something that nobody else is offering. 

When it comes to positioning, I’ve always said that vague descriptors like “better” and “cheaper” alone don’t build a brand. By going through the questions above, you can get more creative and start to identify what you truly want your brand to be known for. And, if you need a little extra support, feel free to reach out to our team to work together on identifying your unique positioning.