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The Richer The Better

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Single-minded positioning is widely touted as a universal truth. Yet many brands in consumer and b-to-b markets defy it. They outgrow it or eschew it altogether and still succeed. Here are three examples:

IBM. From "Internet in a box" to "Solutions for a small planet" and then "E-business on demand," IBM never really owned the key language or ideas. They were co-opted by and from the marketplace. Yet IBM keeps forging ahead.

Nike. To observers and customers alike, this brand never embraced a discernible single-minded positioning. Imagery borrowed from sports celebrities combined with relentless investment drove this brand to its monolithic status.

Yahoo! The upstart brand that wanted to embrace everything and everyone on the Web is glued together only by a wacky name and persona. It became a profitable Internet colossus unimpeded by the lack of narrow positioning.

Ubiquitous penetration and distribution, far-flung geographies, dominant market shares, massive budgets and grand aspirations are the hallmarks of superbrands. If you reach this level —or aspire to—different principles apply, just as they do in quantum versus Newtonian physics.

Maturity, scale and breadth of vision matter when it comes to developing brand strategy for players at this stage in the game—and change the way the game is played. The objective is no longer simply to stick in the customer's mind—that's a fait accompli. It's to sustain the customer's belief that your brand is best and reinforce customers' confidence in their brand decision.

At this point, it is unlikely that your brand can be captured in—and inappropriate that it should be limited to—a single word or catchphrase. This kind of oversimplification can constrict perception of brand value instead of expanding it. It can also make the positioning vulnerable to misattribution to other brands (b-to-b and consumer) and to outright appropriation by the competition.

These dynamics play out in the marketplace all the time. The predominant research methodologies demonstrate the point quite well. These techniques depend on the customer's ability to conduct fast analysis of detailed benefit and attribute batteries across multiple brands. This reality exposes the complex truth behind the veil of the simplicity.

Market leaders rightly want to know that their brands top out across the board on affirmative measures, eliminate or minimize the negatives, and address new issues and opportunities. Competitors co-opt language, benefits, attributes and features and even clone each other's products to stay afloat in the customer's evaluative process.

Customers have nuanced understanding of brands, aggregated from iterative messaging and experience over time. They evaluate them as complex sets of variables—mostly unconsciously. Reducing the brand's value proposition to one lowest common denominator risks not synching with customers. Furthermore, it risks undermining the value perception built up by the customer.

Exceptions to the single-mindedness rule are legion. Just three are mentioned above, but also consider McDonald's, Tide, Microsoft, Coke and others. Each of these brands has accumulated huge brand equity and come to represent much more than one idea. They communicate broadly, aggressively and persistently on multiple fronts to protect, leverage and grow their investment return. They succeed because they don't fight their multiplicity; they embrace it.

Many brands may overlook this and hence fail to sufficiently grow and leverage their equity. As a result, their full value is neither reflected in nor extracted from the marketplace. If you need help with this, beware the bearer of the single-minded proposition as your best strategic option. It may only be the best way to strangle your brand.