What is a Positioning Statement?

Ed BurghardWhen the meaning is unclear there is no meaning.

Marty Rubin

Have you ever tried to explain branding to a non-marketer?

If so, you’ll know that it’s difficult because the terminology is confusing. In a professional field that focuses on making communication transparent, we have done a marvelous job of obfuscating a conceptually simple subject.

So how can you explain branding to somebody who doesn’t have your background and wants a simple Cliff Notes overview? This has been a challenge I have been fascinated by since my retirement from Procter & Gamble in 2009.

My initial interest was born of necessity.  Let me set the context. I had accepted an assignment as an Executive on Loan to create a brand for the state of Ohio.  I had been working with a globally recognized branding agency to conduct market research so I could better understand Ohio’s current brand equity.  I was at the stage where sharing preliminary findings with community leaders made sense.  In my very first presentation, I was confronted with a seemingly simple question – “If you say a brand is not a logo and a tagline, what is it?”.

Over my entire 33-year career as a P&G Brand builder, I don’t think I was ever asked that question.  I did my best to answer it falling back on my best recollection of the American Marketing Association definition of a brand as an experience and a logo/tagline as a proxy for that experience.  I talked about the importance of brand equity as an asset and the need to proactively manage that asset through effective branding.

I delivered what I thought was a masterful 5-minute answer to a simple question.  And then I asked – “Does that answer your question?”.  The response was – “Not really, I am now more confused than ever!”.

This was what I call one of my defining professional life lessons.  If I wanted to be an effective brand builder outside of P&G, I needed to be able to explain common terminology in a way that did not require the person I was speaking with to have an MBA (or to have had a career at P&G).

My Simple Working Definitions

I have found success by using the following definitions.  For readers with a deep background in marketing/branding please note these definitions are simplified by purposeful design.  In my experience, when I explain branding this way people genuinely “get it”.  You can actually see the proverbial light bulb go off in their expression of understanding.  So, I encourage you to give these definitions a try and leave the complexity for the execution rather than explanation phase.  Note, these definitions are stated in the context of place branding but apply to product, corporate and personal branding as well.

  • Brand – A promise you make about what it is like to live and work in your community. It needs to be relevant, competitive and authentic to be effective.
  • Selling – Helping a specific company determine if your community is a good choice for their capital investment. Selling includes retention and expansion of companies with operations in your community, and is not limited to attraction. When you are selling, you are making a promise to a specific company.
  • Image – How your community is perceived today.
  • Marketing – Managing the image of your community. This is done through an effective communications effort and the tactics associated with it. Managing image includes correcting misperceptions and ensuring an understanding of your community’s promise. It deals with the “current state” of your community, warts and all. Marketing helps create broad interest in considering your community for capital investment. It sets an expectation for what the experience will be. When you market you community, you are communicating your promise to a number of companies.
  • Identity (aka Desired Identity) – How you would like your community to be perceived in the future.
  • Branding – Strategically managing the transition of your community from its current image to its desired identity. Identity is what you are working to transform your community into. Think of it as the “future state”. Therefore, branding includes creating a strategic plan to guide your development efforts. The plan horizon should be minimally 10-years, and will typically include strategic choices on asset creation, infrastructure investment and public policy reform. Branding also includes making certain your community promise is consistently delivered across a complex set of touch points that involve educating and keeping many of your constituents on the “same page”.

But, What About Positioning?

One term I have been challenged with explaining in the lexicon I created above is “positioning”.  I have now found a simple definition that makes sense.

  • Positioning – The translation of your community’s promise into a meaningful benefit statement for a specific subset of your target audience.

This is important because a lot of the time when people hear the phrase brand positioning it suggests to them that all they have to do is determine what their target audience wants to hear and then tell their community story in that manner.  It reinforces the “paint a pig” mentality.  And frankly, casts the entire branding process in a poor, charlatan type, light.

I think the above definition is helpful.  It recognizes that different target audiences will experience different benefits from your community promise, and to make your promise compelling you need to communicate a relevant benefit.

To illustrate, take the example of a community promise focused on easy access to consumers. When communicating their promise to companies that physically transport product a positioning statement might include a reason to believe that describes their unique transportation infrastructure.  But, when communicating to a company that uses the Internet the positioning statement might include a reason to believe that describes their unique telecommunication infrastructure.

An easy way to manage positioning statements is to use a communication matrix.  It helps ensure your community’s promise is always at the core of your positioning statement.

Now that you know how to explain what branding is to your Board of Directors and elected officials, you’re ready to have a productive conversation without worrying about getting tripped up in the terminology.


I’d love your feedback on your experience in using the above definitions.  It might help me refine them.  Also, what has been your experience in general when you have tried to explain branding to somebody who is not trained in the field?

Leave a comment with your thoughts.

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