Built to last

Editor's note: George Pettinico is director of marketing research at Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals Inc., Ridgefield, Conn. 

One of the most important aspects of any brand’s success is positioning. Simply put, positioning is the specific image, theme or idea that a brand creates in the minds of consumers. At my company, Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals Inc., we think of positioning as the few words that pop into a customer’s head when he/she thinks about your brand. For BMW, it’s “the ultimate driving machine.” For Walmart, it’s “lots of choices at a really low prices.” For Flomax (a brand I spent a lot of time working on), it’s “a medication that can significantly reduce men’s urinary symptoms associated with BPH, fast – in a week or less.”

Positioning is the bedrock upon which all messaging and communications to your customers are built. If you get the positioning wrong – and by wrong I mean it’s not relevant to target customers, or not tied to an underlying customer need or want, or not differentiated from the competition – everything else (such as your flashy $100-million ad campaign) will collapse like a house of cards.

Note on pharma research: In pharma and other health care areas, we often create positioning for health care professionals (doctors, nurses) and well as consumers (patients). This article deals strictly with consumer positioning. However, there should be alignment and synergy between the two.

Despite its importance, many brands are launched with suboptimal positioning, and they often can never recover from it. This usually happens because the companies don’t invest the time needed to do the right marketing research to help develop optimal positioning. Here is the marketing research game plan that I found helps develop the most successful positioning for a new product launch. While I work in health care, these basics apply to pretty much every industry.

Step one: Start with consumer insight mining.

First, dig deep into the psyche of the consumer. You need to understand your customers’ needs, wants, aspirations and self-image in your category. If your company already has products in the category, you may know much of this. If not, get ready for a lot of work. I like doing good-old focus groups for this. In my industry, before we launch a new medication or patient program, we would recruit roomfuls of current sufferers to talk about how they live with their condition. What are their hopes, fears, needs? What works for them to help make living with the condition easier? What makes it rough? For Flomax, we learned that BPH (enlarged prostate) sufferers strongly desired fast relief from their symptoms. This was a driving motivation beyond almost anything else.

A good moderator can use laddering and projective techniques to get at deep-seated emotions. In addition, I also like ethnographic research. Watch your target consumers as they normally act in your category. Marketing researchers are also doing a lot of smart consumer insight mining on the Web, such as via online communities or listening in to chat rooms.

Step two: Develop a perceptual map of the competition.

Next, you need to understand where your competition sits in the minds of consumers. Conduct a quantitative survey of consumers in your category to measure the awareness and brand equity of existing brands. What positioning do these brands own? What kinds of people do consumers think each brand is for? You need to know this so you can stake out a differentiated claim for your brand. Augmenting the quant survey with some qualitative work (one-on-one interviews or focus groups) to dig deeper into how consumers really think about the competition is useful as well.

Step three: Identify your optimal target.

So far, I’ve talked about researching consumers in general in your category. That’s a great place to start. But a brand cannot target everyone. You now need to identify your target segment. The work you do in steps one and two gives you the lay of the land necessary to start thinking about this. Also, you now need to think long and hard about your product/brand and what it can reasonably offer. If you are Walmart, you know you are not going to position your chain for the luxury buyer. So, conduct a large-scale quantitative survey of category buyers and ask them questions about their needs, preferences, wants and dreams as they relate to the category (all the relevant things you learned in insight mining). From that, you can identify a segment where the consumers’ attributes best align with what your product can actually deliver. Augment the quant work with qual work to flesh out the inner thinking of your target segment even more.

Note on pharma research: In all industries, target segments are based mainly on demographics, attitudes and behaviors. In pharma research, there are a few more factors: Where is the consumer in his/her treatment journey? And, is he/she in the appropriate place medically to benefit from the drug? This is critical to factor into the targeting. In some therapy areas caregivers must also be factored into the equation, as they are often the targets of communications.

Step four: Qualitatively test draft positioning statements.

Now that you’ve identified your target segment, your marketing colleagues and their agency can begin to draft positioning statements for the brand. Make sure your colleagues have the results from steps one, two and three in front of them when they do this (it’s your job as the marketing researcher to make sure they do). The positioning statements tested with consumers should be lengthier than the shorthand version I offered at the start of the article. The statements should have four elements: 1) who the product is for; 2) what the product’s core appeal (positioning) is; 3) some proof, rationale or story to support its positioning; and 4) what the payoff is to the consumer.

Below I offer an automotive example and a pharma example. (Positioning statements can be developed simply by watching ads for the product and spending time perusing its Web site.)

Toyota Prius draft positioning for consumer testing

  • For the smart car buyer who cares about the environment and saving money at the pump.
  • The new Toyota Prius offers true harmony between man, nature and machine.
  • It does this by its 50-m.p.g. rating and significantly reduced emissions.
  • So you know you made the smart choice for yourself and the Earth.

Flomax draft positioning for consumer testing

  • For men who are experiencing urinary symptoms due to BPH.
  • Flomax is an FDA-approved medicine that significantly reduces these urinary symptoms fast – in less than one week.
  • In clinical trials, it has been shown to relax the muscles in the area of the prostate, allowing urine to flow more easily.
  • To let you get back to living a more normal life, without all those urinary interruptions.

Test the draft positioning statements either in one-on-ones with target customers or in very small groups (no more than triads). Test the statements on: relevance, uniqueness, credibility, clarity and motivation (to purchase). In the research, include the positioning statements of your competitors as well (unbranded). Be sure your draft positioning ideas do at least as well if not better than the competition (preferably better). Make sure your marketing colleagues take the learnings from this phase and rewrite the positioning statements. You may need to repeat this research step twice or more before the positioning statements are truly optimized.

Note on pharma research: In pharmaceutical research, sometimes at this step it’s worthwhile to show consumers a product profile (basic efficacy, safety/side effects and dosing information in consumer-friendly language). Then, you can see if they feel the draft positioning statements are a fair representation of the medication. If consumers perceive a disconnect between what the medication offers and the positioning, you need to think harder about the positioning.

Step five: Quantitatively test draft positioning statements.

Qualitative research is great for insight-mining and getting useful feedback on draft items. However, I never feel I’ve answered a business issue as critical as this until I’ve done some rigorous quant work. There’s nothing like a large, representative survey among your target consumers to confirm findings. So, monadically test your top few (three or four) positioning statements in a quant survey. Be sure to work several things into this study. First, get quantitative reads for each statement on relevance, uniqueness, credibility, clarity and motivation. Also, include the positioning from your competitors and do a preference share exercise. Based on the positioning, which product would they buy – yours or the competition? Many respondents may recognize the competition from the positioning (despite keeping it unbranded) but that reflects reality anyway. Your new positioning will need to do well against your competition’s established positioning in the marketplace. Also, work with a research company that has industry norms for positioning as an additional gauge (most of the big research firms have them).

Not done yet

After you do all this, you should have the information you need to launch your product with some pretty solid positioning. From that positioning, your communications, ad campaign and all promotions will be built. But you are not done yet!

Once in-market, you need to conduct tracking surveys with target consumers. Include a solid list of brand equity items. You want to get high marks on the items that best align with your positioning.

Also, a question I like to ask, open-ended, in these studies is, “How would you describe BRAND X? Please explain in a few words.” Hopefully, target consumers will play back in their own words the right positioning (sure, some will mention your spokesanimal or whatever but you can dig past that). If they are not playing back your positioning in some form, then either its is not well-defined or your ad campaign is not successfully communicating your positioning. Time to get the team together and think hard about what’s going on.

The foundation

This is a lot of work. It takes time and money to do all the research necessary to ensure an optimal positioning. But, you have to do it! Think of all the money your company will spend on advertising and promotions. Like the foundation of a house, your product’s positioning is what your marketing rests upon. Make sure it’s as solid as can be.