Purpose is the new positioning


I have a friend who I have enjoyed working with over the years. He’s a smart marketer with a healthy cynicism – a valued trait for refining positioning. A healthy cynicism has shown to improve the ability to question the validity of positioning assumptions.

We have worked on a number of projects together. We have shared a great give and take when it comes to debating the mechanics of the positioning for different brands.

Like other good marketers, we have worked diligently to fashion and refine positioning statements for each project we have tackled.

I look back on these efforts and I have mixed feelings. I have enjoyed working with my friend. And the positioning was rationally sound – well thought out and thoroughly vetted. The work that resulted from the effort was solid. I wanted it to be inspiring. But, I can’t say it got to that. It was simply solid.

We had well-made positioning. But something was missing.


In 1981, Jack Trout and Al Ries gave us the book Positioning: The Battle For Your Mind. It introduced the idea of owning a position in the mind of your prospect.

The concept of positioning became the foundation of our strategic development. Strategic firms became adept and running positioning exercises and crafting positioning statements.

For over three decades, we identified the functional attributes that led us to the emotional benefit. This exercise would help us carve out that position that would be ownable and defendable.

Over those decades, a funny thing happened. It became more and more challenging to define a position that was significantly different. Today, it seems the differences are measured in mere degrees.

You can blame the speed of information. You can point to the availability of technology that now allows all competitors to quickly ramp up new capabilities. The bottom line is that creating easily identifiable positioning differentiation is difficult at best today.

The differentiation deception

There is another challenge we face when working with positioning. It’s subtly deceptive.

It’s easy to believe we are creating work with real impact. It’s all about finding the valued attributes of a brand. Defining how that combination of attributes differs from all the other competitive offerings. Identifying the emotional benefit. And documenting how all these elements come together to carve out a unique position in the minds of prospects.

Through this process, we rationally build the case for our brands. I have to admit that I love the process. There is something satisfying about systematically building and honing a positioning statement.

But, we can get so involved in debating the intricacies and checking off the boxes that we forget to step back and ask, “Will anybody really care about all this?"

I experienced this very situation with my friend and marketing colleague. As we got deeper and deeper into the process, we were less likely to question whether we were defining something that had a significant enough difference to really be compelling to a prospect. We were simply working with what we had. And we were excited about completing the process. To uncover what presented itself as a valid position.

Did we create differentiation? Technically, yes. Emotionally? Not so much. Which explains why the work that came out of that position was solid, but not necessarily inspiring.

What’s the purpose?

I think about the question, “What’s the purpose?” It’s often used as an expression of exasperation. Like saying, “There is no meaning to what we are doing.” Maybe we should be asking it in just that manner when we are faced with developing the new positioning of a brand.

Then, we should follow it with the more literal interpretation of the question. To ask, “What is the larger meaning our brand can serve?"

This is Big Audacious Meaning. It is the difference your brand can make in an individual life, a community, or even the world.

Shifting our focus to purpose is exponentially more powerful. We are no longer quibbling with our competitors about why we are a few degrees better. Instead, we are creating a movement to improve life for those we serve. And we’re inviting everyone along to help amplify the efforts. Even our competitors.

That’s a radical shift from the way we have been thinking about creating differentiation for more than 30 years.

It’s a question of anatomy

I think about that title from the book by Trout and Ries from 1981: Positioning: The Battle For Your Mind. And I think about the evolution we have gone through since that time. The realization I keep coming back to is that it is no longer enough to create positioning that wins the battle for the mind. Research from the fields of behavioral economics to neuroscience have shown us that that’s not where the real victory is won. And my own experience has confirmed it.

If we want differentiation that is meaningful, compelling, and inspiring, then we need to turn our attention to where decisions are made. Trust is forged. And evangelism is sparked. We need to win the heart.

That’s not something that positioning is designed to do. That’s a job for purpose.

Dan Salva is a co-founder of Will & Grail, with more than three decades of experience in brand marketing and developing and implementing go-to-market strategies. He can be reached at dsalva@willgrail.com.

ProcessDan Salva