Brand positioning vs. product positioning – the difference between commercial mindset and winning over hearts

Your brand and your product may be inextricably tied, but that doesn’t mean they share positioning. Each needs a different approach: one focusing on the commercial mindset, and one on emotions.
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Your product and brand have deep ties.

On the fundamental level, your product is what you offer to paying customers, while your brand is the perception a customer associates with your product or company. 

That connection may make you feel like you can’t separate them – but you can.

And on the positioning level, I’d argue that you should. Each requires a different approach because each appeals to a different aspect of your potential customer.

Here’s how they differ and the steps to take for creating both types.

Brand vs. Product – The Fundamental Difference

The goal of creating different positioning for your product and brand comes down to a simple difference:

Your product position is all about how you appeal to the practicality of your product, while brand positioning is about capturing the hearts of your customers. It’s practical features vs. emotion, and understanding how these differ reveals why you need individual positioning for each.

The Questions to Ask for Product Positioning

Creating your product positioning starts with a simple question: what is your product?

Hopefully, that’s an easy question to answer, because you know what your product is, what it does, and the category it lives in. From there, dig deeper by asking yourself why the product exists. What’s the mission or vision behind it and what problem space does it serve?

Then move into the position strategy by figuring out what your ideal customer profile (ICP) looks like and how you want your product to be perceived by them, specifically.

Finally, move back to the product itself to translate its unique value to your customers, based on what they want and need. Note that this doesn’t mean you create a feature list. Positioning a product is about communicating how you deliver the value of those features to the customer.

The Questions to Ask for Brand Positioning

Product positioning questions address the commercial and strategic parts of your marketing. But, for your brand, it’s about seeing you through your customers’ eyes.

Start with defining who your hero customer is and getting as specific as possible: What’s their name? Where do they get their news? Where do they hang out? And crucially: what problem do they want to solve?

A clear image of your customer in your mind will then help you position your brand as the North Star to their personal promised land. In other words: what makes your brand different? 

The answers will often be one- or two-word attributes, and help you to define your brand on the visual and voice tone levels. 

For instance, when I think of Apple, I think of words like “elegant,” “luxury,” or “accessible.” Those words are the personifications of the Apple brand, regardless of the specific product. You need to find similar words that personify your brand.

Knowing your ideal customer and your brand’s attributes then dictates how you speak to your ideal customer across every touchpoint and experience you offer.

How these Answers Influence Your Positioning

You’re likely already seeing some similarities between the product and brand positioning questions. That’s because all of the questions are variations on a theme: differentiation.

The difference between product versus brand lies in the approaches to that theme. 

You position your product based on its value equity, whereas you position your brand on your customer’s perception of your unique qualities. 

It’s subtle, but understanding why those two things differ is key to creating appealing statements for a customer’s pragmatic, business-oriented decision-making, while also appealing to the emotional side of decision-making.

When it comes to how pragmatism and emotion influence buying decisions, I look to Harvard Business Review and its B2B Buying Hierarchy. It breaks down the spectrum of what influences B2B buying behavior into a pyramid containing five levels. 

The bottom three levels are product-based. Then the upper two are brand-based, but all five rely on you getting your positioning statements right.

Here are the levels in detail, from bottom to top:

  • Table Stakes – The simple question here is: does the product meet the minimum requirements a customer needs it to meet for their needs?
  • Functional Needs – The customer wants to see the product does what they expect, whether that’s reducing costs, offering a certain level of performance, or innovating on an existing solution.
  • Business Needs – What’s in it for the customer’s business? In other words, what does the product deliver to the business that it doesn’t already have? These business needs might relate to improving productivity, access, or operational functions, all of which are still pragmatic needs.
  • Individual Needs – Here’s where we see the shift into the more emotional side. The customer asks what’s in for them as individuals, rather than what’s in it for their business. For instance, introducing the product into their business may lead to career growth or a stress reduction in their work.
  • Inspirational Needs – Finally, does your brand seem purposeful, hopeful, or aspirational?

It’s clear how these levels divide into the pragmatism of product positioning and the emotion related to branding. The first three are about what the product does for the business, with the latter two focusing on the individual buying the product.

How to Create Your Positioning Statements

Now you can see how product and brand positioning differ, there’s just one question to answer – how do you create the positioning for each? 

The answer is it’s a game of inputs and outputs. The inputs are specific knowledge of your product or brand and you get outputs that shape your positioning statements.

Inputs and Outputs for Product Positioning

Starting with product positioning, your inputs are the following:

  • Your knowledge and understanding of your product, such as its cost and utilization
  • Assumptions and knowledge about the product category to create a more favorable position
  • The big “why” behind the product, including its mission and the problem it solves
  • Knowledge about who your customer is and how they’ll use the product (remember the first three tiers of the B2B buying hierarchy)
  • Information about your competitors and the alternatives they offer
  • Anything that differentiates your product, such as pricing, the value of its features, or even the level of customer service you offer

If you think of those combined inputs as a dataset, the output is a “report” that helps you create your product positioning:

  • Personas based on your customer’s pragmatic pain points, desires, and the opportunities your product offers
  • Proof points demonstrating how your product differs from what your competitors offer
  • A competitive intel program highlighting what competitors are doing and how you can position your product against theirs
  • Messaging and value-mapping that clearly communicates what your product does and what problem it solves

Inputs and Outputs for Brand Positioning

You’ll see some crossover between the inputs for product and brand positioning. The key thing to remember is the following inputs are about the customer’s heart and emotions, even when there’s a crossover:

  • Your primary audience and what they care about on the personal, and even social, level
  • How you show up in terms of your brand’s voice and visual style
  • The differentiating values distinguishing your company from its competitors in how and where it communicates
  • The strategic narrative you’ve built around your brand’s mission and the problems you aim to solve – how you communicate your “why”

As for your outputs, you’ll end up with three:

  • A positioning framework for your brand, often focused on the North Star attributes I discussed earlier
  • Personas for your hero customers based on their behavior and personalities
  • A “brand book” or “brand guidelines” that outline your tone of voice and the visual style you use to create cohesiveness across all of your brand’s messaging

Develop Your Positioning for Your Brand and Your Product

There’s plenty of crossover when positioning a product versus positioning a brand. For instance, both require you to understand your customer and figure out the value your product offers. But there is a difference, and it comes down to pragmatism and emotion.

Ultimately, product positioning is about your customer’s pragmatic side, and brand is about hearts and perceptions. Learn to go beyond the pragmatic, and the emotions will win you customers for the life of your brand.

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