My son is in charge of feeding our cat, Oscar.
Since it’s in my interest (and Oscar’s) that my son faithfully completes this chore, I minimize the chore’s friction. I ensure there’s plentiful food, and I store that food beside Oscar’s bowl. I make it easy for my son to attend to what I want him to attend to.
How is this like brand positioning? A lot.
The purpose of positioning is to make it easy for your customer to attend to you, and to buy from you. The easier it is for your customer to attend to you, the more you can engage with them and sell to them. The brands that succeed in gaining customer attention are the ones that make it crystal clear what they mean. They maximize cognitive ease.
Cognitive Ease = More Important Than Ever
The goal of brand positioning has always been to maximize ease. But today, the demand on people’s attention is skyrocketing, draining our most valuable resource – our cognitive attention. So now, the need for cognitive ease is particularly acute. By making your business simple to grasp, you stand out.
In my book Forging an Ironclad Brand, I define the nine criteria for the most value-creating, ironclad brand strategy. Three of the criteria work together to reduce cognitive effort: Big, Narrow, and Sharp-Edged.
Your brand promise must solve a big need for the customer. If it’s already a big need, their brains need to work less hard to see what you bring, and to let you in. It’s easy to let in a solution to a big problem.
While it must be a big need, it also must be a solution that you narrowly own. If your brand promise is big without narrow, then the audience may see the general idea you’re offering, but they won’t credit you for it.
For example, imagine you are an aspirin brand. If you were to highlight the big problem of headaches without showing your narrow take on aspirin, then they’ll only give credit to aspirin as a category solution, rather than disproportionately to your brand.
In optics, it is easier for the eye to perceive an image with contrast than an image that is blurry. When you look at a vivid photograph, you interpret its content in nanoseconds. When you look at an Impressionist painting, you need a few seconds to interpret the image. The difference between nanoseconds and seconds is precious cognitive effort. It’s the difference between success and failure. The more sharply you know and communicate what you are, the less effort the audience needs to see you, and consequently, the more likely that they will.
Be more like a photograph and less like an impressionist painting. Don’t make anyone squint to understand what’s in it for them.
Here is an example of a brand idea demanding high cognitive effort.
At a cocktail party, my conversation partner says that she is building a “lifestyle brand, one that makes you feel more like you.” When I hear this, my brain spends a moment (and a few cognitive calories) searching for a way to understand and care about this. It’s searching for a mental file folder for this nebulous offering.
Since I lack a mental file folder for “lifestyle brand” or “things that make me feel more like me,” after a few moments of fruitless effort, my brain stops working and ignores the rest of what I hear. It was just too much cognitive effort.
Now, imagine instead that this person said “You know how most beauty brands try to convince you to look more glamorous with heavy makeup? Our beauty products allow you to look like yourself. We use the colors and contours of your face, rather than adding the colors and contours of some other person’s face. You will always look like you. In fact, most people can’t even tell that you are wearing any makeup at all.”
They positioned themselves as Big, Narrow, and Sharp-Edged.
They showed a big need for their target audience – someone who feels unseen by the traditional beauty brands. They showed exactly what was alienating about the current state.
Then they got narrow by introducing a very specific point of view on what beauty should be: looking like yourself. That’s narrow enough to feel different from anything else in the category.
They drew a contrast between the existing solution and their solution, with specific “reasons to believe” – the colors and contours are your own; and most people can’t tell you were wearing make-up. A photo, not an impressionist painting. I didn’t need to squint.
The brand that I just illustrated? It’s Glossier – a beauty brand currently valued at a billion dollars and growing. It is a lifestyle brand! One that “makes you feel more like you!” But they made it easy for me to understand them by being Big, Narrow and Sharp-Edged.
Positioning is about maximizing ease. This helps customers notice you, remember you, consider you, buy you, and like you.
It also helps you internally to stay true to the North Star. Because you want it to be easy for your internal customers – your employees – to deliver on the promise, just as you want to make it easy for external customers to buy what you sell. A Big, Narrow, Sharp-Edged brand positioning makes it easy for employees to deliver on your company’s promise. The more clear it is, the more you will be able to deliver on it.
A scenario in which a Glossier employee benefits from their Big, Narrow, Sharp-Edged brand:
Someone from a fashion brand approaches the employee, asking to partner for a Met Gala promotion. Your employee hearkens to mind the Glossier North Star of “you, only better.” Does the Met Gala allow us to deliver better on that promise? The Met Gala is about conspicuous beauty, and we are about subtle beauty. So, no, it does not. That decision to say “no” to something off-brand happened in a nanosecond, because you made it easy for the employee to know and to steward the brand.
Consider your brand. Consider your position in the mind of your audience. What is your scale of cognitive effort? The more you decrease cognitive effort, the easier it is for your customer to see you and buy you.
Lindsay is a Brand Strategist and Founder of Ironclad Brand Strategy, which builds brands using an exacting and analytic method. Her background as a P&L owner at Clorox fostered a deep appreciation for the executive charge: to create sustainable value. Ironclad advises companies from burgeoning startups to national corporations, including Zulily, IMDb, T-Mobile and Starbucks. Lindsay holds an MBA in Business from the University of California Berkeley, Haas School of Business.