strategic positioning

Strategic Positioning In An Ever-Changing Context

In 2012 they made a new movie adaptation of the TV show 21 Jump Street, where two cops (Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill) go undercover as students in a high school to bust open a drugs case.

Near the beginning it has this great scene which I think is, weirdly, very strategically instructive.

Basically, although they’re both adults in their early 20s, they are still nervous about their first day back at school.  Aside from wanting to do their job, they also understandably want to fit in, and be part of the “cool crowd”.  Luckily for them Tatum’s character was supercool when he was in high school, and so assures Hill that if he simply follows his lead they’ll have no problem.  As a result they rock up at school:

Much to their surprise however, this behaviour immediately leads them into a confrontation with the current generation of cool kids, who are actually into studying, the environment, being sensitive – and worst of all, “two strapping” their backpacks.

One exchange I love:

Cool kid: “Hey yo – is that your car?”
Tatum: “Yeah”
Cool kid: “What’s that thing get, like 10 miles to the gallon?”
Tatum: “Nah, try like, 7”
Cool kid: “We try to ride bikes whenever we can, global crisis and what not”
Tatum: “Whatever man, I don’t care about anything”
Cool kid: “You don’t care about the environment?  That’s fucked up man”

Anyway, sorry, I realise this is a long rambling intro to make a pretty simple point (I just love that movie), but the moral that’s hopefully obvious is this:

In order to retain your strategic positioning, your behaviour needs to constantly change in line with the contextual changes happening around you.

If we were to imagine that Tatum’s character was a brand, and that his market position was “the cool one”, and he wanted to maintain that strategic positioning, then he couldn’t do that by keeping on doing the same thing. He would instead need to keep on updating his “execution” in line with the expectations of the market, which naturally is constantly evolving.

Put simply: you have to keep moving in order to stand still.

I find that a lot of actual brands really don’t get this.  Most of them realise – quite rightly – that consistency is absolutely key to claiming a strong market position.  Endless repetition, without ever getting bored of your own schtick, is a crucial virtue for any business.  However, the way they interpret consistency is “staying the same”, which is in fact the opposite of the truth.  Genuine strategic consistency is only achieved by constant change, for the reasons outlined above.

An example of a brand that has fallen foul of this trap is Innocent.

Innocent, when they emerged, were a true breath of fresh air; one of the great brand launches in UK history.  Their strategic positioning was of course all around healthiness, purity, naturalness, simplicity, and, well, overall innocence.  The way they delivered this was, initially, through smoothies.  At the time there wasn’t really a mainstream smoothie offering in supermarkets, so this was quite innovative.  Even more important however was that it entered a context where traditional soft drinks were still dominant, and largely unruffled by questions of health and the like.

This context enabled Innocent – both on a product and brand level – to truly challenge what it meant to drink “innocently”; shifting people from unhealthy sodas, to relatively angelic smoothies.

All in all a great job – and a masterful grab of key strategic space in the market.

Having established such a position, their next job was to retain it; indefinitely if possible.  However, this is where Innocent came unstuck.  For the next 20 years, they basically behaved pretty much identically to how they did at the point of their breakthrough.  Sure, they launched some new products, but most were variations on the juice theme – and in addition, they had to suffer the unhelpful flattery of seeing pretty much every other brand in the supermarket copying their twee tone of voice and “wackaging” style.  Meanwhile, the cultural definition of “innocence” (health, purity, ethics, naturalness) gradually changed beneath their feet.  Attitudes towards sugar, for instance, evolved dramatically – flipping juice from a virtue to a vice – and, combined with other cultural factors, this saw the brand’s grip on its position gradually slip.

Just like Tatum, they weren’t sensitive to the demands of their position in a changing context.

Now all in all this hasn’t been particularly devastating for Innocent in a commercial sense.  Yes, they’ve lost their cultural position, and have settled into the mid-market pack – however, given that they’re now following the corporate playbook of their owner, Coca-Cola, this is perfectly fine.  They’re playing a different game, living off former glories, and it works well.  Nevertheless, you can still appreciate from their example how a brand can change by not changing.

The more you change the more you stay the same; the less you change the more you deviate.

As a side note, I would argue that you could also say the same thing for Apple, who became locked in stasis pretty much the day Steve Jobs died – another brand that is cashing in the hard work done by former generations.  Not bad business by any means, but not the same.

On the flip side, if you want an example of a brand who have managed to maintain their position through constant change – who have kept moving so they can stand still – look no further than Nike’s strategy.

I wrote about them a couple of months back, so apologies for the repetition, but they really are masters of this particular art.  Since the 70s they have been the brand that represents the struggle to overcome obstacles.  This is the meaning of “Just Do It”; the application of will and determination in the face of a daunting challenge.  Over the years they have always been careful to manifest this “constant” in ever-changing ways, in order to maintain position.  Most recently this has taken the form of aligning themselves with various social justice movements with which their athletes are engaged – a topical example of a struggle to be overcome, and thus a continuation of their strategy.

Ultimately, I’ve found that many brands don’t truly believe that they can follow one basic strategy for 5, 10, 30 years.  They don’t believe me when I say that a business growth strategy is a job you have to do only once.  They think that they need to constantly “refresh” and “update”, in order to avoid going stale.  As Nike shows, this is a misconception – a misconception that arises out of believing that a single strategy has a single way to be executed.  Great strategies aren’t like that.  They are the gift that keeps on giving; sources of an endless flow of contemporary executional ideas.

You need to make sure as a business that you offer a value that works this way; a value that is timeless.  Something which never needs to change.

This way you can constantly execute underneath it, and gradually strengthen your grip on your position more and more until it is completely indivisible from you.

Consistency is king, no question about it.  But so is change.  And these two things are not contradictory.