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9 Timeless PR Positioning Strategies

positioning strategies PR

The word “positioning” gets tossed around almost carelessly in corporate documents, and I often feel as if the word is misunderstood (that’s foreshadowing).  Positioning isn’t what we say, it’s what people think and to that end any “position” that is coveted by brands has to be plausible, or anything brands say will be misaligned.

Gartner positions vendors in its Magic Quadrant reports along four categories: Leaders, visionaries, challengers and niche players.  Positioning as a “leader” is generally a difficult proposition because every company claims to be a leader.  If everyone is a leader, then leadership as a point of differentiation has lost its luster.

PR pros, however, know it’s entirely something different when someone else calls us a leader, which what makes the upper right-hand corner of a quadrant so magical.  It’s the simple notion that nothing we say about ourselves is as powerful as someone saying it about us. Better still when the concept is aligned with preconceived notions; it’s hard to create new notions.

Here are several timeless PR positioning strategies:

1) Positioning as a niche.  A niche is a unique need where a product, service or brand is especially well suited. The key to niche positioning in PR is proving that the niche is worth attention because it has some broader implication. By definition, a niche does not meet the needs of the masses.

2) Positioning as David vs. Goliath.  Brains over brawn is a classic marketing strategy. Everyone wants to root for the little guy, and better still when the little guy does it with ingenuity over brute strength.  What often goes unsaid is the re-positioning of the competition without saying it aloud.  Goliath was a bully and nobody likes a bully.

3) Positioning as a dark horse.  News by definition defies expectations, and the dark horse that comes out of nowhere to win a race is news. The dark horse is a good technique for companies doing interesting things that haven’t yet earned greater interest; it works for large brands too. One of the standouts in history is perhaps the “think small” campaign for the Volkswagen bug.  In an era where big cars were in style, VW took a perceived weakness, made it central to their positioning, and turned it into a strength.

4) Positioning as an unlikely success. This position is a come from behind win – an idea that has been vetted and discounted but is now proving the pundits wrong. Bonus if we have at least three pundits — because three is a trend.

5) Positioning a mission impossible. This is a variation of the “unlikely success” the difference is that the unlikely success has tackled a good idea with a method the pundits have said cannot work. Mission impossible is just that:  It cannot be done.  Those that are doing it anyway are doing it out of sheer determination.

6) Positioning as a personal passion.  For a charismatic business leader, this position humanizes a brand and puts a personal face on a story.  People identify with people because we are by our very nature social creatures. The caveat is that the position is lost if a brand has but one face.

7) Positioning as reinvention.  It’s all a misunderstanding.  Hollywood and rappers are incredibly adept at remaking themselves. Brittney Spears has reinvented herself several times over.  Miley Cyrus is shaking away her Disney roots. George Takei is now Tech Trek. Arnold transformed from Terminator to governator. Reagan went from actor to corporate talker to President. It was Howard Stern’s pitch when his movie was release; he’s a nice guy that sometimes says naughty things.

8) Positioning as first. In the classic marketing book, Positioning:  The Battle for your Mind, Al Ries and Jack Trout wrote, “History shows that the first brand into the brain, on average, gets twice the long-term market share of the No. 2 brand and twice gain as much as the No. 3 brand.” The authors see first as the positioning of leadership though I think the technology market has challenged some of these long-held principles. Google was just a better AltaVista. Microsoft wasn’t first and the company seems to be proving that innovation doesn’t last forever.  It took a long time for Apple — and a reinvention along the way — to make a return on being first.

9) Positioning as customer-centric.  If you can’t win on price or innovation, service just might be the ticket. It’s how Zappos grew to fame, but doing it well is a hard standard to maintain. Quick – think of how many companies do customers service well?  It’s a lonely position and therein lies its strength.


  • What positioning strategies have I missed?
  • Which positioning strategies have you seen work well?
  • Is positioning overrated marketing speak?

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9 Responses

  1. The only thing that I might want to add is something about positioning during a crisis. How do you position your brand, company, leader or organization during a time of crisis on a topic, global issue or policy, especially is you have a product or service related to the crisis in question. Granted it is a tricky area but I found great success in positioning a company executive as a credible authority, the go to person when these types of issues come round.

  2. annelizhannan  That’s an interesting idea, Anneliz. My though process here was in clearly articulating a difference for the long haul. I suppose that’s a strength in a crisis, but it’s not the same thing. In my experiences with crisis — for business — I’ve always found the best approach is to a) fix it b) communicate the fix and c) follow up with how to prevent it from happening again. I would venture to say there’s more to it in politics or perhaps Hollywood. Maybe you’ve got a post in mind? Say the word!

  3. Frank_Strong I harken back to a campaign for a company I was working with that was under major scrutiny from shareholders, animal rights, local community and government. The company itself was doing very well but the CEO and its company practices were cast as villain in the national press for killing puppies for medical experiments. It resulted in a bomb being placed under the CEO’ car. 

    This was the culmination of nearly 10 years of hostile press, protests and pointed accusations at the CEO which for the most part was handled reactively instead of proactively by the company. It was from a crisis position strategy that I turned it around by integrating our marketing, communications, government relations, community relations and investor relations with a message that the company (and CEO) was actually the hero for saving human lives and the perceived heroes (animal rights advocates) became the villains.

    Not that the company could have done just fine without the crisis but it was the crisis and ensuing strategic positioning that elevated the CEO as the go-to person for advice and input on this issue for politicians, media and consumers for credible information. 

    This is but one example I have been involved in but crisis and issue management can be a positioning niche and therefore I think you could make a blog post ;) Thanks for responding Frank. Have a great weekend.

  4. annelizhannan Amazing isn’t it?  Takes a crisis sometimes to get serious about communications.  Happens on an interpersonal level too, so I suppose it’s human nature. And should you ever desire to build this story into a blog post, I’d publish that here in a heartbeat!

  5. It’s marketing.. and not. Best example I’ve got is positioning by.. excellence, by delivering ‘more’ across the board. Plenty of brands offer rides and theme park experiences, but every time I go to WDW, it’s those little extra somethings that make the Disney difference. Part of that ethos is exceeding expectations, dealing w/ issues – they don’t want this bad X or that bad Y to mar an otherwise positive vacation experience. Visitors are guests, not customers. Part of it is never resting w/ the status quo, always working to improve. Yes it costs more than other ‘comparable’ options but then, the value is there.. it’s worth it b/c it’s Disney. FWIW.

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