Why is “white bread” $1 for a loaf at Walmart, but “artisanal, hand-kneaded rye bread” $10 at Whole Foods?
Of course, there is a difference in ingredients and baking technique that adds to the price. But a major reason why Whole Foods and other brands like it can charge higher prices is because they are positioned for a certain audience.
Positioning is the heart and soul of branding. Think of it as a series of signals — overt as well as covert — that tell a customer who you are and why you’re worth buying.
Positioning is also crucial for any email marketer. You can impact how customers perceive you with the positioning of your emails. At the same time, your current brand also influences the positioning you adopt in your email copy and design.
Because of its strategic nature, positioning can be hard to understand. In this guide, I’ll break down this crucial aspect of branding and show you how to utilize strategic positioning in your email marketing campaigns.
Have you ever wondered why Nike’s ads feature athletes so prominently?
Of course, Nike sells athletic wear so it makes sense to focus on top athletes.
But most Nike customers are everyday folks. People wear Nike gear in grocery stores, college campuses, and coffee shops. Yet, you’ll never see a Nike ad with someone walking around in Walmart wearing Nikes.
The reason for this discrepancy is, as you guessed it, positioning.
Nike features athletes in its ads because it wants to position itself as a brand for active, motivated achievers. It wants to sell customers an idealized version of their self-image. Positioning itself as an athletic wear brand is a key way to achieve that.
Essentially, positioning is about three things:
Who you are
What you do
Why you’re different
Nike, for instance, is an athletic gear company (“Who”) that makes clothing and equipment for athletes (“What”). What makes them different is the belief that every individual has the potential to be an athlete (“Why”).
Nike’s official mission statement clearly outlines its core positioning
Perfect Positioning is the Absence of Choice
Have you ever walked into a Nike store and found a tuxedo?
Of course not.
That’s because Nike has positioned itself only as an athletic wear brand. If they were to start making tuxedos or dress shoes, it would dilute the brand and destroy its original positioning.
This singular, laser-sharp focus on a single product category or audience is the hallmark of good positioning. You’re X because you don’t do A, B, or C. Whole Foods is a premium retailer because it doesn’t stock cheap low-quality products. Lamborghini is a sportscar brand because it doesn’t sell economy hatchbacks. Burger King is a burger joint because it doesn’t sell pizzas and pasta.
Of course, there is the rare case where the pursuit of choice becomes the cornerstone of your positioning. Like Amazon — the “A to Z store” where you can find everything.
But casting such a wide net is rare. More often than not, successful brands actively choose not to do something.
This, in turn, helps them pursue fine-tune their positioning and attract a target customer base.
Perfect Positioning Balances Aspiration and Authenticity
Have you ever stumbled upon a business that was trying hard to be something it truly wasn’t?
Customers can smell fakeness from a mile away. A brand that tries to pass itself off as “luxury” but doesn’t have the cultural DNA for it is destined to fail. Businesses, like people, have personalities, habits, and internal cultures.
At the same time, positioning that is 100% authentic doesn’t capture value completely. You miss the spectrum of the market (and your own employee) that wants something more.
Good positioning, thus, balances aspiration and authenticity. It’s your 100% true self plus a bit extra.
Once again, I’ll go back to Nike. Nike’s mission statement, as I shared above, is that it sees every human being as an athlete (in Nike’s own words — “if you have a body, you are an athlete”). That’s the authentic part of its positioning.
At the same time, Nike wants everyone to aspire to be more athletic, driven, and active. Hence the dominance of athletes in its advertising — the aspiration part of its positioning.
Essentially, your positioning is an outward projection of your internal values and goals.
This brings us to the biggest challenge you have as an email marketer — incorporating positioning in your emails.
Positioning in Email Marketing
Email is the marketer’s secret weapon to perfect positioning.
Because that’s the only time you get to speak directly to each customer. A well-written email is like a conversation, not an ad. If you’re trying to position yourself in a certain way, an authentic conversation goes a long way.
Moreover, you can segment your audience easily and create emails that cater exactly to each audience group’s preferences.
An email, as you know, is a combination of two things — copy and design. In many cases, the design is muted or even “absent” — as in plain text emails.
Thus, more often than not, your email copy will demonstrate your positioning.
How can you get this right? Let’s find out.
Clarify Your Positioning
The first step is to ensure that you understand your brand’s positioning.
This is harder than it sounds. Many marketers confuse positioning with brand philosophy or mission statement. It’s not; positioning is a manifestation of your philosophy, not your philosophy itself.
Thus, while a mission statement or philosophy might list off your core beliefs and values, a positioning statement includes specific details about your target market, key differentiating feature, etc.
Start by writing a detailed positioning statement. This should mention:
Your target market
What this target market needs
How you plan to meet these needs
Your key differentiating features
Why your target market should believe you
For example, this is HubSpot’s positioning statement:
A good way to get inspiration for positioning statements is to study creative project proposals. Since these proposals are essentially a highly concentrated brand brief, they tend to include details about the target market, differentiation, and viability — crucial components of positioning.
Only once you’ve understood your positioning completely should you move to the next step.
Points Imagine that you have to sell a handbag. You want to establish that you’re an expensive, luxury brand, but you aren’t allowed to use any words, celebrities, or prices.
How would you go about doing it?
The solution is to use reference points.
Every customer already associates certain qualities with certain objects, situations, settings, and individuals. A handbag lying on the hood of an expensive BMW immediately signals to customers that it is expensive. A model holding a handbag in a black dress in an opera theatre sends a clear signal — the brand is classy and expensive.
Louis-Vuitton’s ad shows its handbags right next to an expensive car (BMW) to emphasize the brand’s luxury credentials (Image source)
Reference points are crucial if you want to quickly tell customers what your brand is all about. Anything can be a reference point as long as your customers understand it intuitively. Colors, situations, celebrities, and even your email design language can tell people what you’re all about.
For example, if you were creating an email targeting parents, your design language would have a distinctly childish touch, such as this:
Take Advantage of Segmentation
Segmentation is one of the best weapons in the email marketer’s arsenal.
Segmentation allows you to create tailor-made emails for each audience type. This hyper-targeting helps you offer finely positioned emails that check each customer’s requirements.
For example, a luxury handbag brand might have two broad audience segments:
Women buying bags for themselves
Men buying bags for others as gifts
While your core positioning would be the same for both segments, minute differences in how you represent it can impact conversions.
I like to call this “micro-positioning”. If you’re selling to women, you’ll use different imagery and copy than if you’re pitching to men looking for gifting options. The overall theme might be the same, but you might show a gift-wrapped box in case of the second customer segment.
Use this to your advantage by creating hyper-targeted, carefully positioned emails for all your segments.
Over to You
Positioning is one of the most underutilized tools in email marketing. While clever copy and stunning imagery certainly help, you’ll see much better results if you also position your emails to fit your target customers’ needs.
Great positioning is hyper-focused and balances aspiration and authenticity. By establishing reference points, leveraging your audience’s self-image, and using segmentation, your emails can be perfectly positioned to win new customers.