From Positioning to Framing
By David Aaker
Positioning your brand represents the short-term communication objectives, what it is you want to communicate, enhance or reinforce about your current brand. It is about your brand and how it differs from and is better than other brands. Jaguar isdifferentiated, in part, around design. Dove provides moisturizing. 3M offers innovation. Whole Foods Market has sustainable seafood. Framing has a bigger agenda.
Framing really does two things. First, it defines a subcategory (or sometimes a category) and in doing so, it oft en suggests why that subcategory should be preferred over others. So Jaguar defines a subcategory of cars with superior design, Dove a subcategory of products that deliver moisturizing and so on. The defining characteristic is put forward as a “must have” so that to be relevant, a competitor brand needs to have an answer to the “must have.” A brand is selected not because it is preferred, but because the subcategory is preferred and it is the most relevant (or the only relevant) brand in the subcategory.
Second, framing shapes the choice discussion, providing a perspective and vocabulary. A car brand competing with Jaguar will have to explain that it has parity or superiority in design, or why that design should not be a deciding factor, because the frame has elevated design to provide the initial perspective about consumers’ choices within the subcategory. It will not be possible to ignore the framing structure because it is bigger than the brand. Framing a choice discussion was most clearly articulated by George Lakoff, an academic linguist from UC Berkeley, in the delightful book Don’t Think of an Elephant. Lakoff, whose primary turf is political thinking, argues that Republicans are geniuses at framing and, as a result, win most of the arguments, while Democrats still think that rational thinking will carry the day.
Republicans have framed discussions with terms like death taxes, partial-birth abortion, mandates and tax relief. When their frame is accepted—Do you support death taxes or not?—the argument is over. The concept of framing, and of supporting metaphors and vocabulary, is a key to branding. Get the framing right and the brand will thrive. Frames matter, and there’s plenty of research to back that up. In general, attributes that are portrayed positively have a greater impact than the same attributes portrayed negatively.
People prefer 75% lean to 25% fat, as Irwin P. Levin and Gary J. Gaeth found in “How Consumers Are Affected by Framing of Attribute Information Before and After Consuming the Product,” published in the Journal of Consumer Research. A firm that is framed as nonprofit because of a “.org” domain name will be perceived as more caring but less competent than a firm with a “.com” suffix, as Jennifer Aaker, Kathleen D. Vohs and Cassie Mogilner found in “Non-Profits Are Seen as Warm and For-Profits as Competent: Firm Stereotypes Matter,” published in the Journal of Consumer Research. A premium beer with some balsamic vinegar added is preferred unless the product is reframed as beer with vinegar added, according to Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational. A wine that was purported to be from California rather than North Dakota not only was preferred, but also caused users to linger over a meal, reports Brian Wansick in the book Mindless Eating. It matters whether you are buying an energy bar for athletes, for office workers or for women, or a nutrition bar, a breakfast bar, a protein bar or a diet bar.
Kraft’s DiGiorno introduced a “rising crust” pizza, the first frozen pizza without a precooked crust, and reframed the frozen pizza category to include delivered pizza. With the tagline, “It’s not delivery. It’s DiGiorno,” the brand was a market success. In the reframed category, instead of being a premium-priced frozen pizza, DiGiorno now had a decided price advantage by being oft en half the price of delivered pizza. Further, its quality was now suggested to be comparable to delivered pizza.
Framing, it turns out, can affect how a person perceives, talks about, develops attitudes toward, and, ultimately, buys and uses an offering. Framing matters because it influences thinking, perceptions, attitudes and behavior. The same information will be processed or not processed, be distorted or not distorted, affect attitudes and behavior or not affect attitudes and behavior, depending on the frame.
There is an illusion prevalent in organizations that customers are rational and seek out relevant information, establish clear objectives, weight functional benefits heavily and make logical decisions. Such a model of the world matches our instinct that the winning strategy is to develop and communicate logical, functional benefits. But, unfortunately, this model is wrong. Even if they had the motivation and the time, customers lack credible information, memory capacity, computational ability, and often even sufficient knowledge about a product area to obtain relevant information and use it to optimize decision making. As a result, they rely on information cues teed up by the framing strategy. A frame, by influencing the dialogue surrounding a product or service, can trump logic, even for those who are informed.
Which Frame Wins?
So which frame will win, will be the dominant influence of the perspective of the category or subcategory? The most appropriate one should win and sometimes does. However, in many cases, your frame’s ability to win will be governed by three other considerations.
First, find the right label or metaphor to describe the frame. It needs to be on target and very descriptive. It helps if it is a meaningful metaphor that will add vividness, memorability and texture. The “good hands” of Allstate and the “good neighbor” of State Farm provide visual metaphors that serve to frame a subcategory. A tagline that gets traction can define a category or subcategory frame. Consider some classics like “A diamond is forever” that reframes diamonds from their functional benefits like sparkles to a symbol of long-term love; or “Melts in your mouth, not in your hand” that served to define a subcategory for which other chocolates were not relevant; or “We try harder” that frames car rental agencies in terms of customer service rather than price and cars.
Second, be persistent and disciplined. Always use the label of metaphor and never deviate. Make it so pervasive that competitors also will use it. That is when you know you have won.
Third, become the subcategory exemplar, the brand that represents the subcategory. With the exemplar status, the firm can control and evolve the frame, and competitors will be on the defensive.
When building a brand, instead of arguing about the superiority of the brand, consider framing a subcategory based on one or more “must haves” and then shaping the discussion so that competitors’ arguments are not even relevant. Framing can affect perceptions, attitudes and behavior no matter what the logic and evidence might say. Strong frames or perspectives smother and distort rational information processing.
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