Brand Positioning Basics: Establishing The Competitive Frame of Reference

Brand's Frame of Reference

When we come across a new brand, we try to make sense of it by using reference points to file it into our mental library.

We think of the category it fits in, competitive brands we already know in that category, the product/service being offered, and its price point.

This is how a brand’s frame of reference is created. Frames of reference help us deal with the overwhelming number of choices we have to make every day.

The frame of reference is a complex and multi-dimensional concept: it can be broad or narrow, shallow or deep. Choosing the right frame of reference for your brand has a direct impact on its positioning.

Competitive Frame of Reference: A Definition

A brand’s frame of reference is the context in which consumers view it. The first thing consumers will try to figure out is the category the brand belongs to.

In many instances, brand-category associations are straightforward:

Pepsi belongs to the carbonated soft drink category.

Lululemon is a brand of yoga wear.

Changing the frame of reference for these established brands leads to brand stretching, which rarely produces the desired outcomes. However, that doesn’t stop Management from trying:

Pepsi recently announced Pepsi 1, the company’s first Android-based smart phone that will retail in China for approximately $205.


Lululemon also signaled its intention to move into the liquor business “one day (and can) at a time” with Curiosity Lager.

curiosity-lagerImage source

You don’t have to be a marketing genius to realize these endeavors that stretch the brand to its limits have very little chances of making a meaningful impact against established category players.

Hence the importance of choosing the most convenient frame of reference for your brand and sticking to it.

Choosing the Ideal Frame of Reference

The ideal time to decide on a brand’s frame of reference is at the time of launch.

The more well-known the brand becomes, the more difficult its context.

Here are some things that should help you make the right decision:

Choose a competitive frame of reference that reduces the number of brands competing for attention. You can achieve this by narrowing your focus so you don’t compete head to head with established players for consumer’s attention.

When I decided to start an online store specialized in original paintings, I noticed that my big competitors were framing their business as an “online art gallery”. “Art” is a very generic word, which was reflected in their broad offering: paintings (originals and prints), photography, sculpture, digital media.

In contrast, I decided to build my brand around a much narrower frame of reference that can be summarized in three words:  “original paintings online“. That is, I want people to associate Brush Treasures with “paintings”, and not the more generic “art”.

Do not choose technology as a frame of reference. Sooner or later technology becomes obsolete. The photography industry is the perfect example.

What do most people associate Kodak with? Film photography. The brand never managed to escape this strong association when it was obvious that digital photography would replace film, although Kodak launched the first digital camera in 1975.

The frame of reference should support your brand positioning. Your brand’s frame of reference is the foundation of its positioning. It will determine the points of parity the brand has to meet in order to be considered a legitimate player, and highlight opportunities to differentiate.

How Sony Used A Smart Frame of Reference To Influence Consumers’ Expectations

Aibo Sony's AIBO. Photo Credit: aptx4869 on Flickr In 1999 Sony launched the world’s first mass-marketed robot: AIBO.

Most people would associate robots with things such as “flawless operation” and “the ability to perform repetitive tasks with the highest degree of accuracy”. In addition, typical robots are not able to replicate human emotions.

Interestingly enough, Sony didn’t frame AIBO as a robot. Instead, AIBO was positioned as an human companion, an entertaining and cute pet (AIBO means companion in Japanese).

Unlike the typical robots, AIBO could express emotions. It was able to wag its tail when patted on the head, and could be trained by the owners to play different sports.

In the early stages, AIBO had many flaws, and could act unexpectedly sometimes, to the amusement of the owners. Instead of complaining about its flaws (as you would expect when dealing with the robot) owners regarded AIBO’s disobedience as part of its pet character.

Sony’s strategy illustrates the power of choosing a convenient frame of reference in shaping consumers’ expectations.

By positioning AIBO as a pet, Sony was able to overcome obvious technological flaws. AIBO “the pet” offered what customers were expecting from a human companion: affection and unpredictable behavior.

The Shortcut To Establishing the Frame of Reference

The brand name is the most direct way to signal the context in which the brand should be judged.

If Apple wanted people to see the Apple Watch as a fitness device they should have named it differently. By naming the product Apple Watch, the frame of reference was already established.

Based solely on its name and the online reviews, I decided the Apple Watch is not for me (although I am very passionate about watches). In my mind the most basic function of a watch is to tell the time in an instant, without going dark when it thinks you are not using it.

Final Thoughts

Competitive frames of reference can be narrow and deep, or shallow and broad. The latter offers brands more short term opportunities, but the former offers more substantial profits and the opportunity to dominate a category.

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