This is a guest post by Wiemer Snijders, consultant on marketing, branding, and advertising effectiveness at The Commercial Works.

There is a new buzz phrase in the boardroom, and it is 'purposeful positioning'.

Purposeful positioning is a perfect example of how some people just can't resist the temptation to flog a dead horse, which in this case is the idea that people need to care about brands.

Published in 1961, Rosser Reeves' book Reality in Advertising describes the concept of the unique selling proposition (USP) – his main point being that you need to give people a reason to buy your brand.

In fact, Reeves made the whole thing up. There was no evidence to support the idea of the USP, and he himself applied the concept only loosely to his work. The book was simply an attempt to counter a potentially dangerous threat not only to Reeves' work, but to the advertising industry as a whole1.

Only a few years earlier, Vance Packard had published his famous book The Hidden Persuaders, which claimed that advertising – specifically the subliminal kind – was able to influence us and make us want stuff we didn't need. Packard portrayed the practice as an evil art that should be stamped out.

Reeves' book countered this idea by stating: "There are no hidden persuaders. Advertising works openly, in the bare and pitiless sunlight." His argument prevailed and continues to have a strong influence on marketing today.

For example, consider a typical briefing for an advertising campaign – at its core is usually something called 'the (value) proposition'. How do we position ourselves in the brain of our consumer? 2 What is the message that needs to stick?

Or, as Jack Trout put it: differentiate or die.

All this assumes we consume advertising in an engaged way and that these messages do a good job of persuading us. However, decades of research into what is now called 'Behavioural Economics' has taught us that our brains don't like putting in the effort required to do all that. Given the chance, our brain will choose the path of least resistance, preferring simple 'tricks' or mechanisms to get through the task at hand. 3

In other words, we are extremely lazy when it comes to thinking.

So if we as marketers are able to make it easier for consumers to choose our brand, we are saving the brain from the hard work of having to weigh up options and make tough decisions.

It might even turn into a sale – think one-click (re)buying, on- and offline ordering, one-size-fits-all, home delivery or on-the-go packs. Or consider the purple chocolate bar, the car with the four rings, the ads with George Clooney, or the brand that keeps telling us to Just Do It.

Whether your product is bought from a shelf or a screen, you will benefit if your message is recognisable and distinct – for one thing, it will reduce the risk of you advertising for your competitor(s). 4

Shopping is quick, both offline or online, and decisions are usually made in a few seconds.

That doesn't mean people don't think at all about what they want from brands – it's just they think rather little and mostly very generally. The people who know a lot about your brand or category are greatly outnumbered by those who don't, not in the least because we don't need a lot of information to make satisfactory brand choices. 5

'Satisfactory,' because optimising our choices would require a huge amount of work – would you really compare all the available television brands out there before making your purchase?

Simply, our brains don't like to have a lot of choices. 6

Walk over to your fridge or kitchen cabinet and look at the brands in there. Look out the window and check out your car, bicycle or lawn mower. Go through your papers and check who offered you your mortgage or travel insurance. What brand are the jeans you're wearing?

Ask yourself what you actually know about these companies.

Do you know what drives them? Is it clear to you what they (read: the management) have defined as their company culture – probably at the end of a two-day session? What is their raison d'être, Big Hairy Audacious Goal, WHY or so-called purpose?

And most importantly: did it make you buy the brand?

Purposeful positioning assumes that we take the effort to understand and think about what a company stands for, and that this is the reason we choose it over others. But we don't, see here and/ or here.

It is a notion that fits well in a period where we believe it is important to be transparent, sustainable, authentic and responsible. And who would dispute a company's desire to make the world a better place?

However, what people think and do are two very different things. Most people would be appalled by the working conditions under which most of our shoes and clothes are produced, yet we still buy cheap clothing by the truckload from the big chains. Most people would be horrified by the living conditions of the animals in our food industry, yet we continue to toss meat and dairy products into our shopping baskets each week.

Marketers can still learn a lot from their clients' buying behaviour: keep it simple, stupid.


  1. - Feldwick, Paul 2015, The Anatomy of Humbug: How to Think Differently about Advertising, Orca Book Services
  2. - Ries, al and Trout, Jack 2000, Positioning: The Battle for your Mind, New York, N.W. : McGraw-Hill
  3. - Kahneman, Daniel 2011, Thinking, fast and slow, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  4. - Sharp, Byron 2010, How Brands Grow, South Melbourne: Oxford University Press
  5. - Romaniuk, Jenni and Sharp, Byron 2015, How Brands Grow Part 2 South Melbourne: Oxford University Press
  6. - Schwartz, Barry 2004, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, New York: Ecco