Cutting through the jargon: brand positioning, brand essence, brand equity, and brand idea




One month ago, out of the blue an ex-colleague (he left my agency to start his own creative boutique) texted me. Turned out he needed my help to make him understand what his clients actually wanted when they asked for “brand positioning”, “brand essence”, “brand idea”, and “campaign idea”.

Unsurprisingly and uneventfully I helped him and let my thumbs do the explaining. During our text conversation, silently I whimpered, “And you thought you could be free from jargon and other marketing bullshit by setting up your own creative shop.”

I am sure my ex-colleague friend is not alone in his predicament and confusion. There are many jargon in the marketing and advertising industry. To make things worse, every company and agency tries to be creative or unique so they breed their own terms (as “proprietary intellectual property”. I know. Ugh).

What does each term exactly mean: “brand positioning”, “brand essence”, “brand idea”, and “campaign idea”? How is it similar with and different from each other? To answer, let’s get back to the basic.

What I mean by the basic is Stimulus-Response (to learn more, go here). Essentially communication is about deciding what the Response (impressions people have about someone or something) needs to be, and composing the best Stimuli (in advertising or PR term, content that can trigger those impressions).

A relevant example for Indonesia is how some female celebrities with colourful reputations put on a head scarf when they have to appear in court (either for divorce proceeding or as suspects, like in this particular case). Let’s see titillating and enlightening illustrations:

Same celebrity, different outfit for different places.

Same celebrity, different outfit for different places.

Knowing what she usually wears, what would be your response?

Knowing what she usually wears, what your responses would be?


In this case, the headscarf outfit and the timid mannerisms are the Stimulus. I believe she intended to evoke Responses like “she was really sorry she screwed up”, “the reason why she became a suspect was an isolated case, normally she was a goody two-shoes”, or “she deserved my pity”. But I’m not surprised if the actual Responses from the viewers of gossip shows were “what a hypocrite”.

Having digressed with a B-class local celebrity’s attempt to stay away from jail, let’s get back to those jargon and start with brand positioning. Brand positioning is about Response. This means, brand positioning represents a set of impressions marketers want   people to have about a brand.

Thus, brand positioning can of course consist of more than one attributes or elements. These attributes can be about the physical attributes of the product itself, its features, its maker, its origin, its users or buyers, how or when or where it is being used, how it is being made, its traits and personality, and so on.

Many marketers (especially from multi-national companies) try to organise those elements so they look neat and easier to be communicated to every corner of their empires.

Some marketers try to summarise those elements into what they call as a brand positioning statement. This statement gives a quick summary in what business the brand is in. A brand positioning statement consists of three simple sentences using this format:

For. Only. Because.

This is how it works (read more from an excellent post from Mark Pollard here):

 FOR: Who you want your customers to be
ONLY: What you do that’s different – one thing (although the one thing could be the sum of several supporting parts)
BECAUSE: The reason for someone to believe your ONLY claim.

Some marketers try to organise the elements in brand positioning by using diagrams, like pyramid, onion, key, spiral,  temple, or whatever. This is “brand as shape” approach, and it is not without harsh criticisms (the best one is from Martin Weigel, here). Usually within any of the shapes, there is one box that acts as the summary of everything. Most marketers call this brand essence. So yes, brand essence is another way to summarise brand positioning, and thus a part of Response.

Brand equity is related closely with Response. Plainly speaking, a brand has a high or strong equity if there are a lot of people (consumers) who associate it with many positive attributes or feelings. A brand with strong equity is likely to be more resistant against price increase, or be more successful if extended into different kind of product.

Many marketers and agency folks (well, the daft ones) still think that brand essence or brand positioning is the same with the slogan (tagline) of the brand. This is wrong. The slogan (tagline) belongs to Stimuli.

For example, “Dirt is good” is not the positioning of Rinso the detergent brand. The positioning of Rinso is very likely to revolve around “the powerful stain removal detergent for families with progressive mindset about children’s development”. “Dirt is good” is their tagline.

What else should belong to Stimuli? They are everything that is created or designed to trigger all the impressions about a brand, and can take he form of slogan, logo design (or to use their jargon, “visual identity’), advertising, pack design, retail space design, the way service is delivered, website, social media content, and so on.

Predictably, marketers will love to organise all those elements in Stimuli and give them some sort of theme or “platform”. (somehow they don’t like to use the term container). They expect all those elements of Stimuli sit together in perfect harmony, where nobody contradicts the others. This “theme” thus becomes big and all-encompassing.

For some marketers, this “theme” is called brand communication idea. Some agencies call it creative theme or creative platform.

Going back to the Rinso example, to trigger the positioning of Rinso as the powerful stain removal detergent for progressive family the marketers use “Dirt is good” slogan and the advertising theme of the Hallmark-esque stories behind stains in clothes that children make.

Remember that brand communication idea is huge and all-encompassing. From this platform, advertising campaign is built upon. Each campaign (at least theoretically) will have a theme that’s derived from the big and all-encompassing platform.

For example, the overarching theme of Dove’s communication idea hovers around the area where women are gently provoked to rethink about how society cruelly shapes what being  beautiful means. In one campaign, the brand satirised the use of massive photo retouching in the fashion and beauty industry. Last year they showed how women tend to grossly underestimate their own appearance.

The last jargon is brand idea. Frankly this is the fuzziest one for me. I don’t know what my clients refer to when they ask me to write down the brand idea of their brands. I’m not clear whether they refer something that’s a part of Response or Stimulus. For some clients, brand idea is the synonym for brand essence. For some others, it is the other term for brand communication idea.

What I normally do when clients use this jargon is ask them to clarify. This means I will make them listen to my spiel on Stimulus-Response. This may irk them, but they pay me to be clear and thoughtful not to tread delicately on their mood.


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