Positioned for success: How manufacturers stand out in a crowded marketplace
For major manufacturers looking to turn around slowing sales, and startups on the verge of disrupting the status quo, strategic positioning can make or break a product or brand. In either case, the method used to position food and beverage products will make all the difference when it comes to meeting consumers' changing preferences.
Investing the time, talent, and resources into product positioning enables manufacturers to leverage an increasingly crowded marketplace. But positioning strategies may differ depending on whether the company is promoting a brand or a product, and whether that product is new or a reformulation.
By examining the core needs of the target consumer, a company can position a product or brand with the right benefits, functionality, personality, and/or emotional sentiments needed to form a connection and convert a browsing consumer into a loyal customer.
Positioning a product vs. a brand
Product positioning tends to be more specific and based on the features and benefits a product offers. These might include health claims or functional claims.
But positioning a product is also a delicate balance of highlighting what distinguishes this product from its competition without cannibalizing sales from other related products within the same brand or from the same manufacturer.
With brand positioning, however, manufacturers get deeper. Strategizing brand positioning covers not just the tangible benefits of a product but the intangible, emotional, and experiential associations a consumer might make with a brand and the products it encompasses.
Coca-Cola recognized the strength of its brand positioning when it launched a new one brand campaign, "Taste the Feeling," to encompass its Coke trademarks. Instead of losing sight of the brand's essence, Coca-Cola has refocused its marketing and branding to streamline the products in a way that promotes consumers' experiences with the entire brand as a whole.
Positioning a brand also involves strategizing for the brand's growth and potential expansion.
"When you're positioning a brand, you're really looking for that platform that has big legs and can grow across potentially multiple categories," said Kathleen Carroll, founder and CEO of The Branding Clinic.
New vs. reformulated product positioning
As the consumer health trend takes hold, manufacturers are reformulating legacy products to meet the demands of today's consumers, such as natural ingredients and clean labels. Others are developing entirely new products.
When it comes time to position products in the market, new and reformulated products benefit from different strategies.
"When (a product or brand) is new, you have a lot more freedom because you're filling a white space in the market, but you have to do a lot more work on the consumer front," said Carroll. "When you're positioning a reformulated product or brand, the strategy is different. … It's a tough area because you're seen as late to the game and maybe not as authentic."
When Annie's first came to market, long before General Mills acquired it, the company positioned its macaroni and cheese brand as a unique, natural alternative to other macaroni and cheese products.
Last year, Kraft announced that it would remove certain artificial ingredients from its iconic macaroni and cheese brand to tap into the health benefits consumers increasingly seek out and be more competitive. But next to Annie's, Kraft's macaroni and cheese with natural ingredients would be a late adopter.
To position the reformulated product in a distinctive way, Kraft Heinz quietly released the new version in December while consumers continued to purchase the reformulated product without realizing the ingredients had changed. Kraft finally revealed the change last month. This demonstrated the company's ability to make their legacy brand with better-for-you ingredients without sacrificing its classic flavor.
Case study: Busch beer's positioning strategy
For Busch beer, a legacy brand under Anheuser-Busch InBev, positioning enables the brand to stand out and connect with consumers as the beer market becomes increasingly crowded.
"It's about breaking through the clutter effectively," said Chelsea Phillips, senior director of U.S. value brands at AB InBev. "And then it's using the tools that we have as marketers to adapt to identify and breakthrough with those consumers and also making our marketing efforts efficient, such as social media and the targeting we can do through there."
Busch has identified its target customer: Joe, aged 35 and older, a blue-collar American who enjoys outdoor pursuits, working hard, and keeping things simple, Phillips said.
"We really try to think about what Joe likes to do in his free time and how we as a beer company can be part of when he's having those relaxing occasions when he drinks beer, whether he's with his friends or unwinding after a long day of work," said Phillips. "Busch is really positioned to be that reward at the end of the day."
To reach that targeted consumer, Busch has positioned the brand to align with activities like hunting, fishing, and most recently, a push toward racing through a partnership with NASCAR.
"Not every NASCAR fan is particularly a Busch drinker, but how do we use the platform to reach a broader audience?" said Phillips. "And we do see a lot of overlap in values there, so using those types of positioning is how we try to take advantage of tapping into new consumers."
GMOs: A tricky pro-position
One key strategy for major manufacturers today will be to determine how best to position products with GMO ingredients. So far this year, major manufacturers like Campbell, General Mills, Mars, Kellogg, and ConAgra have committed to labeling genetically-modified ingredients in their products, ahead of the mandatory GMO labeling law to go into effect in Vermont on July 1.
For consumers who reject GMOs, regardless of whether they understand what being genetically-modified means, GMO labels could drive them away from these major manufacturers' brands. Research has shown that is not necessarily the case, but either way, positioning will come into play here to help brands with genetically-modified ingredients retain more loyal consumers.
A study released late last year found that with the right positioning, manufacturers can still entice the majority of consumers to purchase GM foods, sometimes at a premium. This is particularly true if the company positions the food as having functionality. One function might highlight GMOs as a way to reduce health risks through the use of biotechnology, which requires less usage of pesticides, according to the study.
While several manufacturers have committed to GMO labeling, the majority still stand behind the belief that GMOs are safe to consume. By infusing their GMO labeling phase-in with the proper positioning, these manufacturers may not see the hit to their sales that has been assumed by opponents to mandatory GMO labeling.
The ultimate benefit of a successful positioning strategy is obviously to sell more of the product, but it's also meant to drive brand health and engage consumers, Phillips said. By converging consumer insights and product development with targeted marketing and packaging strategies, manufacturers of all sizes can create a positioning strategy that solidifies their place both on store shelves and in the minds of consumers.