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Ask an expert: Brenda van Ginkel

December 3, 2012

In this instalment of Ask an expert—a blog series that seeks to address common mistakes that entrepreneurs make— Angelo Casanas interviews Brenda van Ginkel, a volunteer advisor at MaRS, who shares her thoughts on positioning.

The scenario: John is in need of a sweater and is faced with two options: Should he go with the trendy, cost-conscious sweater from Old Navy or will Banana Republic’s casual luxury sweater sway him to make a more lavish purchase? While the answer lies in John’s personal taste, it’s interesting to note that one company, Gap Inc., has provided John with these two distinct product offerings from two well-positioned brands.

Brenda van Ginkel, a creative brand marketing consultant, succinctly explains that positioning is what defines a brand. Positioning is a narrative that is created out of the strategy of engaging with consumers and customers. Brenda has 20 years of experience in marketing, having worked with brands such as The Home Depot, Kraft and Club Monaco, to name but a few. Her mastery of storytelling has won her numerous awards internationally.

In today’s post, Brenda shares her insights into positioning and some of the pitfalls entrepreneurs should avoid.

What common mistake do entrepreneurs make when it comes to positioning their brands?

It’s hard to step outside and see things from the consumer’s point of view. When marketing a brand, startups should create messaging that pulls people in rather than using push messaging. Push messaging happens when you’re looking from the inside and don’t have a story that’s grabbing people. Benefit messages, such as, “Here’s what makes this special” or “With this product you’ll get better results,” are typical examples that startups easily fall into as they position their brand, translating their business plan into marketing presence.

Entrepreneurs are the torchbearers for their brands and they know the right messaging when they see it. However, living such an intense life—and being consumed by their startups—makes it harder to get outside of themselves to create the most compelling positioning for their “babies.”

What happens to entrepreneurs who make this mistake?

Entrepreneurs can easily go down the wrong road. I often see startups decide that aspect “x” of their product is the most valuable to the people they hope to reach, yet the aspect they have identified is not actually a value, but rather a benefit, which is further down the chain of decision-making or motivating factors. It’s like coming up with the wrong answer because the question wasn’t quite right.

The value of your brand is something that will help people connect emotionally with it. For instance [for a floor mop brand] it’s not just having a clean kitchen, it’s moms creating family moments in the kitchen. You have to hit people where it resonates with their core values—this is where marketing mixes art and science. Since startups develop their own lens of who they are, what they’re doing and how they’re solving a problem, they can end up with positioning that is not so inspiring.

What should startups do instead?

Listen to people who you trust and respect, and who have created an unusual, engaging way to position their brand so it attracts the people they want to reach. Surround yourself with people who have an eye and ear for what is going on outside of your bubble to help with perspective.

Within your bubble [your industry], you’re the expert, so feedback from others who have a different lens is valuable. I know an entrepreneur who gets together on Friday nights with a group of core friends who are in a range of fields; some are in marketing, some have corporate jobs. She uses this opportunity to bounce around ideas that have developed over the week. It opens up different points of view and helps her to see if her message resonates with people who don’t have the same level of engagement with the work that she’s doing.

People who are truly invested in their startups can get quite myopic because of the intense focus they have on their businesses. However, listening to other groups of people and watching what they are responding to—while keeping the target audience’s pain point in mind—opens up the opportunity to position a startup with a great story.

Supplementary material from MaRS’ Entrepreneur’s Toolkit:

Article: “Positioning
Video: “Branding Successfully: Five Hot Tips for Startups

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Angelo Casanas

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Angelo is the associate for corporate services at MaRS. As a recent convert to innovation, he assists the many moving parts of the MaRS ecosystem to meet the demands of both internal and external stakeholders.

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