Friday, June 26, 2009

“Quality” isn’t a Positioning Idea.

Can you think of a company that has succeeded by claiming that its products are low quality, inconvenient or over priced? From a strategic standpoint, words like “quality”, “convenience” and “value” have no alternative, which is why every company claims them. The irony: companies continue to rely heavily on words that have become meaningless through overuse.

Every product or service must meet the quality, convenience and value standards of its category. Otherwise they cease to exist. Additionally, every category has its own unique standards. Food is supposed to be “fresh”, ad agencies “creative” and clothing “fashionable”. So of course we see entire categories promoting these claims. However, once the minimum standards are perceptually met, promoting them only reinforces a product’s sameness within the category.

Beyond the obvious futility of every business claiming the same things, words like “quality” have no inherent meaning. Quality means something different in an automobile than it does in a computer, a can of soup or an accounting service. Even within the same category quality can mean different things. In an automobile, quality can mean efficiency, power, precision, durability, practicality, opulence, etc. And even an amateur engineer can appreciate that there are trade-offs; no single automobile can excel at every criteria equally.

While category table stakes are important, they don’t differentiate a company’s product or service. And meaningless words like “quality”, “value” and “convenience” don’t provide a strategic foundation for differentiation. In order to add strategic value, positioning ideas need prescriptive language—language that not only suggests what employees should do, but also how they should do it. A company that has “precision” as a strategic filter guiding its behavior will build and market a car differently than a company with “practicality” as its guiding principle. And in the end, both can claim to have built a “quality” car.