You Can’t Change Perception Without Changing Position

Articulating your market position and influencing your brand are sequential and separate efforts.

In our work in higher ed, we see positioning (even used correctly) mistaken for “branding” all the time. Securing your market position in order to affect brand perception is the right sequence. But let’s be clear: these are not the same. Modifying your market position doesn’t become a part of your brand until an external audience knows, understands and accepts that your claim to a position is believable.

However, a changed market position can (and will) affect brand over time. Here’s one example.

Let’s say we’re friends (nice to see you again). I’ve just told you that I received my EdD in Educational Leadership from the University of Phoenix. I watch your forehead wrinkle. A pause and a congratulations. You’re befuddled. This isn’t because you can’t believe that I achieved an EdD in Educational Leadership. You’re cool with that. What you can’t believe is that Phoenix grants EdDs online. That’s not how you get EdDs. You have to wall up in a university and lose all your friends to get those. You can’t believe that achieving an EdD can be done online relative to what you know about getting an EdD.

The level of believability doesn’t immediately change with the University of Phoenix market position. I assume, slowly but surely, advanced degrees of doctoral level will become part of Phoenix’s brand, as they deliver more of them more often.

Your market position is objective. You either occupy a position (alone or with others) or you don’t. This is your choice. Want to add a school of dentistry? Do it, or don’t. Up to you. Whether or not an audience believes in what you do? That’s different; that’s brand.

To change perception, you must change position.

What is striking to me is how many institutions choose to work at affecting brand perception instead of market position. Positioning is far more autonomous and can have a more predictable and measured outcome. It likely is more difficult work, requiring an institution to look deeply at themselves AND the market to keep or abandon what they may have been doing for a long time.

I think one reason institutions prefer to work at changing brand perception without changing position is that, when the position they choose to occupy isn’t something that sufficient external audiences will pay for, they come up short. What they fail to consider is called market need. Not brand, not even position, and also, not subjective.

A further reason that some institutions aren’t up to the task is because a market position doesn’t suggest to the customer that you’re the only school in that position. If many schools can offer nearly the same as you, then you occupy a position with others. In the mind of the customer, you are not the only provider. No positioning statement will change the fact that what you offer can be found elsewhere. This boils down to parity, which I believe is the single largest threat to institutions of higher education (if we all offer relatively the same thing at varying prices, then the lowest cost/highest value, most convenient provider wins).

A market position is completely up to you. The point of a positioning statement is to describe where you are relative to competitors. That’s it.

Brand, on the other hand, is completely up to them. As Marty Neumeier says: “It’s not what you say it is, it’s what they say it is.” Brand is a concept in the mind of your customer.

Position is strongest when you are an only. It doesn’t mean you have to be the only, but no one will need you if you aren’t.

But get this: you get to choose your market position. (Cheering crowd noises here.)

This is the central logic to the process of Coherence. It is indeed a process and it takes time. The aim is simple: align what you offer with what the customer believes you could offer. Occasionally, for our clients, that means modifying their market position and then encouraging brand perception into alignment. In other cases this means articulating an existing market position more clearly and specifically and then conversing with customers to bring them along. Depending on the relative shift in market position this can take anywhere from a year to a decade. Whatever the shift, it takes time and continuity of effort.

The question shouldn’t be if you can afford to take the time, it should be: can you afford not to?

An earlier version of this topic previously appeared on

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Sam Waterson

Sam is President at RHB.