Marketers have always had to juggle two seemingly contradictory goals: making their brands distinctive and making them central in their category. Central brands, such as Coca-Cola in soft drinks and McDonald’s in fast food, are those that are most representative of their type. They’re the first ones to come to mind, and they serve as reference points for comparison. These brands shape category dynamics, including consumer preferences, pricing, and the pace and direction of innovation. Distinctive brands, such as Tesla in cars and Dos Equis in beer, stand out from the crowd and avoid direct competition with widely popular central brands.
Striking the right balance between centrality and distinctiveness is critical, because a company’s choices influence not just how the brand will be perceived, but how much of it will be sold and at what price—and, ultimately, how profitable it will be. And yet, marketers have lacked the tools needed to get this balance right. Traditionally, companies have analyzed brand positioning and business performance separately: To locate gaps in the market and gauge how people feel about their brands, marketers have used perceptual positioning maps, which typically represent consumers’ perceptions of brands or products on opposing dimensions, such as budget versus premium or spicy versus mild. To assess performance, they have used a different set of strategic tools that map or measure brands on yardsticks such as market share, growth rate, and profitability.
With this new tool, brand centrality and distinctiveness don't have to be contradictory goals.
In this article, we present a new approach called the centrality-distinctiveness (C-D) map, which to our knowledge is the first tool that allows companies to directly connect a brand’s position on a perceptual map with business outcomes such as sales and price. Using the tool, managers can determine a desired market position, make resource allocation and brand strategy decisions, track performance against competitors over time, and evaluate strategy on the basis of results. In the process, they will find that centrality and distinctiveness need not be contradictory goals; companies may choose to pursue both—and benefit substantially.
Positioning and Performance
Creating a C-D map of a brand category is a straightforward but labor-intensive process. A company begins by identifying the geographic market of interest (an entire country, a region, a single city) and the customer segments to be surveyed. As we will discuss, a brand’s position on the map can vary dramatically depending on those variables. The company then conducts a survey to collect data on consumers’ perceptions of the brand’s centrality and distinctiveness (scored on a 0–10 scale). This data yields unique coordinates for each brand’s position on a 2×2 matrix. The map also captures market performance: The “bubble” for each brand is sized proportionally to its unit sales volume, price, or other metric. (See the exhibit “The Centrality-Distinctiveness Map.”)