Deciding on your brand positioning: vertical vs. horizontal

Branding / 05.05.21
Mark Vaesen

When clients come to us for help with their brand identity, they’ve often already done lots of thinking about what the brief should be.

This is certainly valuable, and an important step in the process, but before you think about your brand brief, there’s something even more important you need to figure out.

You need to know what your brand positioning is.

What’s brand positioning?

Your positioning is where you sit in the mind of your customer, and what they perceive they’ll get from you that they can’t get from your competitors.

If your brand positioning’s weak, you’re going to struggle to been seen as different. You’re going to be fighting to stand out from the crowd.

The danger is you either spend a lot of time trying but failing to win customers, or have to compete on price, and no-one wants to go down that road.

Stand out from the crowd through brand positioning
Ah, there it is. Obligatory dodgy stock photo showing a crowd. From which you don’t stand out.

But with strong brand positioning, you can stand out, be seen as an expert, and as a result charge a premium for your services.

How to establish your brand positioning

There are two ways you can establish your brand positioning; vertically and/or horizontally;

Vertical positioning

Vertical positioning is where you focus on a particular classification or type of business – like health care or financial advisers or architects or holiday companies.

For example, you might be accountants specialising in working with health care companies, and you focus your marketing on reaching that industry.

Horizontal positioning

Horizontal brand positioning works across lots of different business types, but is identified in other ways, usually by demographics, or the discipline you offer.

For example, you might be a marketing company that works in many different business sectors, but focuses on the youth market, or the Asian market. This would be horizontal positioning by demographic.

Or it might be that you specialise in a particular discipline. You might be the best designer of branded furniture; you work for many different types of business, but you’re the best damn branded-furniture designer there is. This is horizontal positioning by discipline.

In summary, when comparing vertical and horizontal, you could say:

“Vertical is the market, horizontal is the demographic or discipline.”

Blain Enns, speaking to David C Baker on their 2Bobs podcast “The Business of Expertise – Part 2”

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The advantages of vertical positioning

The first advantage of vertical positioning is that it’s easier to find prospects.

Most of the business world is orientated around vertical positioning. It’s easy to buy a list of all architects, or all financial advisers. You’ll also find it easy to identify conferences or industry-specific publications you can target.

Trade shows for particular sectors or types of business are easy to find

The second advantage is that you can benefit from knowing decision-makers that move to a new job.

People change jobs more frequently now, and when they move on, they tend to go to a similar position within the same industry. So if you follow your contact, there’s a good chance you’ll keep the client they were working for previously, AND pick up the new client they’ve just gone to.

Third, you can develop your expertise in your customers’ specific type of business, which makes it easier to know what to say to new prospects when you find them (or they find you).

When you can talk competently in their language, and give examples of what you’ve done for others with the same problems, your prospect sees real value in what you offer.

The final advantage of vertical positioning is that it’s usually more highly compensated, because you become the go-to for that client.

That’s great if you can offer them lots of services and get paid for them, but not so good if you need to start farming work out to others.

The advantages of horizontal positioning

The first advantage with horizontal positioning is that you get a more varied and interesting mix of clients. Who wants to only ever work with Estate Agents for the rest of the lives, right?

But the drawback of variety is in finding your prospects.

Where do you go to look for your new clients? You no longer have the option of simply buying a list, and although there are some exceptions, it’s harder to spot the places they hang out, or the things they read.

The second advantage of horizontal brand positioning is that you don’t get a conflict of interest where you have more than one client in a particular market. If you’re the expert in say search marketing for accountants, you can’t get all your clients to the number one spot, can you?

But there’s a counter-argument here – if you’ve got lots of clients in one industry, and you’re established as a true expert in that industry, surely your new client’s going to be more attracted to your expertise than worried about a conflict of interest?

A third advantage is that you’re better protected in a downturn. If you specialise in the motor industry, and that industry suddenly spirals downwards, you’re going down with them. But if you’re spread across multiple markets, you’re protecting yourself against that risk.

Positioning horizontally means you haven’t got all your eggs in one market-sector basket

The fourth big advantage with horizontal positioning is that you’ve got more chance of working with bigger clients (with bigger budgets) on something specific.

Let’s say a big company needs help with some very specific training for their management team, and you happen to be the best at delivering that type of training, they’ll come to you and pay you handsomely for it.

Sure, they’ll have other suppliers doing other stuff for them, but that can be ok, can’t it? You get called in to do the thing you’re brilliant at, and get paid very nicely for it.

Which brand positioning is better?

You can probably tell from this post that positioning vertically or horizontally both have their merits, so it kind of depends on what you want to get from your business.

Many businesses tend towards horizontal by instinct. Partly in fear of narrowing their potential market, and partly because they want variety in their work.

My advice?

Look at horizontal positioning first, but check you can be sure you know how to find your customers.

If you can see how to find them, stick with that, but if you can’t, switch to looking at positioning yourselves vertically instead.

Is it possible to be both vertically and horizontally positioned?

Yes, absolutely – and when that happens, you’re going to have a very clear target audience.

The advantage here is that you can be very specific. Think of it like crosshairs on a sight (which is literally where the horizontal and vertical meet) and you have the perfect means of aiming straight at your target.

Your marketing can be at its most targeted when you have a strong vertical AND horizontal positioning

You may feel this gives you a disadvantage if your pool of potential customers might be too small, but if not, it can be a great situation to be in because your position and message is so specific.

So you’ve got your positioning nailed. Now what?

Whatever you decide, your brand positioning has to be public. The point is for your customer to understand how you’re different to everyone else, and why they should work with you.

This is where your brand identity, your messaging and your marketing strategy play their part.

If you don’t make your brand position very public, and very clearly stated, how will they know?

And that’s as bad as not having a position in the first place.

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Much credit for the content of this post must go to David C Baker and Blair Enns and their fantastic podcast, which I urge you to listen to if you can.