Expert positioning is no more nor less than a game of perceptions. And the strongest perception becomes the enduring legacy.
“Nice car, but aren’t you sponsored by Ford?”
Six years ago, when I auditioned for the part of the presenter in a series of ads, it passed through my mind that I might be making a mistake.
Certainly, it was television exposure. But what if it was the wrong exposure? What if it was the wrong message for someone aspiring to build a reputation in a different industry? What if, in the conflict between two competing transmissions, the stronger transmission won, and I became known as The Ford Guy, then couldn’t undo that perception in people’s minds?
The excitement of the opportunity won out, and I took the job. I also thoroughly enjoyed the work, along with the attendant thrill of seeing myself on TV, circling a freshly polished Fiesta and enthusing about this month’s special offers.
But since presenting in those ads (at which point I actually did drive a Ford, purely by coincidence), I have owned an Audi, A BMW and a Merc. And it has now been almost five years since the last ad for the Blue Circle faded into the evening news and disappeared from the airwaves. Yet I’m still asked, with surprising frequency, why I don’t drive a Ford. Worse, I’m still asked if I’m sponsored by them.
The Strongest Transmission Wins
Take Bill Cosby. In the story of two competing legacies; that of the fun-loving, kindly old dad, versus that of the man accused of multiple instances of what essentially amounts to rape, only one of these is going to win out in the long-term, and it will be the one with the greatest visceral effect; the one with the strongest transmission.
If you truly intend to become the greatest in your game, if your goal is genuinely to ‘own’ your industry, the purity and power of the messages you transmit (expert positioning) is of critical importance.
Last week, while chatting with an aspiring professional speaker starting out on her journey, I recounted the Ford example and gave the following advice: ‘Be careful what you associate yourself with early on. It may well follow you for the next ten years.’
Becoming pigeonholed can be a problem. Unless you are pigeonholed into the right set of perceptions, the right industry niche. In that case, it can become an elevator-ride to an industry’s upper stratosphere, as you become inextricably linked with a certain idea: “Oh, you need an X? There’s only one person to talk to about that.”
Alliances are Transmissions too:
Are you aligning yourself with an employer or a talent agency or a bureau that insist you propagate their branding above your own? If so, pop quiz: Who is Tom Cruise’s agent? Who is Stephen King’s? Who’s Oprah’s? In fact, who represents any of your heroes in any industry you care to name? Exactly.
If you want to become iconic, your name should come first. Anything less and you become a commodity; merely one out of a pool of offerings. It is impossible to become ‘an iconic member of…’
In my own world – the world of professional speakers – I think of a number of high-level individuals as truly extraordinary; genuinely iconic. But I do not think of a single academy, training company or group in the same vein. It simply doesn’t work that way.
Expert Positioning is an extremely individualistic philosophy. Be slow to amalgamate into a broader brand. Be cautious about compromising on your unique proposition. To paraphrase Alan Weiss, author of ‘Million Dollar Speaking,’ you are the star, and the agency makes money off of your expertise. Don’t let them own the alpha-space by convincing you otherwise.
‘Let’s Partner on it’: Expert Positioning
Are you being asked by someone whose reputation is questionable to partner with them on a project? Are you considering a high-profile opportunity that has nothing to do with your long-term goals, but seems expedient today? Is the money good but the image wrong?
Pause and reflect. Alliances and associations that do not fit can haunt lengthy corridors of time.
The good ones do no damage to who and what you are. They simply amplify that. The bad ones either ‘out-brand’ and swallow you, or taint your message with a different, stronger one.
‘The Pay’s Minimal, but it will Give you Great Exposure!’
This is an all-too-common variation on the bad co-branding theme; the person who asks you to work for free with the promise that the exposure to their audience will catapult you to super-stardom. Nine times out of ten, this promise is essentially a con.
In certain rare instances, when you really are just starting out in an industry, it may be worth your while to give of your skills for free, in order to gain initial experience and exposure. But this truly should be a limited phase, appropriate only for rank amateurs or where a very specific strategic advantage exists.
Otherwise, the psychology of valuing your own skills and abilities is a big part of progressing up the continuum toward expert-status. It’s worth learning to say ‘no’ to this sort of deal, which covertly identifies you as a needy amateur.
Aim for 80% or Over: Expert Positioning
My warning to aspiring experts should not be misunderstood: I don’t advocate that you turn down every opportunity that is not 100% aligned to your end-state vision. And don’t say no to every partnership.
However, I most certainly do encourage turning down alliances that transmit a stronger message than your own. They can, and will, overwhelm your primary branding.
When I got the Ford offer, I justified it to myself with the argument that I would be seen speaking, and surely that would help my professional speaking career? The alignment was at around 60%. I now know that 60% alignment is not strong enough. 80% should be the minimum acceptable case for any alliance, if you are serious about becoming iconic in your own sphere.
So be sure to take a second look at that left-field deal. The pay’s great. The long-term perceptions are not.
An Extra Moment of Visceral Inspiration: While you’re mulling over the power of individual positioning and iconic branding, watch this clip to see the ultimate master in action. And to hear them scream: https://youtu.be/rAiw2SXPS-4
Douglas Kruger is an innovation speaker and author of ‘Own Your Industry – How to Position Yourself as an Expert,’ and ‘Relentlessly Relevant – 50 Ways to Innovate.’ He speaks and trains all over the world, helping brands to understand the ‘how-to’s’ of innovation and to become top-of-mind in their industries.