Frame of Reference

In his Ted Talk presentation, “Life Lessons From an Ad Man,” Rory Sutherland addresses the concept of frame of reference  marketing with the  assertion that ads can add value to a product by changing consumers perception of that product instead of changing the product itself. He argues that this strategy can save marketers and brand managers precious time and resources that would be spent choosing expensive and magnificent solutions. Before diving into Rory brand theory I will define frame of reference and positioning.  In discussing Rory’s brand theory I will also talk about how it relates to brand concept. I will assess the ideal of branding and rebranding through “positioning,” and “frame of reference by applying the theory to my brand.

Brand positioning and Frame of reference.Before will dive into the conversation. I’d first like to define brand positioning and frame of reference.

Brand positioning. According to Tybout & Calkin (2005, p.11, para 3) “brand positioning refers to the specific, intended meaning for a brand in consumers’ mind.” Another way to think about positioning is that is the brand’s niche in the marketplace and can be justified by communicating the product or services attributes, benefits and how it compares to the competition.

Assessing the idea of branding through positioning.I’m a music artist so I’m always thinking about how I can relate these branding concepts to my brand. As an artist, I can create my brand positioning base or music genres-so I would position myself as an “Eclectic Soul,” artist, with the motto “Music you can breathe.” I justify my niche by acknowledging that my music and look is comparable to other R&B or Neo-Soul, and some of the benefits are the same as the positivity in the music. However, I can differentiate my brand with the idea that my music is “eclectic,” encompassing jazz, rock, pop, and elements of hip-hop. What I think is beneficial about this positioning is that consumers are already familiar with Soul music and artist so even before hearing my music they already have an idea in mind about what my music can possibly sound like. Also, eclectic lets them know that they can expect a variety of music styles. And “music you can breathe,” may communicate that it’s refreshing, something you can take in. I think the meaning this positioning will create in consumer minds is that “this artist is soul but a little different.” They might even think “hmm I like that.”

Frame of reference. Frame of reference is very similar to positioning in that it revolves around shaping how the consumer thinks about the brand. Tybout & Calkins (2005, p. 283, para.1) define it as  “a statement of the target’s goal that will be served by consuming the brand.” So the frame of reference should speak to what consumers wish to get from using the product, while one element of positioning communicates the benefits of the brand. It’s in a brands’ best interest to communicate effectively those benefits and attributes that consumers are seeking. I also think of frame of reference in another way. To me it also means that the leading  information one has about a person ( or a group of people), place, thing or brand creates their perception of it.

Assessing Frame of reference for rebranding. I’ve been doing this music thing for a while and have a small audience. How can I use frame of reference to rebrand myself? I think if I say that I’m just a music artist I could be limiting myself in the minds of my audience to just being an artist when in fact there are other things that I do. For instance, I’ve appeared on television, been in a couple independent films, teach music and participated in community/philanthropic outreach. How can I rebrand myself as more than just someone who creates music using frame of reference? I think I need to think about myself in a broader sense and what how the fits with the goals of my audience. Broadening frame of reference can be very beneficial to a strong point of difference (how much different I am from others in my category) (Daye, 2007). Which will help me stand out from among the crowd?

Learning what they goals of my audience will take more research but from what I’ve already learned  I understand  that my audience is looking for a positive role model, someone who makes them feel good and inspires them, someone who is refreshing, someone they can glean positive energy from. I really like the idea of the word “photosynthetic” to rebrand Leaf the person. I view myself as a person who absorbs light energy (or positive energy, energy from “The Light”-God)  and then releases it to fuel my audience and encourage transformation.

Brand concept. Brand concept is in reference to the meaning that in created in consumers mind through combined encounters that have with a brand. This includes experiences they have with their physical properties of a product (such as texture, color, smell, taste etc.) and associations or perceptions. I see Brand positioning and frame of reference as strategies that seek to create more so the intended associations/perceptions of the brand.

Frame of reference marketing vs. expensive and magnificent solutions

Rory’s main idea is that “intangible value is a good substitute for using up labor and resources to make things” (Sutherland, 2009). He offered a few examples to illustrate how frame of reference marketing proved to add value to a product (without adding exorbitant expenses) by simply creating messaging that changes the way people think about a product/service/brand or thing. The intended result is that the audience will have a more positive perception of the brand and experience of the brand. For example, Rory talks about how engineers were asked how they could make the ride more enjoyable for customers traveling on a train from London to Paris. The solution that the engineers came up with was that providing a shorter travel time would do the trick and that they would need to spend billions of dollars on new tracks that would allow the faster travel. But the illustrate the power of frame of reference Rory’s suggestion was to employ all the supermodels of the world to serve free drinks to travelers. Rory comments passengers would then probably want to ride to be longer. Money would still need to be spent but not as much on the new tracks. And I can actually see this idea work. I’m sure the supermodels wouldn’t jump at the chance to be servers on a train (because they have better things to do) but up and coming models or just beautiful people could be hired to do the job.


Tybout and Calkins (2005) shares the example of how Visa utilized the gold standard frame of reference to guide the choice of consumer away from its direct competitor Mastercard. The strategy works by identifying consumers perceived gold standard (or the best brand) in the industry to increase brand perceptions (Tybout & Calkins, 2005). As Tybout and Calkins (2005), Visa and Mastercard share the same benefits, attributes (position). Instead of using financial resources to create new benefits and attributes, Visa simply compared itself to American Express with broader acceptance as its’ frame of reference with the campaign “everywhere you want to be,” (Tybout & Calkins, 2005). The ad did not cause Visa to steal American Express’s loyal customers, however, it created differentiation and distinguished itself from Mastercard. And this differentiation helped  to steal shares from it competitor Mastercard.



Positioning is creating the intending meaning of the brand in the mind of consumers. Positioning communicates a brand special place in the market, it attributes and benefits. Frame of reference marketing can be used to change the meaning that has been previously created in the minds of consumers to create a better perception or add value to the brand. I think of it as a re-positioning tactic. Ad man Rory Sutherland argues that frame of reference is a better use of time and resources than spending a big budget to rebrand a product or service by changing the physical attributes. The better way is to change the perception of the brand which can work to change consumers reactions to the brand. These reactions can translate into positive results like the increase in sales and or taking shares from a direct competitor. For my own brand, I can see how positioning my style of music can create meaning in the minds of consumers. It can help them know what kind of sound to expect while communicating they will also be pleasantly surprised.  I really like the idea of using frame of reference to separate my personal brand from the music. This way I’m not limiting myself to my audience thinking I’m just a musician but that whatever I do or produce is going to encourage positive transformation.



Daye, D (2007, May 7) Frame of reference in brand positioning. Retrieved from

Sutherlan, R. (2009)Rory Sutherland:Life lessons from an ad man. [Video File] Retrieved from

Tybout, A. M., & Calkins, T. (2005). Kellogg on branding: The marketing faculty of the Kellogg School of Management. Hoboken, NJ

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