10/21/2013 03:56 pm ET Updated Dec 21, 2013

Brand on Your Own Two Feet

Welcome to the golden age of "der-innovation." From digital startups chasing increasingly cynical investment dollars to established brands looking to ride the coattails of younger and hungrier companies, derivative innovation has become absurdly commonplace. Not to mention championed, encouraged, funded and frequently discussed with a straight face. Call me old fashioned, but I remember when perusing shoddy knockoffs required you to actually leave your desk and stroll down Canal Street. Today you need only go online, turn on the television or flip through a magazine.

These days, everything is unabashedly something else. Call it the falling tide that lowers all boats.

More and more, I hear brand managers begin pitches and premises with allusions and direct comparisons to other brands, campaigns or products. Instead of capturing and conveying who they are and what they stand for, they diffuse any interest by focusing on what they are like or what they are not. Positioning seems to be giving way to piggybacking and posturing.

The difference? Positioning is rooted in clarity, true confidence and deep knowledge of audience and core assets. Posturing, however, seeks to con people into thinking you are something you are not. And piggybacking is when you don't even bother to expend the energy to dupe your way to success, and duck the heavy lifting of brand building by appropriating somebody else's efforts almost entirely.

Great positioning can be as deceptively simple and richly compelling as Oreo's Wonderfilled and Celebrate the Kid Inside campaigns from earlier this year. Or it can be as mythic and larger than life as Chrysler's "Imported from Detroit" campaign.

As wildly and stylistically different as those two efforts are, they have one critical thing in common. While they certainly draw from emotional, historic and even geographic context--it is, after all, called positioning -- they both brand on their own two feet. They tell their own story, creating a deeply authentic experience that conveys the true essence of the product and the brand. They proudly celebrate exactly what they are -- without winks, nods, eye rolls or asides to the audience. Goodbye irony! And could you please take those old "I'm a Mac" ads with you?

Given the wide reach and lower cost of entry, it should probably come as no surprise that much of the copycatting -- and to be fair, extraordinary bursts of true innovation -- can be found online. But as brands -- large and small, established and emerging -- must now create the kind of highly aligned messaging that can live and thrive on an ever-expanding array of platforms and media, great positioning has grown increasingly valuable. For brands and businesses these days, there are more shortcuts than ever before. But the wisest thing they can do is avoid them. As we keep seeing, they don't get you very far.