A “small-boy story” is a marketing positioning that is so complicated you need to send a small boy along to explain it. It’s lazy marketing — filling up the consumer’s time with so much information and so many product signals that you are essentially asking them to do the hard work of understanding what really is important about your brand and why they should care about it.

Small-boy stories are often the result of a lack of clarity about what is truly important to your target consumers, what will firmly attract and then attach them to your brand, versus what is irrelevant. We have become victims of too much information. We have learned so much about a market, a consumer, a need or a brand’s equity that it all ends up getting jammed into the positioning.

Unfortunately, consumers can’t absorb that much. To get their attention and earn their loyalty, we need one main, distinctive benefit, supported by a credible reason why — one overriding personality directed against a well-defined, target consumer. This clear and definitive understanding has to be reflected in everything — in the way we construct the product, the way we package and label it, and every part of our communication.

For example, a leading coffee maker developed a new product intended to appeal to younger users who had not yet fully adopted the morning coffee habit. The marketer knew that these younger users liked their morning jolt as a sweeter beverage and were willing to trade off flavor intensity for preparation convenience.

The marketers also knew there was a second target of older coffee lovers who liked the idea of a “break” beverage with a different flavor and caffeine level than their regular joe. This target liked stronger flavors in general, less sweetness and didn’t want to replace their morning coffee but instead wanted a different tasting addition to their coffee repertoire.

Unhappily, all of this information was translated into a single product and squeezed into a single positioning. The product, whose tag line was “A first, a find, a one of a kind,” certainly was a one of a kind and aptly described — but it was gone from test market almost before the first advertising flight was over. Confused consumers couldn’t figure out exactly what its differentiating benefit was and whom it was for.

So, what do we concentrate on — a list of reasons why, or just one? A functional attribute or an emotional end benefit? The problem is that all of your information about target, brand, needs, benefits and reasons why is likely to be correct. It becomes critical to sort out what must be communicated and what must be true for the brand to succeed and then, just as critical, to be confident about leaving the rest behind. But deliberately ignoring facts about the consumer or the brand can cause even confident marketers to pause.

The solution is to understand how the market is organized, where your brand lies in it, and what it may be able to evolve to, enabling decision-making on where to focus your brand’s positioning. The marketer needs to have a holistic theory of how the market operates, putting the full range of variables that drive product and brand choice in order of importance, statistically linking behaviors with specific consumer targets, the precise benefits the exact target seeks, and how well (or not) existing brands satisfy them. When we have that understanding, we can make fact-based decisions on where and how to drive our brands — and where and how we can safely leave the “small-boy story” behind.

Quick! What’s the nighttime sniffling, sneezing, coughing, aching, fever, best sleep you ever got with a cold medicine? Chances are that both as marketer and consumer you could name NyQuil, which is a great example of a brand that knows who it is and isn’t afraid to stick to it. NyQuil understands the order of importance (getting rest) and knows how it helps (by relieving symptoms). The packaging and product lineup are equally clear. The focus is on the benefit; and then, after that, on specific conditions that its target might require (alcohol-free, severe cough versus cold and flu relief). While the product comes in two forms — liquid, and liquid-caps — and several flavors, these are consistently third- and fourth-level communications. What a relief!

The “order of importance” point has multiple applications. One brand we worked on was positioned as a high taste and satisfaction alternative to common eat-alone solutions. In year two, brand marketing had focused considerable research and development efforts on bringing down the fat content of its products based on their belief that the consumer was trading off to “low fat” labeled products.

Research and development was successful at reducing fat by approximately 20 percent, although there was a noticeable taste trade off and a cost increase to do so. The issue was that even the 20 percent reduction did not enable the product to claim “low fat” and “almost low fat” simply wasn’t good enough for the part of the consumer base that marketing folks were concerned about.

A huge on-package flag shouting “Now! Lower in Fat!” did nothing except call attention to the fact that the brand did not quite match the low-fat characteristics of neighboring products. At the same time, an alternate target — while liking the idea of low fat — prioritized the taste and satiation benefits that the brand had originally been known for far above any wellness attributes.

We identified how this market worked and attached exact desired benefits and required attributes to the exact targets. The brand re-focused on the target that it could satisfy highly, clarified and simplified the brand positioning to emphasize its taste advantages, and re-introduced its original, slightly higher-fat formulas to save the time, effort, cost — and risk from poorer taste delivery to the central target — of reducing fat by a meaningless amount.

Here’s a good test to find small-boy stories: look at the store shelf and at product labels. If a category or brand seems confusing to you as a consumer, then it is likely a reflection of the marketers’ own uncertainty about what the target consumer really cares about.

Then examine your own reaction: Are you likely to stand at the shelf and ponder the meaning of all the information the marketer is trying to load onto you? Do you pick up labels and carefully read each one to determine how one product offering is different from another? Not likely. That, in a microcosm, is how small-boy stories negatively affect brand loyalty. You — and the consumer — simply walk away.