Tom says, "Yes I DO think positioning, in general, is a dated concept, especially with regards to brand names..."
Jon counters, "Expectations, isn't that what this is all about? It is what I expect from a brand/product/company?..."
David adds, "I do think it's possible for a company to be known for more than "one thing," but it's tricky and there are limits..."
It's time I tossed in my two cents on this one...
It appears that much of this debate has been centered around products. My view is that products come and go; technologies are invented and become obsolete. A strong brand is not intrinsically tied to a product; rather, the brand transcends it. With regard to positioning, the question is not "what business is the company in," but rather "what is the company known for?" What emotion does the brand evoke? If a company can evoke the same feeling in a different product category, that doesn't mean that its positioning has changed. Look at IBM: a classic example of shifting into new product and service categories over time while still owning the 'safety/security' position in the marketplace. Apple owns 'fun and easy to use;" what other products can it make to expand that position? Porche's Cayenne isn't a departure from its luxury status; the car-maker saw that its customers had a need for a car with more room. Cayenne is a simply a brand extension serving the same customers. I think Jon nailed it: it's all about expectations and reputation.
We also need to look at each company contextually. Microsoft is virtually a monopoly. It doesn't need classic positioning because it wields an enormous amount of power with consumers. Conversely, companies in highly competitive markets like PCs would do well to stake out an ownable position (setting expectations through building a reputation for 'x') like Apple, Dell or IBM.
When companies are thinking about getting into new products or services, I think it's important to look at the existing customer base and ask the following questions: "What is our current customer profile?" "What are their wants and needs?" "What have they grown to expect from our company?" and "Will this new product or service deliver?" It's much easier to add another product or service underneath an existing brand and continue to serve the same (or similar) customer than to reinvent the wheel. The other thing to keep in mind is that customers are aspirational; it's easier for a high-end brand to move downstream (like an affordable BMW or Mercedes) than for a lower-end brand to move upstream. Tom mentions VW's Phaeton... I'll be interested to see whether this car sells. VW is trying to sell a mid-level brand to a high-end customer. Other carmakers like Toyota or Honda created a new brand when moving upstream. Yet VW may be following my point about selling to current customers. VW (especially the Passat) is a trendy, yuppie car; as their 20- to 30-something customers become more successful and earn more disposable income, VW now has an opportunity to keep them as a customer with Phaeton. However, I'm still not convinced this is the right approach; aspirational customers would more likely 'trade up' to a high-end car like Mercedes.
In summary, I don't think positioning is dead. Your brand position is whatever you've staked the company's reputation on. And believe me, every company has a reputation -- good or bad -- whether you've consciously 'managed your brand position' or not.