Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind by Al Ries and Jack Trout

Modern society is over-communicated. Every media channel, whether it be print, radio, television, streaming, or internet, is stuffed with advertisements. While the average consumer was exposed to roughly 500 advertisements in the 1970’s, that number has increased over 5,000 fold by 2006. Today, that number is likely even higher.

For corporations, succeeding in advertising is becoming increasingly challenging. With so many marketing messages bombarding consumers, sending a clear message and ensuring it is both received and understood is incredibly difficult. Some companies may choose to send more and more messages, this tactic quickly becomes prohibitively expensive and is impossible for smaller businesses with tight marketing budgets.

In Positioning: The Battle for your Mind, authors and marketing experts Al Ries and Jack Trout state that companies are better served by occupying a ‘position’ in the mind of a prospect. A position is an immediate association a person or group of people hold between a need or product category and a specific product or brand. Some examples:

  • pain reliever: Aspirin
  • cola soft drink: Coca Cola
  • digital music player: iPod

Positions are highly specific. No two products can own the same position with the same customer segment. Even if the brands are extremely similar and offer highly competitive products and services, subtle differences in positioning exist. Consider Amazon and eBay. Both companies are powerhouses in online retail, allowing consumers across the world to purchase items through their respective websites. However, each brand holds different positions. If I were to say online shopping, you would likely think Amazon first. But if I were to say online auction, you will probably think eBay.

Marketing through positioning theory is to executing a strategy that defines a clear link between the brand and the position it seeks to hold. To be successful, the marketing message must transcend the content and cleverness of advertising design. All the values, culture, product design, customer interaction must be congruent with the position being established. Organizations that do not live their position risk being seen as not genuine and all their efforts to own the position will fail.

How to Take a Position

  1. Be first. The first mover advantage in marketing can be very powerful. As an example, everyone knows that Neil Armstrong was the first man to walk on the moon; does anyone remember the third or fifth? Whether it is accomplishing a goal or defining a new product category, ensuring that everyone in the world knows that you are the first at something important establishes a powerful position for a company.
  2. Acknowledge where you are on the ladder. Of course, most companies cannot be first to create a new product, but that does not mean they cannot be successful. For example, Microsoft Windows was not the first operating system to feature a graphical user interface. But sales of Windows far surpassed that of competition operating systems in the 1980s and 1990s. For a company to win, when they do not have a strong first mover advantage, they must first honestly assess where they sit in relation to their competition, and define their marketing strategy from that perspective.
  3. Avoid direct competition with strongly entrenched companies and brands. Large, successful brands have. massive marketing budgets and an established consumer base. Smaller competitors will simply run out of cash in a straight-on positioning or marketing battle.
  4. Finding a ‘creneau’. If a company is not the leader in a category, it should look for a small but underserved gap in the market. Remember that no product can be all things to all people. Focus on refining its position to become highly specific to serve those underserved customers. This tactic is known as niche segmentation strategy.
  5. Re-position the competition. If a gap in the market is not apparent or does not exist, one can be created by changing how customers perceive the competition. Build a marketing strategy that highlights the flaws and drawbacks in a competitor’s product. Demonstrate that competitors are not satisfying every type of customer. Breyer’s used this strategy to demonstrate how their all-natural ice cream is superior to other brands that use a number of chemicals with hard-to-pronounce names.
  6. The power of a name. A product’s name has significant power. Getting it right will often be the most important marketing decision a company makes, particularly for consumer products. One tactic is using a name to highlight its advantages over competitors. In the men’s razor category, Dollar Shave Club found success against major brands like Gillette by having customers focus on price. Are their razors any better or worst than Gillette? Perhaps, but naming their company in the way they did draws customers away from quality and performance to focus on price, where they feel they can win.
  7. Avoid the ‘no-name’ trap. While products with initials and generic names have been successful, they are the exception rather than the rule. When evaluating a high number of different products in a category, something as simple as a descriptive and memorable name can make it more appealing to customers.
  8. Avoid the ‘line extension’ trap. Some companies have been successful launching multiple different products under the same brand name. For example, consider Life-savers candy and Life-saves gum and Dial soap and Dial deodorant. However, most companies will struggle with reusing existing brand names.

Six Steps to Positioning Success

  1. Understand what position your company/product owns
  2. Determine what position do you want to own
  3. Identify which competitors currently own that position
  4. Calculate whether you have enough money to win that position, and if you can stick it out
  5. Verify that your product genuinely resonates with the position you want to take

Further Reading

A Few Words about Jack Trout and Positioning

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