“Be on the Books” is a regular series in which Braithwaite staff break down what they learned from the best business and marketing books.
In a series of essays published in Advertising Age from 1969 to 1972, they declared that we as a society were suffering from over-communication. Consumers’ minds had been hammered by sales messages for so long and in the same fashion, predicated on product benefits, that prospects couldn’t possibly keep up with the everyday branding barrage – and that was before the advent of the internet, 24-hour news, social media and smartphones.
They explained that our mind’s defense mechanism is to reject the vast majority of incoming messages, and brands that simply try to yell louder than the competition won’t get anywhere.
Hand-in-hand with the coining of the over-communicated society, Ries and Trout introduced a new marketing concept that could help brands cut through the noise – positioning.
Positioning took selling a brand/product/service based entirely on benefits and turned it on its head. As they explained, it was becoming increasingly difficult to create something new in the prospect’s mind, like a saturated sponge that couldn’t hold another drop. The result was that the mind would only accept messaging that was consistent with prior knowledge or experience.
Their 1981 book, “Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind,” takes what they started in their revolutionizing essays to the next level and lays it out as a how-to for marketers.
The book calls on us to not look at the product. Don’t look at your own mind. Look at the prospect’s mind. Inside their mind, they’ve already begun ranking products and brands, and we need to understand where we exist in the mind, and what we’re up against. They paint the picture of little ladders set up throughout the brain – on each step is a brand name and each ladder represents a different product category. You won’t get through unless you acknowledge your ladder, your step, and what position your competitors hold in the prospect’s mind. Operate in a vacuum ignorant of that landscape and you may as well be talking to a wall.
The book is chock-full of examples (albeit, all predating its 1981 publication, so it’s sort of a fun trip down memory lane), showing the successful practice of positioning of products, services, companies, even a country, and plenty of “how-not-to” market examples of complete failures. Protein 21 shampoo, Colgate 100, or Alka-2 ring a bell? Yeah, there’s a reason for that.
You’re able to see the complexities of each situation and how the concept of positioning increased the company’s share at the time, and, in some of cases, has continued to have lasting effects today.
Today, Positioning is regarded as a classic, but don’t let that make you think it’s outdated. It rings as true as ever as one of the most relevant communications lessons, so much so that Al Ries is still writing for Ad Age about the need to acknowledge your competitors and figure out how to be different.
It certainly remains relevant for us in our daily work at Braithwaite. These principles are at the very core of our storytelling approach. We’re always preaching that no one will remember your sales messages, but they will remember your story. And that’s because that story we help clients uncover is, as Ries and Trout describe, “retying the connections that already exist” in the prospect’s mind to make what you’re wanting to get through to them meaningful, relevant and worth remembering. You don’t just want a message to go in one ear and out the other, you want a favorable position to hold strong in their mind.
Here are highlights from Positioning that struck a chord in the mind of our own storytellers.
Shelly Orlacchio, Account Supervisor
I hate to call it required reading, because every college course syllabus made that out to be drudgery, but this truly is a must-read, not just for those in “the business,” but for anyone looking to make a lasting impression – politicians, religious leaders, teachers.
Heck, even parents might have a better chance of getting through to their kids if they apply the strategies of positioning.
What I love most about this book is that after it takes you through endless examples in the advertising world, it boils it down to the most obvious application of positioning – you. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been in the working world for three days, three years or three decades, if we can’t position ourselves, then we’re as lost as the companies whose messaging we reject on a daily basis.
Here are Ries and Trout’s principles of positioning as they can be applied to you and your career.
1. Define yourself – We try to be all things to all people. That’s the first mistake. Find the one specific concept that defines who you are in order to get through the mind of indifference. Ries and Trout admit it isn’t easy, but the rewards can be great.
2. Make mistakes – “Anything worthwhile doing, is worthwhile doing lousy,” the book imparts. If we hold back out of fear of having to do everything perfectly, then we’ll miss out on great opportunities.
3. Make sure your name is right – Ries and Trout believe a name is the most important marketing decision a brand must make. In this case, you’re the product and your parents the brand (I hope they chose wisely). How important? Well, they ask, would Marion Morrison have gone as far as he did in show business if he wasn’t John Wayne? Changing your name is on the extreme end of the spectrum, but at least decide if you’re going by your full name, a nickname, your middle name, and stick to it. Don’t let others decide for you.
4. Avoid the no-name trap – Still on the naming theme, Ries and Trout wrote that many people (just as with companies) fall victim to “initialitus” – shortening their names to initials – but initials can only be used if everyone knows who you already are and what they stand for. If you’re trying to burn your name into the minds of others, Positioning asserts you need a name, not a set of initials.
5. Avoid the line-extension trap – Did I mention how important a name is for successful positioning? Important enough that we’re still on it. By definition, a product line extension is the use of an established product brand name for a new item in the same category (e.g., Coke, Diet Coke, Cherry Coke). That works in some cases for products, but Reis and Trout are strongly against a line-extension in family naming devices, meaning a suffix like “junior” doesn’t allow for a separate identity. I think this can be stretched beyond the literal name and also speak to the fact that you should avoid riding on coattails or living in someone’s shadow. To me that could feel like a line-extension trap, so separate yourself.
6. Find a horse to ride – To get ahead, the book says it’s not about working harder, but working smarter. This means utilizing what/who is around you to help get you to where you want to be. By no means does this imply that you’re taking the easy way out, but rather putting yourself in the best circumstances and surrounding yourself with the best people to elevate your game.
What’s the point of ending the book on the application of positioning on you and your career? To show we have to practice what we preach.
Ben Guell, Marketing Intern
In Positioning, the old adage of the Four Ps of marketing is still present, because without understanding the product, recognizing its placement within the market, finding the right price point, and executing promotional efforts, an idea would rarely take off. Ries and Trout expand on that with the idea of positioning.
According to Ries and Trout, positioning is influential because it targets someone’s mindset. This means that positioning is used to discover what the competition is not talking about and then inserts these points into a consumer’s mindset.
One example of this in practice is Avis, then the second largest car rental service within the United States, which brought this innovating messaging concept to life by shifting the consumer’s mindset while embracing their current marketplace position.
At times it’s tough being No. 2 – just ask anyone with an older sibling – but Avis learned to embrace its second place positioning behind Hertz. During the early 1960s, Avis was lagging behind Hertz by a 32% sales margin and knew that their chances of overcoming the gap were slim. As a result of these positioning obstacles, Avis created the slogan “When you’re only No. 2, you try harder.” Praised due to its honest nature and customer focus approach, Avis’ slogan remained mindful of their current position and it paid off.
In only three years, Avis closed the sale gap to 13% and Hertz became fearful that their positioning was in jeopardy. Avis’ success showed that companies should not be afraid to embrace their true positioning because it’s not always about overcoming others – it’s sometimes about embracing current positioning that could lead to future improvement.
(For what it’s worth, this was more than 35 years ago. Avis is currently ranked third among car rental companies by revenue, locations and fleet size.)
I also couldn’t help but compare the concept to one of my favorite childhood games, “Connect Four.” Just like deciding to position your black or red disc, marketing and communications positioning is about finding those gaps that your competition isn’t thinking of, and then converting those opportunities into a win.
Christina Sebastiao, Marketing Intern
One of my favorite aspects of the book is that it also contextualized positioning on a larger, ideological scale. It’s one thing to sell consumer goods and services, but how does one market an entire country?
Ries and Trout address this question through a case study on Sabena Belgian World Airlines, which only flew to Belgium, a nation that was consistently falling short in the tourism industry when compared to popular European attractions like Paris, Rome, London and Amsterdam.
Ries and Trout had a clever idea – to encourage more air traffic directly to Belgium, rebrand the country, not the airline. Most Americans knew little of Belgium, and the only mental image they had of the country – it’s brand, in essence – was Belgian waffles.
Their solution: point out that while Michelin Guides listed five Belgian cities worth “a special journey,” it only list one in Holland – Amsterdam. Their proposal was, “In beautiful Belgium, there are five Amsterdams.”
Unfortunately, their proposal never saw the light of day – new management cancelled the concept before takeoff, so to speak. Ries and Trout’s takeaway from the situation? “A successful positioning program requires a major long-term commitment by the people in charge.”
A year after Positioning was first released, the airline released new advertisements, based entirely on their products, such as boasting about their inflight service. We can only assume Ries and Trout were shaking their heads. The airline went bankrupt in 2001.
Natalie Dowd, Marketing Intern
What first struck me is how much our approach to storytelling parallels positioning. An audience remembers stories rather than facts and figures because they cater to emotions. Telling a story gives a brand the voice to be heard in the marketplace, as it conveys the message and attitude of a brand in a concise, creative and most importantly, simple way. This aspect of simplicity is a message that Positioning stresses in order for a brand to position itself in the minds of prospects.
I found it most interesting how the book related positioning beyond traditional marketing and showed how it can be effective in politics, religion and all kinds of personal situations. Positioning an idea through language, visuals, and, of course, storytelling, is not only a crucial lesson in marketing, can be beneficial across all communication outlets.