To understand a concept deeply, you need to know The Greats.
Frankly, this is why I reluctantly reached out to “Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind” by Al Ries and Jack Trout. After all, the book was initially published in the 1970s, and a lot has changed. But I still found “Positioning” a useful read. Sure, it’s largely theoretical, especially if you compare it with April Dunford’s “Obviously Awesome”. But these two books are like two sides of the same coin.
If you plan to do any positioning work — or you need to understand positioning for your business — I’d definitely suggest you read “Positioning.” It’ll give you a much-needed contextualization of the very idea of positioning. And then chase it down with a more practical guide on how to actually position a product.
In this post, I’ve summarized the book’s key takeaways, along with some of my favorite quotes. Once you go through it, you’ll already have a good idea of what positioning actually is.
“Positioning is an organized system for finding a way into the mind.”
The one big thing about positioning
The most crucial concept Ries and Trout put in here is the understanding that positioning originates in the customer’s mind. It’s not about what you want to say – it’s about what customers are already thinking.
“The basic approach of positioning is not to create something new and different, but to manipulate what’s already up there in the mind, to retie the connections that already exist.”
The gist of it is simple. Our brains are overstimulated, and the markets are getting noisier and noisier. Customers need a simple message, and that’s the only message they’ll pay attention to and understand. “The prospect won’t sit still for the finer points of verbal logic,” Ries and Trout explain.
In this reality, the only way to succeed is to bank on ideas already germinating in the customer’s mind – and build on top of them to our benefit. In this sense, positioning is a process of discovery, not invention.
“Since so little of your message is going to get through anyway, you ignore the sending side and concentrate on the receiving end. You concentrate on the perceptions of the prospect. Not the reality of the product.”
In my experience, this is a hard thing for teams to swallow. But it doesn’t matter how you want to position the product or what your expert opinion is. What customers think your product is matters.
The three eras of positioning
To drive that point further, Ries and Trout take us on a journey through the ages:
- In the 1950s, marketing was in the product era. Businesses wanted to focus people’s attention on product features and customer benefits.
- The next phase was the image era. Companies found that reputation was more important in selling a product than any specific product feature. This is the proper start of commercial PR and branding.
- Then, we arrive at the positioning era. Here, having a superior product or good reputation is not as vital as being first to get into the prospect’s mind.
“IBM didn’t invent the computer. Sperry-Rand did,” the authors explain, “But IBM was the first company to build a computer position in the mind of the prospect.” And this example is essential because it shows this isn’t a race to be first on the market. It’s about creating that link in people’s minds between your brand and your product category. Remember, perceptions trump reality.
These three eras resemble the “Stages of Market Sophistication” concept from Eugene M. Schwartz’s “Breakthrough Advertising.”
Why positioning is so hard
“Experience has shown that a positioning exercise is a search for the obvious. Those are the easiest concepts to communicate because they make the most sense to the recipient of a message. Unfortunately, obvious concepts are also the most difficult to recognize and to sell. The human mind tends to admire the complicated and dismiss the obvious as being too simplistic.”
This quote I found towards the end of the book is an excellent recap of positioning’s perils. It’s about focusing on the customer and figuring out how to leverage what they already think. You use their beliefs to win a solid but simple place in their world. Because the simpler it is, the more easily accessible it is.
“Positioning is thinking in reverse. Instead of starting with yourself, you start with the mind of the prospect. It’s much easier to work with what’s already there.”
One thing I find infuriating in this book is the fact that all the examples fall in the “hindsight 20/20” category. Sure, one beer brand managed to become a leader in the light beer category, and another didn’t. But why? How did it work? How did they find the right strategy?
And nowhere is this issue more visible than with the advice of “being first.” But it’s true that finding a way to position yourself as the top dog is a successful approach.
There are still ways to position yourself from the place of a follower, but it takes effort and requires deep pockets. So Ries and Trout advise us to “find something to be first in.” You know, “big fish in a small pond” style – and then working to increase the size of the pond. We’ve heard this approach from Seth Godin’s “long tail” and the trendy approach of “category creation” all the tech companies are trying to pull off.
“In positioning, smaller may be better. It is usually better to look for smaller targets that you can own exclusively rather than a bigger market you have to share with three or four other brands.”
There’s a big “but” here. “You can’t build a leadership position on your own terms,” the authors say. You need to find a category people actually care about. Being a personal branding expert for dentists in German-speaking countries can be a way to do it. But “The best-selling under-$1000 high-fidelity system east of the Mississippi” isn’t something anyone will ever want.
And a reminder: this is all about being first in the prospect’s mind, not being first to market.
Expanding the market
When you’re first, it doesn’t make sense to shout, “We’re number 1!” This should be self-evident. This is why most leader brands focus on enhancing the product category. After all, they stand to gain the most if the market expands.
“IBM’s advertising usually ignores competition and sells the value of computers. All computers, not just the company’s types,” the authors explain. And that’s true even when creating an entirely new category from scratch. SaaS platform Drift talks about the value of conversational marketing, a category it created. It hopes to expand the interest in the category and then defend the leader position.
Being an “anti-thing”
Sometimes, to win a new position, you need to link it to an existing one.
“The mind has no room for what’s new and different unless it’s related to the old. That’s why if you have a truly new product, it’s often better to tell the prospect what the product is not, rather than what it is.”
The simplest way to do this is to say what ingredients, components, or practices you’re not using. “Sugar-free” and “dairy-free” are good examples of this. The strategy can also take shape when you detach yourself from the product category. Coca-Cola positioned 7-Up as “the uncola” and in that way created a new but adjacent playing field. We can link this to HubSpot’s success with “inbound marketing.”
Repositioning against a competitor
Ries and Trout get us to think of product categories as a ladder. Brands are positioned at each step of the ladder. The closer you are to the top, the more business you’ll get because customers recognize your brand, not your competitors, as the first in the market.
To topple a competitor from higher up the ladder, you must change their positioning in the customer’s mind.
“For a repositioning strategy to work, you must say something about your competitor’s product that causes the prospect to change his or her mind, not about your product, but about the competitor’s product.”
Avis and their famous “We try harder” slogan are a great example. It was designed to reposition the leader Hertz as complacent and disinterested. Thus, Avis became “the first second car rental company.”
Changing the positioning
Establishing a position is only half the battle. In fact, you need to continue monitoring the market and defending your place in the competitive landscape.
Adding a new brand
“Most leaders should cover competitive moves by introducing another brand,” say Ries and Trout. This gives the company the freedom to cover other fields in the prospect’s mind while keeping a strong position in their leadership role.
“When times change, when new products come and go, no effort is made to change the position… Rather a new product is introduced to reflect changing technologies and changing tastes.”
Changing the name
“Sometimes a name change will help bridge the gap from one era to the next. By broadening the name, you can allow the company to make the mental transition.”
This is a winning strategy for companies that originated as one thing but later broadened their scope and occupied new spots. It enables a controlled transition that will help you keep existing customers and bring in new ones.
Often, such a change is forced on the company through the changing landscape. The Direct Mail Association – an organization of mail marketers – changed its name to The Direct Mail-Marketing Association and then to The Direct Marketing Association. The new name reflects that there are many different modes of direct marketing their experts cover now.
Changing the use
Leaders can also benefit by broadening the range of applications for their products. Ries and Trout point to baking soda being used as a refrigerator freshener. If you want a more tech-forward example, think of the automation tool Zapier that works for marketers and salespeople alike.
Finding a niche
If you’re a follower in your desired market, you can still win at positioning – if you find the right niche (or, as the authors call it, “creneau”).
Two of the most common creneaus are related to price. High-priced luxury alternatives to common brands and low-priced incumbents that are perceived as a good deal. There are others, of course:
- Size – mobile phones were getting smaller and smaller until a large screen became an advantage,
- Appealing to an underserved segment (“cigarettes designed for women”),
- Distribution channel,
- Time of day (“Niquil – the first cold remedy you take at night”),
- Designed for heavy users…
My issue with all of these is that, in retrospect, they are obvious wins – but you can’t know if customers will be interested in them in advance. And the authors don’t say how do you know.
“In a physical sense, the name is also like the point of a knife. It opens up the mind to let the message penetrate. With the right name, the product fills the creneau and stays there.”
A rose is a rose, as Shakespeare says. But Ries and Trout believe having the right name is crucial for success.
“You have to select names that are almost, but not quite, generic,” they say. A strong name is familiar, easy to pronounce, and relies on an association between the brand and category. If you’re a bit of a gossip, you want to know what other people are up to – so you read People magazine.
According to the authors, good names hint at what you do. You should only use a novel brand name in new product categories. “Only when you are first in the mind with an absolutely new product that millions of people are certain to want can you afford the luxury of a mean-nothing name. Then, of course, any name would work.”
Naming by association
Ries and Trout point out that sometimes you need to connect yourself to an existing category to look like a viable alternative to it. This also shows you’re proud of the innovation.
Margarine is a coined term that sounds weird and deceptive. “Soy butter” shows that it’s a viable alternative to butter, and you can then extol the benefits of soy vs. cow butter.
Initials and abbreviations
The authors aren’t big on initials. And with good reason. They only work if the brand has enough recognition before it gets shortened.
Naming a line-extension
When a new product from the same company hits the market, sticking the existing winning name on it is tempting. But this can create confusion for customers. If Xerox is a synonym for copiers and we then add Xerox computers, what does Xerox even stand for?
“After the initial recognition of a line-extension brand, the prospect is never quite sure there is such a product. Easy come, easy go. Line-extension names are forgettable because they have no independent position in the mind. Their only contribution is to blur the position occupied by the original name.”
There are some situations where a line-extension name can work. It’s all about focus. Here’s how to decide if you need a line-extension name or a new brand:
- Expected volume. Potential winners should not bear the house name. Small-volume products should.
- Competition. In a vacuum, the brand should not bear the house name. In a crowded field, it should.
- Advertising support. Big-budget brands should not bear the house name. Small-budget brands should.
- Significance. Breakthrough products should not bear the house name. Commodity products such as chemicals should.
- Distribution. Off-the-shelf items should not bear the house name. Items sold by sales reps should.
Here are a few of the main mistakes Ries and Trout outline:
Fighting with a leader
To win a position someone else already owns is ridiculously difficult. It is doable but requires so much money and time that it’s virtually impossible.
“If your proposed position calls for a head-to-head approach against a marketing leader, forget it. It’s better to go around an obstacle rather than over it. Back up. Try to select a position that no one else has a firm grip on.”
Going too broad
It’s tempting to go after a broad segment with broad positioning. But the broader you go, the fluffier and more forgettable your positioning gets.
“Sometimes you can want too much. You can want to own a position that’s too broad. A position that can’t be established in the prospect’s mind.”
Being cute instead of being clear
Above all else, you need to create a link between your brand and what the customer already knows. Being edgy or super-differentiated comes second.
The positioning process
In short, here are the questions you need to answer:
- What position do you own? – if you’re already on the market, people have an opinion of you. It’s much easier to work with what you already have.
- What position do you want to own? – too many programs set out to communicate a position that is impossible to win because someone else already owns it.
- Whom must you outgun? – you need to come to grips with the competition and figure out how to move around them rather than going head-to-head.
- Do you have enough money? – positioning requires money to establish and sustain.
- Can you stick it out? – you need to take a long-term view and work on your positioning for a while before seeing the results.
- Do you match your position? – your messaging, advertising, and even your corporate office need to match what you say you are.
To do this, you need:
- an understanding of the role of words and how they trigger behavior,
- vision of what you want to achieve,
- objectivity to assess the market and existing competitors,
- simplicity of thinking to explain your position in simple terms,
- subtle balance of creating a unique position and finding broad enough appeal,
Now, as long as you follow these questions and remember these qualities, you’re good to go.
Battling it out
“Positoning” will help you understand the concept’s origins and the fundamental tenets that are still true today. But the book leaves many questions unanswered – specifically around the how.
To bridge that gap, I have your next read right here: it’s called “Obviously Awesome.”