Book Report: Positioning

Positioning - The Battle For Your MindThe first step in any positioning program is to look inside the mind of the prospect…Most positioning programs are nothing more or less than a search for the obvious. Yet the obvious is easy to miss if you zero in too quickly on the product itself.” (Positioning – p149)

Title: Positioning

Author: Al Ries and Jack Trout

Publisher: McGraw Hill

Publication Date: 2001

Origin: Positioning came highly recommended by a colleague, and I’ve heard it pop up from time to time in other circles (e.g., cited by speakers, referenced in marketing training, etc.).  Plus, I thoroughly enjoyed The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, by the same duo.

Summary: In Positioning, Ries and Trout introduce the reader to an outside-in approach to marketing, in which the marketer starts not with the product but with the prospect’s mind; specifically, with the limited number of positions available on each category ladder in the prospect’s mind. The general idea is that prospects have limited memory spaces, tend to categorize, and tend to have a hierarchy (the ladder), and the goal of the marketer should be to secure a spot high up on the ladder. To achieve this, the marketer must consider the prospect’s mind, rather than the product, and build campaigns to acquire empty spaces on ladders, create new ladders (and thereby be at the top), and dislodge (reposition) existing entrants. In Ries and Trout style, the authors provide supporting evidence in the form of business and marketing examples and case studies, and go beyond the theoretical to provide a how-to guide for the reader.

My Take: In a nutshell, I very much enjoyed Positioning. The examples are memorable, the theory is backed up with examples (and in a prime example of confirmation bias aligns with my own observations of industry and advertising). The repetition of certain themes and ideas is more useful and illustrative than annoying, and the chapters progress logically and address concerns/questions as they pop into the reader’s head. As you can tell from the extensive list of notes and quotes, below, my copy of Positioning is quite marked-up now.

Read This Book If: You work in marketing, or have a casual (e.g., “marketing is neat!”) or vested (e.g., “I own my own business!”) interest in marketing.

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Notes and Quotes:

  • p2, on why everyone who looks with disdain upon advertising is ignorant: “To many intellectuals, advertising is selling your soul to corporate America – a subject not worthy of serious study. In spite of its reputation, or perhaps because of it, the field of advertising is a superb testing ground for theories of communication. If it works in advertising, most likely it will work in politics, religion, or any other activity that requires mass communication.”
  • p6, in what will become a repeated point throughout the book: “In general, the mind accepts only that which matches prior knowledge or experience.
  • p8: “In communication, as in architecture, less is more. You have to sharpen your message to cut into the mind. You have to jettison the ambiguities, simplify the message, and then simplify it some more if you want to make a long-lasting impression.”
  • p8, on outside-in: “…concentrate on the perception of the prospect.  Not the reality of the product.”
  • p32, on the importance of relating to what’s already in the prospect’s mind: “The mind has no room for what’s new and what’s 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.” Here’s an example: “7up, the un-cola”
  • p34, makes me think being psychic would be a strong skill in marketing: “To find a unique position, you must ignore conventional logic. Conventional logic says you find your concept inside yourself or inside the product. Not true. What you must do is look inside the prospect’s mind.”
  • p43, echoing a lesson from The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing“History shows that the first brand into the brain, on the average, gets twice the long-term share of the No. 2 brand and twice again as much as the No. 3 brand. And the relationships are not easily changed.” Watch out, though, as someone will pull an exception out and try to dismiss the rule. Don’t let them.
  • p46, on what to do if you’re already number one: “Much better is to enhance the product category in the prospect’s mind.” In other words, don’t go touting that you’re number one; instead, look to build the size of the pie, not your share.
  • p47: “The essential ingredient in securing the leadership position is getting into the mind first. The essential ingredient in keeping that position is reinforcing the original concept.”
  • p47, on what a leader should do when faced with a new competitive development: “This means a leader should swallow his or her pride and adopt every new development as soon as shows signs of promise.”
  • p48, describing a classic mistake of a leader, using the example of Xerox“This is the classic mistake made by the leader. The illusion that the power of the product is derived from the power of the organization. It’s just the reverse. The power of the organization is derived from the power of the product, the position that the product owns in the prospect’s mind.”
  • p51: “Leadership is not the end of a positioning program. It’s only the start. Leaders are in the best position to exploit opportunities as they arise. Leaders should constantly use the power of their leadership to keep far ahead of the competition.”
  • p53: “It’s not enough to be better than the competitor. You must introduce your product before someone else has a chance to establish leadership.”
  • p54 prompted the post Don’t Mind the Gap – Find It!

“Don’t try to trick the prospect. Advertising is not a debate, it’s a seduction. The prospect won’t sit still for the finer points of verbal logic.” (p60)

  • p62, but what to do if the ladder in the prospect’s mind is already full? “To move a new idea or product into the mind, you must first move an old one out.”
  • p63, on how: “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.”
  • p63, another reason why advertising is fun as hell! “The late Howard Gossage used to say that the objective of your advertising should not be to communicate with your consumers and prospects at all, but to terrorize your competition’s copywriters.”
  • p66: “A look at comparative ads suggests why most of them aren’t effective. They fail to reposition the competition.”
  • p71: “In the positioning era, the single most important marketing decision you can make is what to name the product.”
  • p72, with a great starting point: “What you must look for is a name that begins the positioning process, a name that tells the prospect what the product’s major benefit is.”
  • p75, with a bit more on naming: “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.”
  • p78-79: “The name is the first point of contact between the message and the mind. It’s not the goodness or badness of the name in an esthetic sense that determines the effectiveness of the message. It’s the appropriateness of the name.”
  • p85 touches on the bane of all product marketers in tech companies: the tendency of the audience to resort to phonetic shorthand
  • p88: “A company must be extremely well known before it can use initials successfully.” Remember that IBM and GE were famous with their long-form names before things got condensed.
  • p89: “Positioning is like the game of life. A long-term proposition. Name decisions made today may not bear fruit until many, many years in the future.”
  • p97: “If you get into the mind first, any name is going to work. If you didn’t get there first, you are flirting with disaster if you don’t select an appropriate name.”

“When a really new product comes along, it’s almost always a mistake to hang a well-known name on it. The reason is obvious. A well-known name got well known because it stood for something. It occupies a position in the prospect’s mind. A really well-known name sits on the top rung of a sharply defined ladder. The new product, if it’s going to be successful, is going to require a new ladder. New ladder, new name. It’s as simple as that.” (p98, on why a new product needs a new name, and why you should avoid the free-ride trap)

  • p99: “It’s the teeter-totter principle. One name can’t stand for two distinctly different products. When one goes up, the other goes down.”
  • p103, on why line extension is usually a bad idea: “From the prospect’s point of view, line extension works against the generic brand position. It blurs the sharp focus of the brand in the mind.”

“Inside-out thinking is the biggest barrier to success. Outside-in thinking is the best aid.” (p104)

  • p105, relating to the quote on p103: “The great strength of a generic brand name is this close identification with the product itself. In the consumer’s mind, Bayer is aspirin and every other aspirin brand becomes ‘imitation Bayer’.”
  • p108, on why those previous quotes are important: “This, of course, is the essence of positioning. To make your brand name stand for the generic. So the prospect freely uses the brand name for the generic.”
  • p121: “…for every product there are two points of view.” (the company’s, and the prospect’s)
  • p136: “In the positioning game you can’t sit still. You must constantly be alert to keep your position targeted to today’s problems and today’s markets.”
  • p138 provides an example of Sabena airlines. They had to increase travel to Belgium to increase travel on their airline. This example illustrates why sometimes you have to ask yourself a question like, “Where does my product take you?” to come up with the right message.
  • p141, reinforcing how important it is to relate to what’s already in the prospect’s mind: “In any positioning program, if you can start with a strongly held perception, you’ll be that much ahead in your efforts to establish your own position.”
  • p149, in case we’re not yet getting this point: “The first step in any positioning program is to look inside the mind of the prospect.”
  • p149, continuing: “Most positioning programs are nothing more or less than a search for the obvious. Yet the obvious is easy to miss if you zero in too quickly on the product itself.”
  • p152: “The solution to a positioning problem is usually found in the prospect’s mind, not in the product.”
  • p158, after illustrating some situations in which people moved away from positioning themes that were effective, because they thought the themes were old: “Your problem is not just one of developing a good strategy. Equally important is the courage you will need to keep hammering at the same theme, year after year.”

“More often than not…it can be exceedingly helpful to map the prospect’s mind by means of formal positioning research. Helpful not only in developing the strategy, but in selling the strategy to top management. (The chief executive who has spent 30 years with one company will obviously see that company differently than a prospect whose total exposure over the same 30 years can be measured in minutes or even seconds.)” (p160, never underestimate internal resistance)

  • p163: “Conventional thinking is not positioning thinking. Positioning theory says you must start with what the prospect is willing to give you.”
  • p168 describes why a smaller player should position against the weaknesses of the larger players (hint: the larger players have positions already in the prospect’s mind)
  • p171, positioning isn’t just marketing, and isn’t just advertising: “The essence of a good positioning strategy is that it transcends every aspect of a company. You know you have a winner when you run it up the corporate flagpole and everyone salutes.”
  • p175: “When you use a recognized authority to give your product or service credibility, you are tapping a fundamental aspect of human nature. There’s security in not having to trust your own judgment.”
  • p178, on why a unifying theme is vitally important: “While much effort had been expended in improving techniques, the programs lacked a strong central theme or any continuity. (An especially serious problem in an era of electronic overcommunication.)”
  • p184, on why you shouldn’t fear failure: “Your reputation will probably be better within the company if you try many times and succeed sometimes than if you fear failure and only try for sure things.”
  • p187, as a lesson in positioning yourself and your career: “No matter how brilliant you are, it never pays to cast your lot with a loser…You can’t do it yourself. If your company is going nowhere, get yourself a new one.”
  • p188: “Ask yourself the same questions about your boss as you asked yourself about your company. Is he or she going anywhere? If not, who is? Always try to work for the smartest, brightest, most competent person you can find.”
  • p189, here’s one to remember: “On the night before he died, Victor Hugo wrote in his diary, ‘Nothing, not all the armies of the world, can stop an idea whose time has come.'”

“One indication of the validity of a principle is the vigor and persistence with which it is opposed. If people see that a principle is obvious nonsense and easy to refute, then they tend to ignore it. On the other hand, if the principle is difficult to refute, and it cause them to question some of their own basic assumptions with which their names may be identified, they have to go out of their way to find something wrong with it.” (p190, quoting the psychologist Charles Osgood)

  • p193: “Positioning is thinking in reverse. Instead of starting with yourself, you start with the mind of the prospect. Instead of asking what you are, you ask what position you already own in the mind of the prospect.”
  • p195, on the importance of being and standing out as a specialist: “In your own career, it’s easy to make the same mistake. If you try to be all things to all people, you wind up with nothing. Better to narrow the focus of your expertise. To establish a unique position as a specialist, not as a jack-of-all-trades generalist.”
  • p196, on standing out in a crowded marketplace: “Often to create a viable position, you must reposition another brand or even an entire category of products…Coming to grips with competition is the main problem in most marketing situations.”
  • p199, outside-in: “…And what does the outsider provide? An ingredient called ignorance. In other words, objectivity. By not knowing what goes on inside a company, the outsider is better able to see what is happening on the outside. In the mind of the prospect. The outsider is naturally attuned to outside-in thinking, while the insider is more comfortable with inside-out thinking.”
  • p203, on the importance of words and actually influencing the thinking process (something I truly believe marketers can do – we can create the framework by which prospects actually think and evaluate products): “Language is the currency of the mind. To think conceptually, you manipulate words. With the right choice of words, you can influence the thinking process itself.”
  • p205, on being first in the mind: “When you trace the history of how leadership positions were established, from Hershey in chocolate to Hertz in rent-a-cars, the common thread is not marketing skill or even innovation. The common thread is seizing the initiative before the competitor has a chance to get established. The leader usually poured in the marketing money while the situation was still fluid.”
  • p208: “The essence of positioning is sacrifice. You must be willing to give up something in order to establish that unique position.”

Lee Brooks is the founder of Cromulent Marketing, a boutique marketing agency specializing in crafting messaging, creating content, and managing public relations for B2B technology companies.

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Posted in Advertising, Books, Leadership, Marketing
4 comments on “Book Report: Positioning
  1. […] of some of the ideas explained by Al Ries and Jack Trout in Positioning and The 22 Immutable Laws of […]

  2. […] “In the positioning era, the single most important marketing decision you can make is what to name the product.”  – Al Ries and Jack Trout, in Positioning […]

  3. […] It’s amazing how many of the books I read share common examples.  For instance, to illustrate this rule Luntz refers to Avis’ campaign tagline of “We try harder”, which was used successfully for decades.  Ries and Trout cite this same example in Positioning. […]

  4. Clear2Go says:

    I will add this to my list of books to read … I have 3 on the go right now, none of which are technical (shocked even myself when I type it ;))

    I like your format though … it reminds me of book reports I had to do in elementary school, where they gave you a simlar format. Haven’t seen them in a while. I like it though, it makes it quite clear. It also makes it quite clear what a detailed individual you are Lee!


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