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

‘Positioning is what you do to the mind of the prospect.  That is, you position the product in the mind of the prospect”

We live in a vastly overcommunicated society.  We not only actively seek out information and obtain it with minimal searching (Google Search, Text Messaging, etc.) but we are as well bombarded with information from the external environment (advertising, background noise, distractions).  It’s amazing to think that we can process all of this information.  We cannot.  We cheat.  Little shortcuts to make our life easier are used always.  Go to your local grocery store (or supermarket) and as soon as you step into the building you are assaulted with information: Comparative Ads, Slogans, Logos, Brand Name, Generic.  Have you ever taken time to look at each and every product and evaluate it?

If you have done so you need to spend more time outside of your grocery.  Those who avoid doing so will more than likely go after a brand they are familiar with and completely ignore the rest.  Why?  It is because you are cheating.  You are using knowledge gained from previously to help you make a decision.  “What kind of toothpaste do I want?  I just got another cavity and I’ve heard that Crest helps reduces cavities.  I’ll buy that.”

We have neither the time nor the mental faculties to evaluate everything and make the most economic of choices.  Using these shortcuts is a good thing!  A persons perception is something that they retain and can be altered but is very difficult.  Imagine someone trying to convince you to change your mind on Ford (A perception does not mean “purchasing behavior” but rather their beliefs and opinions which can affect purchasing behavior).  They tell you Ford makes amazing cars with great gas-mileage in comparison to other companies.  In your experiences you’ve seen nothing but gas-guzzling trucks from Ford.  It would take billions of dollars to change your mind about Ford.  The perception held of “gas-guzzling trucks” is one which would require Ford to turn away from Trucks and improve fuel-economy which goes against one of their main lines!

We assign information to words, images, logos, and more.  I know when I drive past a WalMart sign I perceive it to represent low prices for decent items.  The blue sign with white words on it has no meaning beyond what I assign to it.  It is my perception of the store.  This perception is what all companies should be looking to use to improve not only their advertising but their entire business strategy.

Jack Trout and Al Ries emphasize the importance of positioning by giving real world examples from their own career as well as what they would do if in the organizations position.

They begin with how to “get into” someones mind.  It’s simple on paper.  Be first.  They ask the question “Who was the first person to fly around the world?”  Charles Lindbergh of course.  Then they ask “Who was the second person to have done so?”  and then there is silence in your head.  There are very few “#2″s we know of in this world.  The key is to be the first in whatever you do.

“History shows that the first brand in to the brain, on the average, gets twice the long-term market share of the No.2 brand and twice again as much of the No.3 brand.”

Unfortunately for some products or services you’re operating in a market that is very old with already well-established leaders (i.e. the Big Three in American automotives or Harvard Law School).  What is the answer to this daunting situation?  It’s still Be first but in a new category.  This new category comes from what your prospect believes the company is.

To develop this category a company needs to look at what creneau (French for “hole”) there is to fill.  This creneau does not come from the Managers office.  Instead it is from the mind of the prospect.  Filling the creneau requires one to go against the grain.  If everyone is building big you must build small.  An example used was making the first masculine cigarette.  Marlbro left the idea of a unisex cigarette (trying to be everything to everyone) and went for a single niche and was then the first.

Trout and Ries use a great deal of examples of how they personally have succeeded and failed using positioning.  They also bring in “What-Ifs” to a degree.  They postulate if a company had done something different (i.e. gone with a different name, focused on their current strengths, etc.) the results would have been better (or worse).  My favorite was where they discussed positioning an entire country.  An airline which flew strictly to Belgium advertised the typical airline features.  Good food and good service.  They were doing poorly.

Belgium the country is barely known in the United States and the company itself advertised it as the “Gateway to Europe” instead of focusing on the positivies of Belgium itself.  After focusing on five cities which had been given high travel rankings by a third-party there was a boom in travel on the airline.  All due to focusing on the strengths of perceptions already held (focused on comparing to Amsterdam).

Trout and Ries summarized their book quite well with a list of questions to ask before you start a positioning campaign.

  • What positions do you already own?
  • What positions do you want to own?
  • Whom must you outgun?
  • Do you have enough money?
  • Can you stick it out?
  • Do you match your position?

I read the 20th anniversary edition which was published in 2001.  The book moste definitely shows its age.  It lacks modern development as well as the effects of Direct Marketing (how the idea of “Multi-brands” can come alive for a near individual basis).  I feel that there could be more said on the topic and was left hanging for more.  Their last chapter “Playing the Positioning Game” felt like a self-help book (which they admitted that they “have no credentials in the self-motivation business”) and was a poor cap for the great content preceeding it.

All in all this book was well written and a good introduction into positioning.  If you are a busy executive and want a rough course on positioning or you want to get your toes wet in the sea of knowledge this would be a good place to start.  The use of examples and hypotheticals truly made this book come alive for me.  Seeing the actual steps taken by various companies from Market Research (comparing to competitors of course), advertisment adjustment, and then the staggering results drilled the idea home for me.


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