Almost 40 years ago, Al Ries and Jack Trout wrote a series of articles in Advertising Age that introduced the concept of Positioning which became their ground-breaking first book, Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, a marketing classic. As part of my series of posts on which fundamentals of marketing have really changed or are no longer relevant, I wanted to look at the concept of Positioning to see where it fits.
Before we look at how the concept may have changed, I want to define positioning so we are all on the same page. Ries and Trout define positioning as "...not what you do to the product. Positioning is what you do to the mind of the prospect. That is, you position the product in the mind of the prospect." Or, put another way, "positioning is an organized system for finding a window in the mind."
When Ries and Trout wrote the book, they argued that previous strategies were no longer working because there were too many products and too much noise. If that was the case 30 years ago, then you can easily see how much more important positioning is today as the number of products, noise and distractions have increased exponentially.
So what were some of the key elements of effective positioning and do they still apply today? First and foremost, to do positioning properly you need to look at it from the perspective of your prospect not your product. It's all about the mind of the prospect and what word or words they remember or associate with your product. Starting with your product will not work here, and while many companies do that today, if they start with their prospects mind then the positioning will be more effective.
The second key element is that you need to simplify the message so that it can find and keep a spot in the overcrowded mind of your prospect. Ries and Trout argue that the best way to do this is to be first. There are good examples on both sides of how you can remember the first to do something versus whether the company that created a product first is the one that was the most successful. However, if you think of the goal here as being the first to own the concept or category in the mind of the prospect then you understand how effective postioning works.
The last positioning element that I want to explore in this post (there are others in the book) is that it's very important to look at your competition when developing your positioning strategy. You need to understand what position they own in the mind of your prospects so that you can find another position to be first in or find a way to reposition your competition. Trying to be like your competition will never work as the mind won't remember you or in the very best case rank you behind the competition.
Unlike the 4 Ps which need to change or be used differently today, positioning is a fundamental of marketing that is still very much needed today and the way to do it effectively can be easily adapted for the new tools and communications vehicles we have today. In fact, Trout published Repositioning: Marketing in an Era of Competition, Change and Crisis a couple of years ago to update and retool the strategies. The main issue I see with positioning today is that fewer companies are doing it well so this is one fundamental that every company would be wise to revisit.