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Over the years, “positioning” has become a highly used word in marketing, but as I watch what companies say, I wonder if anyone understands what I’ve been writing about these many years. That said, maybe it’s time to clarify things: Positioning is how you differentiate yourself in the mind of your prospect. It’s also a body of work on how the mind works in the process of communications. The first words on this subject go back to 1969 when I wrote an article in Industrial Marketing magazine entitled “Positioning is a game people play in today’s me-too marketplace.” (Here’s an untold secret: I chose the word “positioning” because of a dictionary’s definition of strategy: “Finding the most advantageous position against the enemy.”) Since then, I’ve written a number of books on the subject, but let me boil it down to the five most important elements in the positioning process.

1. Minds are limited.
Like the memory bank of a computer, the mind has a slot or position for each bit of information that it has chosen to retain. In operation, the mind is a lot like a computer, but there is one important difference: A computer has to accept what you put into it; the mind does not. The human mind rejects information that does not match its prior knowledge or experience, but it doesn’t have much prior knowledge or experience to work with. In our over-communicated society, the human mind is a totally inadequate container, so you must be very careful with your message and be aware of what is already in the mind about you and your competitors.

2. Minds hate confusion.
What’s the secret to being remembered? To keep it simple. We tend to think of boredom as arising from a lack of stimuli, a sort of information under load. But more and more commonly, boredom is arising from excessive stimulation or information overload. It’s a problem of complexity. Information, like energy, tends to degrade into entropy, into just noise, redundancy and banality. To put it another way, the fast horse of information outruns the slow horse of meaning. Complicated answers don’t help anybody. Every executive wants information because the difference between a decision and a guess oft en comes down to information, but today’s executives don’t want to be buried alive in printouts and reports. So it is with your marketing.

3. Minds are insecure.
Minds tend to be emotional, not rational. Why do people buy what they buy? Why do people act the way they do in the marketplace? According to psychologists Robert Settle and Pamela Alreck in their book Why They Buy, customers don’t know, or they won’t say. When you ask people why they made a particular purchase, the responses they give are oft en not very accurate or useful. That may mean that they really do know, but they’re reluctant to tell you the right reason. More oft en, they really don’t know precisely what their own motives are. My experience is that people don’t know what they want. (So why ask them?) More times than not, people buy what they think they should have. Do most people really need a four-wheel-drive vehicle? (No.) If they did, why didn’t they become popular years ago? (Not fashionable.)

4. Minds don’t change.
A general feeling in the marketing industry has always been that new-product advertising should generate higher interest than advertising for established brands. But it turns out that we’re actually more impressed by what we already know (or buy) than by what’s “new.” With thousands of different commercials across hundreds of different brands, you can pretty much rule out “creativity” as the difference in persuasion. A book entitled Attitudes and Persuasion, by Richard Petty and John Cacioppo, spends some time on why minds are so hard to change: “The nature and structure of belief systems is important from the perspective of an informational theorist because beliefs are thought to provide the cognitive foundation of an attitude. In order to change an attitude, then, it is presumably necessary to modify the information on which that attitude rests. It is generally necessary, therefore, to change a person’s beliefs, eliminate old beliefs or introduce new beliefs.” And you’re going to do all that with a 30-second commercial?

5. Minds can lose focus.
In days gone by, most big brands were clearly perceived by their customers. The mind, like a camera, had a very clear picture of what its favorite brands were all about. When Anheuser-Busch proudly proclaimed that “This Bud’s For You!” the customer knew exactly what was being served. But in the past decade, Budweiser—and Miller and Coors—have flooded the market with regulars, lights, draft s, clears, cold brewed, dry-brewed and ice-brewed beers. Now the statement “This Bud’s for you” can only elicit the question, “Which one do you have in mind?” “Extending brand equity” has become all the rage, as companies like Coca-Cola talk about concepts such as “megabrands.” But such line extensions just exacerbate consumers’ loss of focus. In our 1972 Advertising Age articles, Al Ries and I cautioned companies not to fall into what we called “the line extension trap.” For years, we were the lone voices railing against line extensions. Even the Journal of Consumer Marketing noticed this: “Ries and Trout stand alone as the only outright critics of the practice of brand extension.” (Our minds don’t change.) That’s until the Harvard Business Review rendered their verdict: “Unchecked product-line extension can weaken a brand’s image, disturb trade relations and disguise cost increases.” Keep it up, guys.

Stand for something: Be a well-focused specialist.
In an increasingly competitive world, the well-focused competitor is usually the winner. The specialist can focus on one product, one benefit, one message, which enables the marketer to put a sharp point on the message that quickly drives it into the mind. Castrol can focus on its oil for high-performance small engines. Pennzoil and Quaker State are marketed for all types of engines. Another weapon of the specialist is the ability to be perceived as the expert or the best. Philadelphia is the best cream cheese. (The original, so to speak.) Finally, the specialist can become the “generic” for the category. Xerox became the generic word for copying. 3M’s Scotch tape became the generic word for cellophane tape. And now an online search comes down to, “Google it.” Even though the lawyers hate it, making the brand name a generic is the ultimate weapon in the marketing wars, but it’s something only a specialist can do. The generalist can’t become a generic. Nobody ever says, “Get me a beer from the GE.” While America has to re-learn positioning, China has decided to learn it. Recently, Peking University in China has put my positioning strategy material into its business school curriculum. China is moving from manufacturing to marketing with a vengeance. Look out, world.

by Jack Trout


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