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Book review: Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind by Jack Trout and Al Ries

This is Part Two of my series of posts where I revisit classic sales and marketing books of the past to see how relevant they remain. Part One reviewed Al and Laura Ries’ 22 Immutable Laws of Branding, and this time around I take a look at Jack Trout and Al Ries’ Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind.

Positioning was originally published in 1980, so, as with 22 Immutable Laws, the examples are now long in the tooth. The authors’ central tenant, however, remains relevant: Companies must create a “position” in their prospects minds that takes into account an honest assessment of the firm’s strengths and weaknesses, and those of the competition.

Positioning against your competition

Trout and Ries assert that positioning is always in relation to your competition. You can’t devise an effective positioning without knowing the positioning of those with whom you compete. In addition, your product positioning needs to meet your prospects where their perceptions of you reside. A prime example is Avis. They recognized that Hertz was the category leader and to attack them head-on would be futile. Instead, they admitted they were number two and said, “We try harder.” The campaign was successful because they related themselves to the market leader without trying to change prospects’ minds about their perceptions of the rental car business.

You can create a position where none exists by repositioning your competitor. One of the best and most enduring examples of this is Tylenol, the advertising for which positioned the product as the pain reliever to take for those whose digestive systems were irritated by aspirin. Another effective campaign those of us of a certain age (ahem) will remember came from Scope, who used two words to reposition market leader Listerine: “Medicine breath.”

The line extension trap

In Trout and Ries’ view, line extensions, taking names of established products and using them for new ones, in many cases are “traps”. The authors site a multitude of examples where a company has tried to leverage a brand’s success in one product category in a different category, only to fail. In fact, a company attempting this faces a double whammy, in that the brand doesn’t successfully penetrate the new category and suffers dilution of its position in its primary category. Examples cited include using the Dial name, so significant in soap, for deodorant, and Life Savers gum from the candy maker. Neither succeeded to any significant degree.

Key takeaways

I came away from reading Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind with a lot to think about, but two key takeaways:

A renewed emphasis on understanding your competition’s business and positioning. In the crush of everyday job priorities, it becomes easy to overlook ongoing monitoring of what other businesses in your industry are doing and saying.

The notion that “The essence of positioning is sacrifice.” The book makes the point that a product can’t be all things to all people and have a powerful position. You have to give up something to get something. Consider Nyquil, the nighttime cold medicine. What did they give up? Being the daytime cold medicine.

This really hits home when I think about marketing for a healthcare system. Many service lines clamor for attention from Marketing, complicated further by the fact that individual hospitals often develop their programs differently from each other. But what can we expect a healthcare consumer to remember about one system, when there are formidable competitors in the market? Can someone be the cardio/neuro/GI/women’s services/ortho hospital for Dallas/Ft. Worth? Unlikely. So you have Baylor Scott & White carving out a position as “the heart hospital.” Of course, BS&W is much more than that, but being known for being great at cardio procedures provides an umbrella from which all their service lines benefit.

Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind probably provides more examples than you really need to understand the points being made, but I found it to be well worth my time, and even after almost 40 years will challenge your thinking about marketing issues you face.