I’m a “self-trained” marketer, in that I don’t have a college degree specifically in marketing (it’s in Music Business). Since my freshman year of high school, I’ve devoured training courses, books, and the advice of mentors, applying as much as I could along the way. Lately, I’ve been digging into some of the classics on marketing theory and copywriting that I somehow missed along my journey thus far, and the endeavor recently took me to a certified classic, Positioning: The Battle For Your Mind by Al Ries and Jack Trout.
While some of the examples in the book are out of date (even in the 2001 refresh), the principles inside are still timeless- the book is recommended by so many different copywriters, marketers, and book lists like “The Personal MBA” that I knew I had to give it a read. But how relevant is “Positioning” in today’s business landscape? My conclusion is that while Positioning still had good advice to offer on copywriting, it could easily be mistaken for business strategy advice, where it falls flat and even could be bad advice.
Prior to reading the book, I initially used the term “positioning” in a different context/definition than the authors do here. I would use it in a context like, “how do we best position this?”, which basically meant, “how do we best package and present in an appealing way the value that this product/service has to offer?” Really, the authors (who popularized the term) define positioning as “how you differentiate yourself in the mind of your prospect”. Indeed, much of the book focuses on how to differentiate a brand or product, in contrast to my more internally-focused use of the word.
The authors actually warn against being internally focused towards the end of the book. They advocate for companies to be “they” focused, as opposed to “we” focused. “We” focused companies are internally focused, believing that all that’s needed for their success is a motivated application of the right tactics. “They” focused companies, on the other hand, are focused on their competition and finding competitive weaknesses.
Perhaps this is one of the key focuses on the book that doesn’t vibe with me as much. See, at the same time, I’ve been reading Blue Ocean Strategy– which suggests that the best strategy to follow is creating value innovation, as opposed to direct head-to-head competition. Companies who can value innovate create “blue oceans” for them to swim (and profit) in, as opposed to the bloody “red oceans” of direct competition on identical offers.
One of the examples of “positioning” that the authors tout the most is Avis’ “We Try Harder” campaign. By admitting to themselves that they’d never overtake Hertz as the #1 provider of rental cars, Avis instead positioned themselves as “trying harder”- they made being second best look the appealing to customers.
It’s great copywriting, but bad business strategy (it’s a red ocean through and through). Positioning can give your advertising/messaging a clever edge in a red ocean, but wouldn’t it be all the more effective when your product offering is truly differentiated (not just your copy)?
I think positioning is a good skill and psychological awareness to have in your back pocket as a copywriter/marketer, but not a business strategy to rely upon. I’d rather focus on swimming towards a blue ocean – when your value offering is completely unique, positioning takes care of itself.
Here are some of my key takeaways, still relevant as ever:
- Once somebody’s mind is made up, they’ll hate being told that they’re wrong. Presenting them with new information, however, is different. Take that as the path of least resistance when trying to change somebody’s mind
- Pure and simplified messages cut through best in today’s marketing-oversaturated world. Not poetry.
- Don’t fall into the F.W.M.T.S. trap – “Forgot What Made Them Successful”
- Don’t try to appeal to everybody. Find legitimate existing holes in the marketplace and fill them (whether based on size, higher/lower price, platform, etc)
- If you’re a leader, actively seek to enhance the category, cover your bets and react rapidly to new developments, broaden your scope, and consider multi-branding.
- Conventional wisdom says to work on and/or attack any perceived weaknesses you have. Positioning wisdom says to start with what the prospect is already willing to credit you with.
- People are “unsane”. “Insane” – changing reality to fit their notions. “Sane” – change their notions to fit reality. “Unsane” – “verify” their existing notions by selectively picking info or turning to “experts” to make up their minds for them.
Regardless of the focus you choose to take, Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind is still a classic for a reason, and it’s well worth the read for any aspiring entrepreneur, marketer, or copywriter. The actual structure of the book isn’t amazing, and the message gets repetitive at times, but it’s still a solid read- it’ll be beneficial to have the key ideas hammered into your head.