By J.F. McKenna
The slightly worn trade paperback was wedged between newer hardbound business books. The title, in white lettering on the book’s black spine, was the gleam from a gold nugget — Positioning.
“You’ll never guess what I just found,” I told Lady Carol, my favorite fellow bibliophile. “An early paperback edition of Al Ries and Jack Trout’s best-known marketing book. It’s a classic.”
Carol was dutifully happy for my discovery. More than once had she allowed me to relate how a downtown restaurant had nearly ejected Trout and me from its premises. The marketing expert and I were too loud and demonstrative during a lunchtime interview in the early 1990s. A raconteur’s raconteur, Trout was promoting his and Ries’ latest effort, The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing. I was covering the marketing beat for Industry Week magazine and fully intended to enjoy every moment of Trout’s tutorial. Much to our server’s dismay.
As I gladly plunked down a mere four bits for my library-sale treasure last week, I recalled that Positioning is 30 years old. Likewise, I realized that Ries and Trout’s book indeed typifies the true classic. There have many advances in marketing en masse over the past three decades; some have proved better than others. The ideas in Positioning endure.
Today, too many marketers equate the application of stand-alone Web-marketing tools with the execution of a long-term strategy for winning customers. Graft on a lead-generation package here. Toss in the weekly blog there. Voila! marketing success. Reading Positioning is a sure cure for much of what I consider contemporary marketing myopia.
“There are just too many products, too many companies and too much marketing noise,” Ries and Trout wrote in 1981. That analysis might easily be found in text affixed to a website only last week. The market, just like human nature, hasn’t intrinsically changed because of 24/7 access on the Internet. (To quote my Uncle Leo, gentleman farmer and part-time philosopher, “the electric milker has saved some time, but the efforts by cow and farmer remain essentially the same.”)
Accordingly, any social-media maven would do well to consider the nicely aged wisdom of Ries and Trout:
“Positioning is not what you do to a product. Positioning is what you do to the mind of the prospect. That is, you position the product in the mind of the prospect.
“Not that positioning doesn’t involve change. It often does. But changes made in the name, the price and the package are not really changes in the product at all. They’re basically cosmetic changes done for the purpose of securing a worthwhile position in the prospect’s mind.”
From there, the authors expand on such concepts as “getting into the mind” and learning to reposition when competing with Numero Uno in the field. Their thoughts on repositioning are particularly valuable. According to Ries and Trout, “You can go around, under or over, but never head to head.” The dynamic duo of marketing supplements their guidance with many hard-learned examples from the business world.
Ries and Trout have gone their separate ways. You’ll find Ries (www.ries.com) working with daughter Laura and writing a column for Advertising Age. Trout (www.troutandpartners.com) labors from a Connecticut home base. Still, much like Mantle and Maris in 1961 baseball, they will never shed their conjoined reputation as the creators of Positioning. Nor should they.
Since 1993, my one-time lunch companion has continued to proselytize about taking the straight and sure path to marketing success. In a 2008 Forbes column, Trout pointed out that “researchers don’t get paid for simplicity. Instead, they seem to get paid by the pound.” He added: “People often talk one way but act another. Mark Twain nailed it when he observed: ‘You can’t get the truth out of someone until they are dead and dead a long time.’ What you really want to get is a quick snapshot of the perceptions that exist in the mind. Not deep thoughts, not suggestions. What you’re after are the perceptual strengths and weaknesses of your competitors, as they exist in the minds of the target group of consumers.”
To the myopic in marketing today — those supremely, if erroneously, confident that the latest social-media tools alone with earn them professional kudos — let me offer Ries and Trout’s parting shot from their classic:
“In our over-communicated society, the name of the game today is positioning.
“And only the better players are going to survive.”
J.F. McKenna is a veteran business journalist and communications specialist. Reach him at email@example.com .