Positioning is alive and well.

July 16, 2004

Some have said Positioning is dead. No way, I say. Positioning is alive and well. Successful brands are still the ones using the most powerful concept ever to be introduced into advertising, marketing and branding.

One of the best-selling advertising books at Amazon.com continues to Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind written by my father, Al Ries and Jack Trout, a book first published 22 years ago. Positioning has become famous. No company would launch a new brand today without first writing a positioning statement.

But many people have forgotten what positioning is all about. When you study these statements you can see where many marketing people have gotten off the track. In general, they are written from the company’s point of view. “We want to position our brand as the premier product in the category.” What’s wrong with a positioning statement like this? Everything. It leaves the prospect out of the equation. If you want to position a product from the prospect’s point of view, you have a limited number of choices. Here are six possibilities.

1. The Open Hole.
Price is the easiest hole in the mind to understand and it’s one of the easiest holes to fill. Haagen-Dazs’ decision to introduce a more expensive line of ice cream set up the "premium" ice cream position for the brand and made Haagen-Dazs one of the enduring marketing successes of the past several decades. What Haagen-Dazs did in ice cream, Heineken did in beer, Rembrandt in toothpaste, Evian in water, Orville Redenbacher in popcorn, Rolex in watches, Mercedes-Benz in automobiles. High price is only one of the open holes in the mind. Low price is another. What Haagen-Dazs did at the high end, brands like Wal-Mart and Southwest Airlines are doing at the low end.

2. The New Category.
Sometimes there are no open holes in the prospect’s mind and you have to create one. We call this positioning strategy, “create a new category you can be first in.” Gatorade, for example, was the first sports drink. PowerBar was the first energy bar. Red Bull was the first energy drink. UnderArmour was the first in performance workout clothing. Zima was the first … well, what was Zima the first of? The label said “ClearMalt,” but nobody knew what that meant. The television announcement ads were no help either. “What’s in it?” asked a bartender. “It’s a secret. It’s something different,” replied a mysterious pitchman in his white suit and black hat.

3. The Number-two Brand.
Consumers like choice. Sometimes you can build a powerful brand just by giving consumers an alternative to the leading brand. But what strategy can best deliver the No. 2 position? “Maybe if we can produce a better product than the leader,” goes the thinking, “we won’t necessarily overtake them, but we will wind up in the number two position.” This is the worst possible approach. Why is this so? Because the leader in your field already has the perception of producing the better product. Then how do you become a strong number two brand? You become the opposite of the leader. Coke was for older people, so Pepsi became the cola for younger people. Listerine was the bad-tasting mouthwash that killed germs and odor in your mouth. So Scope became the good-tasting mouthwash and a strong number-two brand. Home Depot is the leading home-improvement store, but its crowded aisles and jammed shelves appeal more to men than women. So Lowe’s became the home-improvement store for women with clean layouts and wide aisles.

4. The Specialist.
Every coffee shop in America sells coffee, but they also sell hamburgers, hot dogs, French fries, apple pie, donuts and dozens of other foods and beverages. So Starbucks specialized in coffee and became a very successful brand. So did McDonald’s which specialized in hamburgers. And Dunkin’ Donuts which specialized in donuts. And Subway which specialized in submarine sandwiches. Enterprise Rent-A-Car specialized in the “insurance replacement” business and became the largest car rental company in America.

5. The Channel Brand.
Sometimes you can position a brand to fill a channel hole. L’eggs, the first supermarket panty-hose brand, became the largest-selling panty-hose brand in the country. Today there are opportunities to create Internet channel brands. Amazon.com, eBay, Monster.com and Salesforce.com are just some of many successful “Internet-only” brands. Paul Mitchell became a $600 million hair and skin-care brand by focusing on the professional hair salon channel. Ping did the same in golf clubs by focusing on the pro-shop channel.

6. The Gender Brand.
Sometimes you can build a big brand by focusing on half the market.
Marlboro because a big brand by positioning itself as the first cigarette for men.
Virginia Slims became a big brand by positioning itself as the first cigarette for women.
Curves became a big brand by positionging itself as the gym for women.
Secret became a big brand by positioning itself as the first deodorant for women.

There’s a lot more to say about the subject of positioning. I suggest you get yourself a copy of the 20th anniversary edition of Positioning. You can’t go wrong if you simply take your mind off your product, your brand and your company and focus instead on the mind of the consumer. Since it is in the mind of the consumer that the real marketing battle is won or lost.