Reading with Steve: Positioning by Ries and Trout

Reading with Steve is a regular feature at Read product marketing and content marketing book reviews.

Positioning: The Battle For Your Mind is comprehensively outdated. And it is singly essential.

The 1981 classic by Al Ries and Jack Trout proves that the most important ideas in marketing do not change, even if the examples illustrating them do.

Positioning by Ries and Trout a strategy classicRies and Trout define the tenets of positioning, the art of influencing how prospective customers perceive a product. As a marketer, you can position your own product, a competitor’s product, or a whole market category. Your successful strategy may include all three elements. The authors use many broadly accessible case studies to show how to position.

The key tenet of positioning is to find a hole in the market – which the authors call a creneau – and to exploit it. The first step in exploiting a hole is to know where you stand in the marketplace. If you are not the market leader, you cannot market like the leader: determine what makes you unique and shout it. Above all, don’t attack an entrenched position held by a competitor.

The authors say much more and say it much better than I can. Simply put, Positioning is the Principia Mathematica of marketing strategy. It is revolutionary, yet as time passes a few of its topics begin to need further elucidation. The authors admonish that no position is forever secure, as markets and tastes are constantly changing. Just so, the rules they lay out for positioning have shifted in at least one notable way.

What’s In A Name

The rules of product and company naming have evolved. The authors write that a descriptive name, such as Taster’s Choice coffee, is better than a coined name. A name without intrinsic meaning can only work “when you are first in the mind with an absolutely new product”, such as Coca-Cola.

In the past generation, descriptive names tend to get lost in the marketplace because they don’t have the memorability of a good coined name, particularly if the coined name can extend an existing product category with a new standard of service or quality.

Consider Starbucks, for example. It is a meaningless name in a crowded coffee market. But Starbucks established a new category of premium product and service, and so could position its nonsense name in the market. With the explosion of companies and brands, evocative-but-made-up names are often highly successful. And few consumers under age 30 would know what Taster’s Choice is.

Many failed dot-coms followed the logic of descriptive naming and failed. If a descriptive name held any intrinsic advantage, would have bested In the digital age, it turns out, people have a more complicated mental model for the signals of desirability contained in a name. Ries and Trout’s advice on naming is not wrong, just too simplistic for the 21st century.

Some Things Can Never Change

The biggest change in business life since 1981 is the rise of startups, which now dominate the landscape of imagination as IBM once dominated computing. Ries and Trout almost exclusively draw their examples from large companies in established markets. They have little to say about how these brands came to become so dominant. If you are an entrepreneur, you may be tempted to conclude that these examples don’t apply – as many recent successes have claimed to part with past history.

The case studies are universally out of date, yet if anything this slim volume is more powerful for its archaic examples. Cited companies have folded and quoted ad campaigns are long over, forcing the modern reader to generalize the lessons.

Alcohol as a product marketing example
One possible inspiration for great writing.

I was struck that many of the examples use alcohol, beer, and wine. One imagines the authors, casting about for illustrative cases, opening a desk drawer to pour two fingers of inspiration. I found the constant booze examples surreal, but they in no way detract from the value of the case studies. What once worked for scotch and Schlitz can also work for websites.

You would ignore the rules of Positioning at your peril. In my next post, I’ll discuss two startups that failed to consider positioning first and may pay for it later.

Buy Positioning.