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A TCI Book Review

The New Positioning - The Latest on the World's #1 Business Strategy

Jack Trout (with Steve Rivkin)
McGraw-Hill, New York, 1996

 "Business is a battle of ideas that play out in the mind of the prospect. (My position versus your position).

If you don't have a simple, differentiating idea to drive your company or brand, you'd better have a great price." (p.167)

This book is essentially an update of a classic that Trout wrote with his earlier partner Al Ries entitled Positioning - The Battle for Your Mind (Warner Books, 1981). This new book takes the original ideas of the old one, and reinforces them with some more current examples as well as the empirical results of research.

The basis thesis of the book is as follows:

  1. to have maximum success, a product or service has to 'own' a place in the mind of the potential purchaser that differentiates it from its competition (this is the concept that Trout calls 'positioning');
  2. in a world of information overload, the human mind cannot cope with the barrage of facts, figures and images that are thrown at it every day - thus for a positioning concept to become lodged in the mind it must take into account certain key features of how the mind works - these are:
  • minds are limited
  • minds hate confusion
  • minds are insecure
  • minds don't change
  • minds can lose focus
For example, the chapter dealing with the topic 'minds are limited' makes the following points:
  • the human brain can only deal with a maximum of seven things at a time, so make sure that your product or service is one of a very few items that are being considered
  • your message must be of inherent natural interest to the individual you are appealing to, otherwise you won't be remembered (and hence will have no position)
  • because memory is closely associated with the limbic system, the seat of the brain's emotions, messages learned when the emotions are running high are better remembered than messages learned when emotions are 'flat'
  • the brain only learns something new if it can somehow be related to something it already knows (the process known as apperception
In the chapter entitled 'minds hate confusion' the authors entreat us to keep marketing and positioning concepts and messages simple, and to focus on the major differentiating strength of the product or service:

"If there's any trick to finding that simple set of words, I'd say it's one of being ruthless about how you edit the story you want to tell.

Anything that others could claim just as well as you can, eliminate. Anything that requires a complex analysis to prove, forget. Anything that doesn't fit with your perceptions, avoid.

Finally, never ignore the obvious. Obvious ideas tend to be the most powerful ideas, because they'll be obvious to the market as well." (p. 24)

Turning to the chapter called 'minds are insecure' the authors make the point that most people are uncomfortable with being the first to buy a product or service. They cite the 'principle of social proof', which states that we determine what is correct by finding out what other people think is correct (also known as the 'herd mentality'). Hence testimonials, despite their image as being somewhat dated, generally work well. Also the bandwagon effect ("in eight out of the last ten years, product x has won the best in its class award") is a proven old chestnut. And Trout also advises that for companies with long histories, this be mentioned as proof that they are solid and reliable.

In the section entitled 'minds don't change' the authors describe how difficult it is to change the image of a product or service one it has been formed (they actually trot out the old phrase about 'never having a second chance to make a first impression' in making the point). It is probably easier to re-invent the image with a whole new name and concept, rather than try to re-position the existing one. And they also point out that many marketing and advertising campaigns in recent years have drifted away from the product's first image, as new marketing and advertising hotshots try to do something more creative with it. Several of these companies (they cite Brylcreem, Timex, Kentucky Fried Chicken and several others) have gone back to their original image, as a better positioning strategy.

Finally, the authors caution that 'minds can lose focus', and warn against, in particular, what they call the 'line extension trap'. They quote from a Harvard Business Review article: "Unchecked product-line extension can weaken a brand's image, disturb trade relations, and disguise cost increases". (p. 42) Line extension, they argue, simply causes the mind to lose focus and become confused, and thus dilutes the brand identity.

Armed with this marketer's understanding of how the mind works they then present several 'tricks of the trade', which are best thought of as pointers to keep in mind when designing a marketing or advertising campaign. These are:

  • how to find a good name for a product or service (make it short; make it pleasant-sounding; make it memorable)
  • if you can, create and name a new product or service category (by re-conceptualizing the benefits of the product), which you then can, of course, be first in (and reap all the benefits of having the initial position)
  • beware of research (especially focus groups, which can generate some useful information, but should not be considered to be a representative sample)
  • similarly, beware of overly-zealous public relations activities - PR activities have their place at the initial stages of a marketing campaign when the primary mandate is to generate some interest and awareness - advertising initiatives then can build on this
Further, Trout and Rivkin offer their observations to avoid what they call 6 marketing pitfalls:
  1. don't avoid the obvious - embrace the 'self-evident' attributes of a product or service as these are more likely to be the ones to capture the public's imagination
  2. don't get caught up in planning obsessively for the future - focus on today's opportunities and challenges
  3. do avoid what they term 'the cutesy factor' - the temptation to be cute or clever in messages and advertising - this may make for entertaining copy, but it won't necessarily sell product
  4. beware the hero (that is, any new marketing person who feels a need to shake up things simply for the sake of change)
  5. don't be too focused on the short term only - positioning is a long-term process in order to build the proper image and identity - initiatives that are focused on delivering short-term results only may actually the hamper the effectiveness of a longer-term strategy
  6. finally, avoid tinkering with a strategy that is producing results (see number 4, above)

In the middle part of the book, the authors present several case studies of repositioning certain products, businesses and industries. These include a software company, an ice cream company, an accounting firm, political candidates, a television show, and an oil company. Each case study is given a chapter in the book, which documents the background situation and then is discussed in terms of positioning strategies possible.

The book is a short and light read, with many good examples and ideas throughout.




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