The word positioning in big red letters
Al Ries and Jack Trout

Not as strong as their later book (22 Immutable Laws) and dated in its examples, but still a fascinating read and worth reading if you work in marketing in any way. A book mostly of examples, it only really talks about HOW to position towards the end. Even so, very valuable.

'Positioning is not what you do to a product. Positioning is what you do to the mind of the prospect.' (Page 2)

The world is over-communicated, and it's hard to break through with a message no matter the business you're in, or the product you're trying to promote. There are also far too many products available to choose from.

The only real solution to this is to narrow in and be selective. To choose a position.

The human mind screens and rejects information, discarding most of what it is presented with if it doesn't match with something that it has already decided.

"You have to sharpen the message to get into the mind." (Page 8)

This is why it's important to select a message that has the best chance of getting through, is sharp enough to penetrate a mind. This is why the best message to get through is the one that already exists in the mind of the prospect. Their peception = their reality.

'It may be cynical to accept the premise that the sender is wrong and the receiver is right. But you really have no other choice. Not if you want to get your message accepted by another human mind. ... By turning the process around, by focusing on the prospect rather than the product, you simplify the selection process. You also learn principles and concepts that can greatly increase your communication effectiveness.' (Page 9)

Getting into the mind

'Positioning is an organized system for finding a window in the mind. It is based on the concept that communication can only take place at the right time and under the right circumstances.' (Page 19)

The easiest way into the mind is to get there first: Mount Evererst, Neil Armstrong, Coca Cola.

The hardest way into the mind is to be second. "Who?!" Better to be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big one.

Three eras of marketing:

  1. Product: their product is good, but this one is better
  2. Image: reputation and brand, how cool can you look
  3. Position: in the mind of the prospect or customer, knowing the strengths and weaknesses of your product, but also of the competition

'For many people or products today, one roadway to success is to look at what your competitors are doing and then subtract the poetry or creativity which has become a barrier to getting the message into the mind. With a purified and simplified message, you can then penetrate the prospect's mind.' (Page 26)

Mind ladders

'The mind rejects new information that doesn't "compute." It accepts only that new information which matches its current state of mind. It filters out everything else.' (Page 29)

Politics is like an ink blot test, people are going to see what their mind chooses to see for them. It's all based on perception, not on reality.

Advertising is about heightening the expectations before anything happens. If you teach your prospect or customer what to expect, their mind does a lot of the additional hard work.

After all, there is a surfeit of available options. The mind will make shortcuts to help navigate and save time.

Positioning against: their position is as important as your own. Positioning against what they are ("the un-cola") can be incredibly effective. To compete against number one, fight fire with water... not more fire.

Positioning as a follower: several ways to do this, like size. If they are big, you need to go small and vice versa. If they are low price, you go high price, and vice versa.

'The French have a marketing expression that sums up this strategy rather neatly. Cherchez le creneau. "Look for the hole." Cherchez le creneau and then fill it.' (Page 54)

Repositioning the competition: there may not be an opening to be found, or it may not be a good idea to go into one even if you find it. To get your idea into a mind, you need to push another one out. Merely saying that you are "better than them" isn't enough.

The power of the name

'Hog Island in the Caribbean was going nowhere until they changed the name to Paradise Island.' (Page 71)

A name can date a brand, or it can become a generic household name. A name has a big impact on how people respond to something. The name nuance of corn syrups as being 'sugar free' when they are, in fact, sugar.

A name like "Cyril" is always a sneaky name. A name like "John" is always a trusty one. Names matter.

'A true story. An account officer at a New York bank was named Young J. Boozer. Once when a customer asked to speak to "Young Boozer," he was told by the switchboard operator, "We have a lot of them around here. Which one do you want to talk to?"' (Page 78)

You see what you expect to see. Exxon (before ExxonMobil) used to be Standard Oil of New Jersey. Not quite as good.


The no-name trap

Full words are usually better remembered than initials or acronyms unless the size of the company/brand is so gigantic it seeps into the understanding of the public: IBM, AT&T. In truth, most need to know the full name first before they are likely to remember the more forgettable acronym or initials.

For names, the mind works by ear. Not sight.

The free ride trap

Companies with established names make a mistake when they try to hang their well-established brand name off a new product in an attempt to get a 'free ride'. Before ketchup, Heinz was best known for pickles. When they moved into ketchup, they lost their top position in pickles.

Another (old) example is Xerox throwing money away on trying to expand into computers. If it's got the name 'Xerox' on it, why can't it make a copy? I don't want a Xerox machine, I want a computer. In cases like this, it's a better idea to start with a new name. To be anonymous again.

'An unknown company with an unknown product has much more to gain from publicity than a well-known company with an established product.' (Page 100)

The line extension trap

'Line extension educates the prospect to the fact that Bayer is nothing but a brand name. It destroys the illusion that Bayer is a superior form of aspirin.' (Page 103)

Line extension can dilute a powerful brand name in the mind of the customer such that they can no longer refer to one name and have it mean one thing.

Positioning your business

1. Start with your current position

What is your current position, really? What position do you own right now? This is not your opinion, or the opinion of leadership more broadly (don't pander to big egos). It is what the market really thinks of you.

2. Figure out what position you want to own

You cannot be for everybody. You must be for somebody. If you try to be for everybody, nobody will be interested.

3. Figure out who you're trying to outgun

So you know how to outgun them.

'Coming to grips with the competition is the main problem in most marketing situations.' (Page 193)

'You must spend as much time thinking about the situation from the point of view of your competitors as you do thinking about it from your own. Prospects don't buy, they choose.' (Page 196)

4. Have money

It takes money to achieve a position. You need money to get share of mind, money to establish a position, money to keep it.

Have money.

5. Stick it out

'Positioning is a concept that is cumulative. Something that takes advantage of advertising's long-range nature. You have to hang in there, year after year.' (Page 197)

Don't flinch, and don't ever drop a good thing when you're onto one.

'You have to hang in there, year after year. Most successful companies rarely change a winning formula.' (Page 197)

6. Do you match your position?

Your marketing and positioning must match the creative. Don't try to be A while looking like B and acting like C.

This is what you need to build a position

The right words

'Language is the currency of the mind. To think conceptually, you manipulate words. With the right choice of words, you can influence the thinking process itself.' (Page 203)


You are setting a direction for 5, 10 years. Nothing shorter than this. You need a vision that will take you through.


While others hang around and wait, you should be pouring it on.


You'll need clear eyes and someone to tell you you're full of nonsense. Think you've found your magic silver bullet? You probably haven't. Yet.


Only an obvious idea will work. Things that are too complicated go nowhere. 'When an idea is clever or complicated, however, we should be suspicious. It probably won't work because it's not simple enough.' (Page 207)


You're looking for open positions near the centre, not at the extremes. You get more market, more is possible this way.


'In positioning, smaller may be better. It is usually better to look for smaller targets that you can own exclusively rather than a bigger market you have to share with three or four other brands. You can't be all things to all people and still have a powerful position.' (Page 208)

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