In the 1970’s Al Ries and Jack Trout popularised the concept of positioning. Since then, they’ve written dozens of books between them and have made a fortune on the speaking circuit. Still, you could have a roomful of MBA’s and no two would agree on what positioning really means.
Most people think of positioning as a simple ladder. The cheapest, lowest-end products are “positioned” at the bottom of the ladder, and the best, most expensive products are on the top shelf, if you will.
In reality, positioning has little to do with price or quality. Instead, it’s all about perception. The whole concept of positioning is based on the simple fact that we form opinions about products and companies based on our own perception. These opinions are influenced by all sorts of things… word of mouth, personal experience, individual prejudices, social media, the marketing efforts of the brand in question and a hundred other factors.
In our own minds we make some pretty broad — and often rash — assumptions about things. Call it consumer bigotry if you wish. The fact is, we pigeon hole companies and products the same way we pigeon hole political candidates for their onscreen personalities. As marketeers, our goal is to tap into these existing perceptions and use them to our advantage.
Here’s a classic example. Back in 1968, before the term positioning was ever invented, the makers of 7-UP scored a huge coup in the soft drink market. Taste tests and other forms of consumer research revealed that people saw 7-UP as a refreshing alternative to colas. Respondents said it straight… “it’s a nice change from all the cola I’ve been drinking.”
So the 7-UP executives decided to market the drink as the alternative to cola. It was a no-brainer, really. They simply took the existing perception in the marketplace and turned it into their strategy. From a positioning standpoint this strategy worked remarkably well for several reasons. First, it didn’t attempt to change anyone’s perception. It simply leveraged the existing public opinion. Secondly, it effectively repositioned the competition. Without slamming them, 7-UP lumped Coke, Pepsi and other brands all together in a single boring category of “colas”.
Finally, the new strategy made 7UP relevant to the young people who account for a large portion of soft drink sales. The campaign tapped into the prevalent anti-establishment mind set of the late 60’s. It actively encouraged defiance against the cola establishment and portrayed 7-UP as a symbol of dissent. The entire campaign summarised the popular values of the public and catapulted 7-UP into the position as the third leading soft drink in America.
Like all good positioning strategies, 7UP’s was simple and almost painfully obvious. Once the executives at 7-UP knew what consumers were thinking, there was no other way to go. The creative execution of the strategy, however, was not so obvious. J. Walter Thompson’s simple two-word slogan “The UnCola” said it all. Brilliant! The campaign gave the product a personality, cemented the idea in our collective consciousness, and assured 7UP a place in advertising history. While it is possible to build a positioning strategy around images alone, it’s usually a few simple words like “The Uncola” that solidifies things in the consumer’s mind. Because you don’t just “position” a product, you have to communicate its position.
“Just Do It” communicates Nike’s position as the shoe for serious sports. “Avis, we try harder” communicated the benefit of being number two in the rental car business…
No doubt, the semantics of positioning can get confusing but positioning is something that happens in accordance with how your brand acts, performs, sells. Whatever you identify as creating a dividing line between you and your competition.