Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind

Features - Business Bookshelf

Position your product, they said then, and fill a hole that already exists in the mind of the consumer, rather than trying to carve out a new hole.

November 2, 2011
Matt LaWell

Editor’s note: To help out busy contractors, each month throughout 2011, Lawn & Landscape will run a review and synopsis of a business book – either from the accepted literary canon or a more modern classic. The 11th installment is Jack Trout’s and Al Ries’ “Positioning: The Battle For Your Mind.”

Fifty years ago, in corner offices up and down Madison Avenue, Don Draper and the very real ad executives who inspired his creation started to turn into dinosaurs.

If you've watched even one episode of "Mad Men," its world full of political incorrectness before we knew what that was, you know the reasons for his eventual extinction: Draper, and the rest of the folks at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, failed to adapt their ideas, neglected to update their campaigns, ignored emerging technologies and, in turn, allowed the rest of the world to move forward without them.

The rest of the year’s reading list includes:

Part of the reason the show has been a success for all of its four seasons is because it roots itself in reality. Just a couple of generations back, its characters were real people and, like Draper, they were turning into dinosaurs.

Al Ries and Jack Trout never allowed themselves to turn into dinosaurs.

Ries and Trout, linked in perpetuity because of an idea in the late 1960s and a book in the early 1980s, adapted and updated constantly – they still are, even today – and helped turn the advertising and marketing industry on its proverbial head. Position your product, they said then, and fill a hole that already exists in the mind of the consumer, rather than trying to carve out a new hole. Manipulate what already exists in the consumer's mind.

The idea stuck and, in 1981, after a decade of articles and arguments, Ries and Trout published their classic, "Positioning: The Battle for your Mind."

The book has lasted 30 years and its central ideas have endured through technological advances that have shifted the industry once again – but if you read "Positioning" and then fail to adapt, update and move forward, you might be as much of a dinosaur as Don Draper is about to be in his television reality.

In order to keep that from happening, here are three basic tenets of positioning that can help keep you and your business from extinction:

Be first. By now, a decade into the 21st century, your shot at being the first company in town is long gone, but you can still be the first to develop and introduce a product or provide a service. And if that product or service is good enough, your customers will like it and your competition will want it. Tough for your competition. The first brand in the brain is the one that sticks. Think Coca-Cola, McDonald's, even Oreos. They have competition. They also have the top spot. "It's best to have the best product in your particular field," Ries and Trout write. "It's even better to be first."

Pay attention. Even if you are first – first to show up, first in popularity, first in sales, whatever – you still have to pay attention to your competition. Because your competition wants to fill a hole just like you did, and the hole they want to fill is the one you already have. "What dethrones a leader, of course, is change," Ries and Trout write. "Leaders should constantly use the power of their leadership to keep far ahead of the competition."

Be humble. The best in business never know everything, but they realize their shortcomings. Avoid circumstances that might indicate otherwise – like running advertisements that tout your company as the best, which can only psychologically indicate your insecurity to consumers, or like using advertisements to debate, rather than seduce, the customers – and remember the one truth about positioning that will never go extinct: "There is no one positioning approach," Ries and Trout write, "that will work everywhere."


The author is a freelance writer based in Cleveland.

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