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By Dick Maggiore and Mark Vandegrift

55 Years Later: Revisiting Jack Trout's Article on Positioning

55 Years Later: Revisiting Jack Trout’s Original Article on Positioning

If you haven’t read Jack Trout’s original article on positioning, you can read it here. Published in Industrial Marketing in June of 1969, this single article was the foundation upon which Trout and Ries built their principles of positioning. Their seminal work, Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, was named #1 for all-time marketing books by the readers of Ad Age (March 01, 2009).

The challenge, Trout correctly pointed out, is “today's marketplace is no longer responsive to strategies that worked in the past. There are just too many products, too many companies, and too much marketing ‘noise.’ We have become an overcommunicated society.” That was 55 years ago! No personal computers, no internet, no mobile phones, hardly any B2B advertising, and so on. Jack’s clairvoyance might be best displayed by his quote above. Our minds are on overload with all the messages we see today, 55 years later.

So with Trout and Ries’ marketing book ranking #1 of all time in this overcommunicated society, why do so many marketers ignore the principles of positioning? Your guess is as good as ours. Our guess is that it’s due to the desire by most people to copy rather than innovate. Or perhaps because most companies forget why they got into business to start, which was to serve a hole in the marketplace. Whatever the reason, we won’t stop beating our drum for positioning and helping our clients find and focus their marketing on their most unique and relevant difference.

To that end, a reader of PositionistView asked us how we might re-state the four rules that Trout published in his original article on positioning. What were those four rules? If you didn’t read his original article, here they are:

  1. Find the people in your own organization and your agency who understand it [positioning].
  2. Be brutally frank about your product or company and its reputation.
  3. Change what you have to change.
  4. Establish your position and build a program around it that's big enough to get noticed.

So how might we re-state these rules 55 years later?

  1. Positioning is a business strategy, so it must impact the entire business.
  2. Positioning is about your customers and competitors, not your board room.
  3. Positioning starts with your name and directs your brand portfolio.
  4. Focus, focus, focus … on your position.

How do we draw these connections?

Positioning is a business strategy, so it must impact the entire business.

Trout’s original article stated, “Top management has to make decisions as to what the company will be — not next month or next year, but in five years.” Too often, marketers are the only ones involved in marketing decisions. When you adopt positioning as your business strategy, then the CEO/c-suite must be involved in marketing decisions as well because the business strategy informs the marketing strategy. If the entire organization isn’t 100% behind your differentiating idea, there will be a lack of commitment which will impact your product development, your operations, and most importantly, your brand delivery/promise to your customers. Trout stated it this way, “Positioning is a concept that is cumulative in nature. Something that can take advantage of advertising's long-range nature. Because of this, the people who work with you will have to be able to understand what you are trying to build.” Trout was talking to marketers, but we would suggest this should have been directed to CEOs.

Positioning is about your customers and competitors, not your boardroom.

This line from the original article made us laugh: “As a rule, when it comes to building strong programs, trust no one, especially product managers. The closer people get to products, the more they defend old decisions or promises.” Why laughter? Because we see this happen every day. And it’s not just product managers. Salespeople tend to have “their system” of selling and positioning requires everyone to be on the same page, sell the same way, and plug the company line. A good position sells itself because it creates distance from your competitors while maximizing the relevance to your customers. In fact, a good position assists the customer in making a decision, something they appreciate! You should be able to swap out a product manager, salesperson, and even the CEO, IF your position is the right one.

Positioning starts with your name and directs your brand portfolio.

This rule comes after you establish your position, but it’s still a great rule. The point? Once you have your position, don’t handicap yourself with a bad company, product, or service name. And don’t get brand-name-happy! A good name should start the position (e.g., PURELL – kills germs but safe on skin; Lean Cuisine – delicious food with low calories; DieHard Batteries – long-lasting car battery; Humana – insurance for people; Advil – advanced medicine for pain). And don’t have a house of brands unless you can support each one of them with enough resources to make them stand on their own. Most companies have so many brands with no portfolio strategy or brand architecture that they are creating their own advertising clutter. That’s the opposite of what Trout would have wanted when he wrote his original article on positioning. Extending the intent of this rule further, there should be nothing in the company that’s a sacred cow. “Change what you have to change” to have a solid foundation for your advertising!

Focus, focus, focus … on your position.

“Getting noticed is getting tougher.” This single statement in Trout’s fourth rule says it all. This statement is truer today than it was 55 years ago. He continues, “With this noise level you just have to be bold enough and consistent enough to get noticed.” The adage, “he who chases two rabbits catches neither,” is apropos to this rule. If you, as CEO, CMO, or marketing manager, do not focus your business on your position, you will chase more than one idea, none of which will win you market share. As you go to market, follow Trout’s principle under this rule: “The first step in a positioning program normally entails running fewer programs but stronger programs.” If your position is about “safety,” your entire organization needs to have “safety” at the core of everything they do in your company. If it’s about being the leader in the market, then every employee in your company needs to learn how to convey leadership in their job. Focus brings freedom and fulfillment to employees that you could never realize until you experience it yourself.

Four rules. Four principles. From the father of positioning. And we’ll close the way Jack Trout’s original article on positioning closed: “These four points are a start. Put them all together and I'll guarantee you'll get to where you want to go from here. And do some great work on the way.” Thank you, Jack. We miss you.