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Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind

What is Positioning?

‘the act of designing the company’s offering and image so that it occupies a distinct and valued place in the target customers’ mind’ (Kotler, 2005, p310)

Positioning is an approach that seeks to guide the placement of your message in a prospective customer’s mind. Positioning is essential for communicating in an over- communicated society. To stand out, your company must create a position inside the customer’s head. That position will be based not only on your company’s strengths and weaknesses, but also on those of your competitors.

Positioning is about standing out, in order to become the product of choice in the minds of prospective customers. The easiest way to get into someone’s mind is to be the first one there. If you can’t be first, then you must find a way to position yourself competitively against the actual first product, service, idea or person. Positioning is used in all forms of business and personal communication, not just advertising or promotion. It’s just as essential in politics as it is in the most personal aspects of your life.

To cope with the deluge of messages that society produces, people rank information in their minds. This is easy with products. For example, in car rentals, most consumers would place Hertz on the top rung of the mental ladder, Avis on the second rung and National on the third. Before you can position your product, service or anything else, you must first know where it is on the mental ladder of the person (or people) you are trying to influence.

Positioning Strategies

You get to be the leader by being the first brand into the brain. Many marketing experts overlook the incredible advantages of being first, and instead attribute successes like Kodak, IBM and Coca-Cola to great marketing strategy.

In some categories, two leading brands run neck and neck. In those cases, the particular categories are inherently unstable. Eventually, one brand will lead the other and then dominate the market for many years. In the short term, leaders are nearly invulnerable, since momentum carries them. Their worries are long-term: Where will they be five or 10 years from now? The key is to use your short-term flexibility to assure a stable long- term future.

What works for a leader won’t necessarily work for a follower. Positioning strategies for followers— those not first on the market or number one— can be tricky. Followers usually focus on making their products better than the leaders’ products and launch them with a smaller advertising and promotional budget than the leader. This strategy rarely works.

Which strategy will work? The French have a marketing expression that explains a winning strategy:“Cherchez le creneau.” This means,“look for the hole.” The creneau is the hole, and you must fill it to make your product a success. To find the creneau, you must have the ability to think in reverse, to go against the grain. If everyone is making something big, make it small: Remember the original Volkswagen Beetle. If everyone is making something affordable,fill the premium-priced creneau: Joy perfume, Michelob beer, the BMW. High price is effective not only for luxury items, but for mundane ones, as well: Remember the introduction of Orville Redenbacher’s Gourmet Popping Corn?

Plug the Creneau

Look for the creneau in the public’s mind. You’ll always find plenty of holes in which to plug your product or service. That’s far more effective than trying to share space in previously occupied creneaus.

Sex is an effective creneau. Marlboro was the first national cigarette brand to position itself as masculine. Virginia Slims was the first cigarette to position itself as feminine. The obvious isn’t always a winning strategy when it comes to gender. Revlon didn’t choose a delicate, feminine image when it named its cologne“Charlie” and ran ads of women in pantsuits. Still, Charlie went on to become the largest-selling brand of perfume in the world.

Packaging and distribution can open up a new creneaus. For example, L’eggs pantyhose were the first to be packaged in a plastic egg and the first pantyhose available in supermarkets. Remember, you want to fill the creneaus in the minds of consumers, not in the minds of corporate leaders. Those who reject the creneau concept in favour of being all things to all people will find that it no longer makes any sense to try to appeal to everyone. While that may have worked years ago when there were far fewer brands and far less advertising, today’s market is completely different. Only cleverly positioned products and services that fill specific creneaus will survive and thrive.

Repositioning the Competition

When you can’t find a creneau, or choose not to go looking for one, you can succeed by getting into the consumer’s mind via repositioning your competition. When you reposition those competitors that occupy leading positions in the consumer’s mind, you are effectively moving your idea or product in by first moving the old idea or product out. Once an old idea is overturned, selling the new idea is very simple, since people will usually search for a new idea to fill the void.

Tylenol repositioned its competition, aspirin, and went on to become the number-one brand of analgesic, ahead of all aspirin brands. Stolichnaya repositioned competing vodka brands by promoting itself as the only one actually made in Russia. Repositioning the competition sometimes seems like war; ads disparaging the competition are common. By relating your brand to the brands already in the prospect’s mind, you can win if you can compare your brand favourably, thus repositioning the competition as less desirable.

The Power of Names

A name is like a hook that hangs the brand on the product ladder in the prospective consumer’s mind. In this era of positioning, a product’s name is the most important marketing decision you can make. What worked in the past won’t necessarily work now, or even in the future. That’s because in the past fewer products crowded the market, making the names not nearly as important. Today, names must be the starting point of the positioning. Names must tell people the product’s stand-out benefit, such as Head & Shoulders shampoo, Intensive Care skin lotion, Close-up toothpaste or Die Hard batteries.

Names can become out of date, opening up creneaus for competitors.Esquire magazine was named when young men about town used to sign their name John J. Smith, Esq. But Esquire lost its leadership to Playboy magazine. Everybody knows what a playboy is and what interests him. Who today can tell you what an esquire is and what interests him? When you introduce a really new product, give it a really new name, nothing well known or familiar. You are charting new territory and your product must stand out.

Positioning Strategies

Products and services aren’t the only things positioned in business— companies are positioned, too. Positioning creates a company’s image. Companies always compete to occupy the best positions in people’s minds. When people buy stock, they’re really buying a piece of that company’s position, now and in the future. The price people are willing to pay for that stock depends on the strength of the company’s position in buyer’s minds. Countries, religious organizations, social groups, industries, leaders, entertainers, sports figures— everyone and everything engages in positioning. For example, the island of Jamaica has competed for tourists by positioning itself as“The Hawaii of the Caribbean.”

You can position yourself and your career. You can position your own business. The strategies underlying all positioning are the same:

•You must understand the role of words, including names, slogans and descriptions.
• You must know how these words affect people.
• You must be able to manage change.
• You need vision.
•Your need courage.
•Your need objectivity.
• You need simplicity.
• You need subtlety.

•You must be willing to sacrifice.

• You need patience.

• You need a global outlook.

Reinforcing Your Position

Coca-Cola secured its leadership position by getting into consumers’ minds first. The basic method of keeping that position is reinforcing the original concept. Coca-Cola did this brilliantly by literally accusing competitors of being imitations of“the real thing,” This strategy isn’t the same as merely saying,“We’re Number One!” This approach commands a special place in the consumer’s mind as the original— like one’s first love —that automatically turns all competitors into poor pretenders. Xerox copiers, Polaroid cameras and Zippo lighters succeeded with this we-invented-the-product strategy.

When you’re not already a leader, but you have a product or service that will fill a creneau, use this same positioning strategy to reinforce your occupation of this previously unoccupied niche. Nyquil, the night time cold remedy, debuted as the first cold medicine specifically for evening use, and has successfully dominated that creneau ever since.

However, when you want to extend your brand to other related products, you have to be careful. A name will stretch, but not beyond a certain point. In fact, the more you stretch it the weaker it becomes. Don’t stretch your name into areas that could backfire. A food company’s brand name shouldn’t be used for auto parts, even though they’re owned by the same parent company. Create a new brand name instead.

You can learn what’s on the minds of prospective consumers by conducting positioning research. This can help you develop a strategy and sell it to your top management.

Position thinking is different from conventional wisdom. Position theory says you have to start with what the prospective consumer is already willing to give you, and build on that. If prospective consumers have only one positive thing to say about what you have to offer, create your strategy around that one thing. In effect, that’s the creneau that you fill in the consumer’s mind already, so you can win by positioning yourself as the best in that particular area. For example, if the only thing that seems to set you apart from your competitors (in the minds of consumers) is your convenient location,flaunt that in your marketing. Ignore the rest and become the one consumers should choose because of your convenience. With these strategies you can create the position you want for yourself, your company, your idea, your service or your product.

Mapping positions

Here is a 3×3 matrix of 9 different competitive positioning strategies

Price/quality positioning High price Medium price Low price
High quality 1 Premium strategy 2 High-value strategy 3 Super-value strategy
Medium quality 4 Overcharging strategy 5 Medium-value strategy 6 Good-value strategy
Low quality 7 ‘Rip-off’ strategy 8 Fake company strategy 9 Economy strategy


a) Natural combination strategies of price and quality are 1, 5, 9

b) Penetration strategy are 2, 6 – seeking to undercut the opposition and gain market share

c) Bargain strategies are 2, 3 – attracting bargain hunters

d) Short term Strategies are 4, 7, 8 – Any company that charges prices that are higher than the quality would justify.


Quality Price Map

As positioning is both real and a psychological trigger there is the possibility to get it wrong:

Underpositioning: The brand does not have a clear identity in the eyes of the customer

Overpositioning: Buyers may have too narrow an image of a brand

Confused positioning: Too many claims might be made for a brand

Doubtful positioning: The positioning may not be credible in th eyes of the buyer.


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