The Wisdom of Al Ries and what Positioning really is all about

The Wisdom of Al Ries and what Positioning really is all about

22/11/2021

by Michael Brandtner and Jens Hansen

Last week, Al Ries celebrated his 95th birthday. He is considered the inventor who coined the term “Positioning” together with Jack Trout. Their book, “Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind” has become a classic and is one of the best-selling marketing books of all time. It was also voted ”The best marketing book of all time” by the readers of AdAge, the leading American marketing and advertising magazine.

A Strategic Thinking Model

Today, the term ”Positioning” is omnipresent in the corporate world. You will find virtually no strategy, branding, marketing or communications document that doesn’t include the word. Almost every company, every brand, every product or every service is ”positioned” on paper. But that alone is not enough. What really matters is whether and how a company, a brand, a product or a service actually is positioned to create a perception in the minds of the customers or the general public.

Consequently, Positioning is much more than a strategic task or activity. Correctly understood, Positioning is a strategic thinking model. This means that you have to think through your competitive position from a customer perception perspective in a radical way. When doing so, one aspect is key: Not only to recognise but also to accept the mental positions and perceptions of competitors that already are present in the minds of the prospects. Positioning is the art of achieving of what is possible in the mind. If you want to establish a new perception in the minds of your prospects you have to successfully relate to the perceptions that already are present there. This is one of the reasons why many strategies ultimately fail when companies “burn up” all their energy trying to achieve the impossible: They attempt to build perceptions that don’t work in the minds of their target customers.

Four Basic Strategies

With Positioning, Ries and Trout have not only developed a thinking model of how the mind works, but they have also derived four basic strategies from it. As an example, a market leader must think and act differently from a challenger or a follower. In the mid-1980s, Ries and Trout wrote the book “Marketing Warfare” which specifically deals with these four strategies in more detail.

As an example: A market leader should on one hand make its own market more important. On the other, block competitive movements in good time. For a non-market leader, it is a matter of depending on the mental strength of either doing the opposite of the market leader, establishing a new category or to find a mental niche and competitive angle of your own. However, the decisive factor is always to think and act from the perspective of the customer’s perception.

Concentrating Strengths

But even that is not enough: It is crucial that you ultimately get to the heart of the chosen strategy. Ideally, all forces should be concentrated on one word that anchors the company, the brand or the person as a differentiating perception in the customer’s mind. We call this the principle of focus.

As an example of this, you can see that the strongest brands in the world literally own their market with a perception in the minds of their prospects: 

You think of “electric” in cars, you think of Tesla.

You think of ”internet shopping”. You think of Amazon.

You think of “search” on the internet. You think of Google.

You think of “streaming video”. You think of Netflix.

You think of “skincare”. You think of Nivea.

You think of “pop art”. You think of Andy Warhol.

When prospects think of “Tafelspitz” in Vienna, they think of Plachutta.

The principle of focus, was and is so important to Al that he wrote a book on the subject in 1995. It was published in 1996 under the title “Focus: The Future of Your Company Depends on It”.

Challenging your own ”on-paper Positioning

How strong is your “on-paper” Positioning really as a perception in the minds of your prospective customers? What word is your brand associated with? Is this word really the strongest possible word? Many companies and brands sell far below their potential because these are perceived as just another brand among many. That shouldn’t have to be the case.

And this is exactly where ”Positioning” as a thought model offers enourmous help to build perceptions that work in the mind to realize your full potential!

Positioning: The future of your brand, your brands and your business depends on it!