What positioning is all about
How did a hard-sell concept like positioning become so popular in a
business noted for its creativity?
In truth, the past decade might well be characterized as a "return to
reality." White knights and black eye patches gave way to such
positioning concepts as "Lite Beer from Miller. Everything you always
wanted in a beer. And less."
Poetic? Yes. Artful? Yes. But also a straightforward, clearly defined
explanation of the basic positioning premise.
To be successful today, you must touch base with reality. And the only
reality that counts is what's already in the prospect's mind.
To be creative, to create something that doesn't already exist in the
mind, is becoming more and more difficult. If not impossible.
The basic approach of positioning is not to create something new and
different, but to manipulate what's already up there in the mind, to
retie the connections that already exist.
Today's marketplace is no longer responsive to the strategies that
worked in the past. There are just too many products, too many
companies, and too much marketing noise.
The question most frequently asked by positioning skeptics is, "Why?"
Why do we need a new approach to advertising and marketing?
The overcommunicated society
The answer is that we have become an overcommunicated society. The
per-capita consumption of advertising in America today is $376.62 a
year. (That compares with $16.87 in the rest of the world.)
If you spend $1 million a year on advertising, you are bombarding the
average consumer with less than a half cent of advertising, spread out
over 365 days—a consumer already exposed to $376.61&fra12; worth
of other advertising.
In our overcommunicated society, to talk about the "impact" of your
advertising is to seriously overstate the potential effectiveness of
your message. Advertising is not a sledgehammer. It's more like a light
fog, a very light fog that envelops your prospects.
In the communication jungle out there, the only hope to score big is to
be selective, to concentrate on narrow targets, to practice
segmentation. In a word, "positioning."
The mind, as a defense against the volume of today's communications,
screens and rejects much of the information offered it. In general, the
mind accepts only that which matches prior knowledge or experience.
Millions of dollars have been wasted trying to change minds with
advertising. Once a mind is made up, it's almost impossible to change
it. Certainly not with a weak force like advertising. "Don't confuse me
with the facts, my mind's made up." That's a way of life for most
The average person will sit still when being told something which he or
she knows nothing about. (Which is why "news" is an effective
advertising approach.) But the average person cannot tolerate being told
he or she is wrong. Mind-changing is the road to advertising disaster.
The oversimplified mind
The only defense a person has in our overcommunicated society is an
Not unless they repeal the law of nature that gives us only 24 hours in
a day will they find a way to stuff more into the mind.
The average mind is already a dripping sponge that can only soak up more
information at the expense of what's already there. Yet we continue to
pour more information into that supersaturated sponge and are
disappointed when our messages fail to get through.
Advertising, of course, is only the tip of the communication iceberg. We
communicate with each other in a wide variety of bewildering ways. And
in a geometrically increasing volume.
The medium may not be the message, but it does seriously affect the
message. Instead of a transmission system, the medium acts like a
filter. Only a tiny fraction of the original material ends up in the
mind of the receiver.
Furthermore, what we receive is influenced by the nature of our
overcommunicated society. "Glittering generalities" have become a way of
life in our overcommunicated society. We oversimplify because that's the
only way to cope.
Technically, we are capable of increasing the volume of communication at
least tenfold. We're experimenting with direct television broadcasting
from satellites. Every home would have 100 channels or so to choose
North American Philips has just introduced a 3½-inch compact disc
that holds 600 megabytes of data, more than enough to store the entire
Terrific. But who is working on a compact disc for the mind? Who is
trying to help the prospect cope with complexity that so overwhelms the
mind that the average reaction to the wealth of information today is to
tighten the intake valve? To accept less and less of what is so freely
available? Communication itself is the communication problem.
The oversimplified message
The best approach to take in our overcommunicated society is the
In communication, as in architecture, less is more. You have to sharpen
your message to cut into the mind. You have to jettison the ambiguities,
simplify the message, and then simplify it some more if you want to make
a long-lasting impression.
People who depend on communication for their livelihood know the
necessity of oversimplification.
Let's say you are meeting with a politician whom you are trying to get
elected. In the first 5 minutes, you'll learn more about your political
product than the average voter is going to learn about that person in
the next 5 years.
Since so little material about your candidate is ever going to get into
the mind of the voter, your job is really not a "communication" project
in the ordinary meaning of the word.
It's a selection project. You have to select the material that has the
best chance of getting through.
The enemy that is keeping your messages from hitting pay dirt is the
volume of communication. Only when you appreciate the nature of the
problem can you understand the solution.
When you want to communicate the advantages of a political candidate or
a product or even yourself, you must turn things inside out.
You look for the solution to your problem not inside the product, not
even inside your own mind.
You look for the solution to your problem inside the prospect's mind.
In other words, since so little of your message is going to get through
anyway, you ignore the sending side and concentrate on the receiving
end. You concentrate on the perceptions of the prospect. Not the reality
of the product.
"In politics," said John Lindsay, "the perception is the reality." So,
too, in advertising, in business, and in life.
But what about truth? What about the facts of the situation?
What is truth? What is objective reality? Every human being seems to
believe intuitively that he or she alone holds the key to universal
truth. When we talk about truth, what truth are we talking about? The
view from the inside or the view from the outside?
It does make a difference. In the words of another era, "The customer is
always right." And by extension, the seller or communicator is always
It may be cynical to accept the premise that the sender is wrong and the
receiver is right. But you really have no other choice. Not if you want
to get your message accepted by another human mind.
Besides, who's to say that the view from the inside looking out is any
more accurate than the view from the outside looking in?
By turning the process around, by focusing on the prospect rather than
the product, you simplify the selection process. You also learn
principles and concepts that can greatly increase your communication
The assault on the mind
As a nation we have fallen in love with the concept of "communication."
(In some grade schools "show and tell" is now being called
"communication.") We don't always appreciate the damage being done by
our overcommunicated society.
In communication, more is less. Our extravagant use of communication to
solve a host of business and social problems has so jammed our channels
that only a tiny fraction of all messages actually gets through. And not
necessarily the most important ones either.
The transmission traffic jam
Take advertising, for example. With only 6 percent of the world's
population, America consumes 57 percent of the world's advertising. (And
you thought our use of energy was extravagant. Actually, we consume only
33 percent of the world's energy.)
Advertising, of course, is only a small channel in the communication
Take books. Each year some 30,000 books are published in America. Every
year another 30,000. Which doesn't sound like a lot until you realize it
would take 17 years of reading 24 hours a day just to finish one year's
Who can keep up?
Take newspapers. Each year American newspapers use more than 10 million
tons of newsprint. Which means that the average person consumes 94
pounds of newsprint a year.
There's some question whether the average person can digest all this
information. The Sunday edition of a large metropolitan newspaper like
The New York Times weighs about 4½ pounds and contains
some 500,000 words. To read it all, at an average reading speed of 300
words per minute, would take almost 28 hours. Not only would your Sunday
be shot, but also a good part of the rest of the week too.
How much is getting through?
Take television. A medium barely 35 years old. A powerful and pervasive
medium, television didn't replace radio or newspapers or magazines. Each
of the three older media is bigger and stronger than it ever was.
Television is an additive medium. And the amount of communication added
by television is awesome.
Ninety-eight percent of all American homes have at least one television
set. (A third have two or more.)
Ninety-six percent of all television households can receive four or more
TV stations. (A third can receive ten or more.)
The average American family watches television more than 7 hours a day.
(More than 51 hours a week.)
Like motion pictures, the TV picture is really a still picture which
changes 30 times a second. Which means the average American family is
exposed to some 750,000 television pictures a day.
Not only are we being pictured to death, we are being papered to death.
Take that Xerox machine down the hall. American business processes 1.4
trillion pieces of paper a year. That's 5.6 billion every working day.
Down the halls at the Pentagon, copy machines crank out 350,000 pages a
day for distribution throughout the Defense Department. Equal to 1000
"World War II will end," said Field Marshal Montgomery, "when the
warring nations run out of paper."
Take packaging. An 8-ounce package of Total breakfast cereal contains
1268 words of copy on the box. Plus an offer for a free booklet on
nutrition. (Which contains another 3200 words.)
The assault on the mind takes place in many different ways. The U.S.
Congress passes some 500 laws a year (that's bad enough), but regulatory
agencies promulgate some 10,000 new rules and regulations in the same
amount of time.
And the regulatory agencies are not stingy with their words either.
Consider this: The Lord's Prayer contains 56 words; the Gettysburg
Address, 266; the Ten Commandments, 297; the Declaration of
Independence, 300; and a recent U.S. government order setting the price
of cabbage, 26,911.
At the state level, over 250,000 bills are introduced each year. And
25,000 pass the legislatures to disappear into the labyrinths of the
Ignorance of the law is no excuse. Ignorance of the lawmakers apparently
is. Our legislators continue to pass thousands of laws that you can't
possibly keep track of. And even if you could, you couldn't possibly
remember how a law might differ from one of our 50 states to another.
Who reads, sees, or listens to all this outpouring of communication?
There's a traffic jam on the turnpikes of the mind. Engines are
overheating. Tempers are rising.
George Bush, Ted Kennedy, and Chevrolet
How much do you know about George Bush? Most people know just three
things: (1) He's good-looking. (2) He's from Texas. (3) He's Vice
President of the United States.
Not much for a person who's been in public service for a good part of
his adult life. Yet that might be just enough to make Mr. Bush President
of the United States in 1988.
Actually there are many people who don't know Mr. Bush as well as you
might think. A People magazine poll showed that 44 percent of
supermarket shoppers didn't know who George Bush was, even though he had
been Vice President for 4 years.
On the other hand, 93 percent of the consumers recognized Mr. Clean, the
genie on the bottle of the Procter & Gamble cleaner of the same
name. They recognized Mr. Clean, even though he hadn't been seen on
television in 10 years, which shows the power of advertising to register
a simple message.
What do you know about Ted Kennedy? Probably a lot more than you know
about George Bush. And probably enough to keep him from being the next
President of the United States.
At best, communication in an overcommunicated society is difficult. Yet
you are often better off if communication doesn't take place. At least
until you are ready to position yourself for the long term. You never
get a second chance to make a first impression.
What do the following names mean to you: Camaro, Cavalier, Celebrity,
Chevette, Citation, Corvette, and Monte Carlo?
Automobile model names, right? Would you be surprised to learn that
these are all Chevrolet models?
Chevrolet is one of the most heavily advertised products in the world.
In a recent year, General Motors spent more than $178 million to promote
Chevrolet in the United States. That's $487,000 a day, $20,000 an hour.
What do you know about Chevrolet? About Chevrolet engines,
transmissions, tires? About the seats, upholstery, steering?
Be honest. How many Chevrolet models are you familiar with? And do you
know the differences between them? Confusing, isn't it?
The only answer to the problems of an overcommunicated society is the
positioning answer. To cut through the traffic jam in the prospect's
mind, you must use Madison Avenue techniques.
Nearly half the jobs in the United States can be classified as
information occupations. More and more people are trying to cope with
the problems of our overcommunicated society.
Whether you have an information job or not, you can benefit from
learning the lessons of Madison Avenue. At home and in the office.
The media explosion
Another reason our messages keep getting lost is the number of media we
have invented to serve our communication needs.
There is television. Commercial, cable, and pay.
There's radio. AM and FM.
There's outdoor. Posters and billboards.
There are newspapers. Morning, evening, daily, weekly, and Sunday.
There are magazines. Mass magazines, class magazines, enthusiast
magazines, business magazines, trade magazines.
And, of course, buses, trucks, streetcars, subways, and taxicabs.
Generally speaking, anything that moves today is carrying a "message
from our sponsor."
Even the human body has become a walking billboard for Adidas, Gucci,
Benetton, and Gloria Vanderbilt.
Take advertising again. Just after World War II, the percapita
consumption of advertising in the United States was about $25 a year.
Today it's 15 times as much. (Inflation accounts for part of this
increase, but volume is also up substantially.)
Do you know 15 times as much about the products you buy? You may be
exposed to much more advertising, but your mind can't absorb any more
than it used to. There's a finite limit to how much you can take in, and
advertising, even at $25 a year, was already way over the limit. That
1-quart container that sits on top of your neck can hold just so much.
At $376 per person, the average American consumer is already exposed to
twice as much advertising per year as the average Canadian. Four times
as much as the average English person. And five times as much as the
average French person.
While no one doubts the advertiser's financial ability to dish it out,
there's some question about the consumer's mental ability to take it all
Each day, thousands of advertising messages compete for a share of the
prospect's mind. And make no mistake about it, the mind is the
battleground. Between 6 inches of gray matter is where the advertising
war takes place. And the battle is rough, with no holds barred and no
Advertising is a brutal business where mistakes can be costly. But out
of the advertising wars, principles have been developed to help you cope
with our overcommunicated society.
The product explosion
Another reason our messages keep getting lost is the number of products
we have invented to take care of our physical and mental needs.
Take food for example. The average supermarket in the United States has
some 12,000 individual products or brands on display. For the consumer,
there's no relief in sight. In fact, the product explosion could get
worse. In Europe they are building super-supermarkets (called
hypermarkets) with room for several times as many products. Biggs in
Cincinnati, the first hypermarket in America, stocks 60,000 products.
Excerpted from "Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind" by Al Ries. Copyright © 0 by Al Ries. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.