Positioning is a marketing concept that is expressed through verbal, numerical, and visual cues. As such, it is easily identifiable, if you know what to look for. But the fun is less so, if you try to do it yourself.
Let me give an example of what positioning is. Last night, I’m waiting for a friend in a beer bar. The menu above the bar shows a million and one beers from around the world, all priced between 3 – 10 euros. Far in the corner, away from the door, is the wine menu, prices starting at 23 euro. What is the message? Buy our beer, not our wine!
Let me give an example of a (re)positioning strategy in development. A team is seeking to reinvent a small business that’s been generating cash-flow for a few years and wants to enter a new, more profitable market. So the team has to understand what are the values desired in this market and how to communicate those to customers. Stuff under consideration includes the name of the business and products, the visual and textual communication of the advertising material, and how to fit in with the buying process of customers.
It’s tricky, because mistakes can be extremely costly. Something to consider: are they truly understanding who their customer is and are the underestimating their competitors’ ability to undercut their market? As is apparent by these questions, erroneous positioning strategies come out of not completely understanding at least the important variables that underly them. We can shout all we want, but it only makes sense to those people that speak the same language, and if not too many people shout at once.
There is also a taste and/or luck component. Consumers get bombarded with so many messages every day that it makes sense to filter out as many as possible. Most me-too messages and the companies sending them, land in the proverbial spam folder, so apart from having the right message for the right customer, your message also has to stand out in a way that is smart and tasteful, rather than loud, or worse, bland. That requires real talent!
Most companies will look at the bottom-line, when they decide on a message. That can mean that they work out of their strength, their production capability perhaps, or from a financial stance—”by not accenting this feature, we can reduce the production price by 30%.” That will never change, but it also highlights a lack of understanding what the real value of a product is in the eyes of the consumer. An example that comes to mind is tablets, where manufacturers employed different strategies on show-casing their utility in this new and untested category. Most Android tablets, for instance, tried to compete on hardware specs, but cramming too much into these machines also raised their price. Apple’s response? They don’t mention any hardware specs, except where it would affect the customer experience: speed & graphics. And they remove as many expensive parts from the equation as possible, to keep the other objection to a minimum: “This new product that I’ve never used, I don’t want to pay too much for it.”
I’d also like to briefly talk about metric-based design, which is a likely future of marketing. It basically leaves the concept of taste up to the customer, rather than a designer. Tim Ferriss chose the title of his books through testing its effectiveness in different settings and with many customers, companies like Amazon A/B test their site, sometimes many times in a hour across different samples of customers, to find out if a design change makes sense. That feels like the future of positioning, where is becomes more of a measurable science than a (M)adman’s dream. As paper products become digital, I’m sure every message we receive will have been tested in real time, adjusted to our Facebook likes and tweets, until perfectly positioned. Assuming of course that there isn’t too much of it, which just means that no matter how good the message, we will ignore it anyway.
Marketing is kind of like antibiotics: give a person enough of it and the drugs stop working. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when metric-based design becomes commoditized, not too far from now. Then, authenticity and a focus on variables that cannot be tracked so easily, comes to the forefront again. My gut says, that the really good advertising agencies already know that this will be the outcome and are keeping their creatives on the payroll.
I feel like Positioning and RePositioning, both books written by Al Ries and Jack Trout, shouldn’t be cheapened as to hold little value in today’s measurable marketing media. We should try to understand the fundamentals and how many companies in the past went wrong. The key-reason for their failure seems to be not understanding what companies really value about the product, instead focussing on promoting the wrong features, perhaps because there are bottom-line advantages to those particular ones (i.e. what I said before). Companies should also keep their messages simple and relevant, rather than make changes that confuse customers. And finally, there continues to be room for intelligence and authenticity in advertising, even if the majority of companies will make the business decision to go for mass-, me-too-, and loud marketing, which will always be cheaper and easier on themselves.
- Why "Positioning" is the wrong word. A book-review.
- "Positioning, the battle for your mind", a must-read by Al Ries & Jack Trout
- Book-review: "Positioning – The Battle for Your Mind" (part 3)
- The Great Divide
- E’ship diary part 6: on the important matter of product design