Understanding Positioning


In your career in marketing or advertising, one of the terms that you are likely to encounter pretty frequently is ‘Positioning’. It will be thrown at you so often that it is well worth understanding what it really means. More importantly, the concept will be of immense importance to you in your work life and you should aim to get a solid handle on it.

Truth be told, there are different ways that Positioning has been defined and interpreted by marketing and advertising gurus since it was introduced by Al Ries and Jack Trout around 45 years ago. Here is how two gurus understood Positioning:

1. ‘Now consider how you want to ‘position’ your product. This curious verb is in great favor among marketing experts, but no two of them agree what it means. My own definition is ‘what the product does, and who is it for.’ I could have positioned Dove as a detergent bar for men with dirty hands, but chose instead to position it as a toilet bar for women with dry skin. This is still working 25 years later.

In Norway, the SAAB car had no measurable profile. We positioned it as a car for winter. Three years later it was voted the best car for Norwegian winters.

To advertise a car that looked like an orthopedic boot would have defeated me. But Bill Bernbach and his merry men positioned Volkswagen as a protest against the vulgarity of Detroit cars in those days, thereby making the Beetle a cult among those Americans who eschew conspicuous consumption.’

David Ogilvy in ‘Ogilvy on Advertising.’

2. ‘Positioning is the act of designing the company’s offering and image to occupy a distinctive place in the minds of the target market. The goal is to locate the brand in the minds of consumers to maximize the potential benefit to the firm. A good brand positioning helps guide marketing strategy by clarifying the brand’s essence, what goals it helps the consumer achieve, and how it does so in a unique way. Everyone in the organization should understand the brand positioning and use it as context for making decisions.

The result of positioning is the successful creation of a customer-focused value proposition, a cogent reason why the target market should buy the product.’

Philip Kotler, Kevin Lane Keller, Abraham Koshy and Mithileshwar Jha in ‘Marketing Management.’

Positioning was first introduced by Jack Trout in 1969 and then popularized by Al Ries and Jack Trout in their bestselling book “Positioning – The Battle for Your Mind.” This is how they defined Positioning – ‘Positioning starts with the product. A piece of merchandise, a service, a company, an institution, or even a person. Perhaps yourself.

But positioning is not what you do to the product. Positioning is what you do to the mind of the prospect. That is, you position the product in the mind of the prospect.

So it’s incorrect to call the concept “product positioning.” As if you are doing something to the product itself.

Not that positioning doesn’t involve change. It does. But changes made in the name, the price and the package are not really changes in the product at all.

They are basically cosmetic changes done for the purpose of securing a worthwhile position in the prospect’s mind.

Positioning is also the first body of thought that comes to grips with the problems of getting heard in our overcommunicated society.’

In Positioning, Ries and Trout argued that Americans were living in an overcrowded and overcommunicated world – there was an explosion of media, of products and of advertising. Given this assault on the mind, the human brain would only accept information that matched the current state of the human mind; everything else was filtered out. To cope with the product explosion, consumers were getting used to ranking brands in their minds (try it yourself: in any product category, you will find it difficult to name more than 7-8 brands, sometimes even less). They saw a brand category as a ladder with each brand occupying a step (with the category leader at the top, the number two brand below it and so on) – a brand that wanted to increase its market share had to either dislodge the brand above (an extremely difficult task) or relate to the other brand’s position in a meaningful way.

Based on their understanding of positioning, here are a few important points to note:

• You create a position in the minds of the prospects.
• Positioning is always relative to the positioning of competitive brands.
• Positioning is an oversimplified message, possibly just a word or phrase that a brand must own in the minds of the target consumers.
• It differentiates your product vis-à-vis competition; that is the whole point of positioning. Your positioning should be unique to your brand in the way that the consumers perceive it.
• It is relevant and believable. It should match the consumer perceptions of your brand. It should also be ownable.
• It is sustainable for a period of time and should be able to withstand attacks from competitors.

Ways to Position
There are different ways that you can position your brand. Before you really finalise your positioning, you will obviously have to do some careful study of your product, its benefits and its perceptions, your likely consumers and your competition.

Positioning of a leader
• A leader brand has it very good. In the short run, it is almost impossible to dislodge it. For example, Coke has been a leader brand for decades and while Pepsi has made concerted efforts, and has come close a couple of times, it has just not been able to get to the number one position. Of course, in the long run, a number one brand can be dislodged but that is more likely to be due to the leader missing out on changes in its category (for example Nokia, that missed out on the advent of smartphones).
• A leader brand should follow two strategies. One, it should, as Ries and Trout phrased it, ‘rub it in.’ Coke had the positioning of ‘The Real Thing’ for a while that communicated to consumers that, as the original cola brand, it was the real McCoy, the genuine article. That was a powerful positioning. Xerox was the brand that ‘invented’ copiers.
• The second strategy that a leader should follow is to cover all bases. Whenever a competitor comes out with a promising product (based, possibly, on a technological breakthrough) the leader should introduce a similar product at the very earliest. If the leader, in its arrogance, waits too long, it would find that it has been left behind. Take Nokia – it just didn’t realise that smartphones would become the norm and, by the time it reacted to the threat, it had lost out to Apple, Samsung and a host of other brands. The same with BlackBerry – it was so enamoured of its keypad phones (and felt that the business users would never accept a non-keypad phone) that it got decimated fairly fast. A good leader brand is Gillette – it keeps attacking its own products so frequently that it just doesn’t give competition a chance to introduce something different in shaving products.

Positioning of a follower
This is where positioning really helps and there are many ways to position your brand vis-à-vis completion. Many follower brands come out with me-too positioning that just follow what the leaders’ positioning; unfortunately, this strategy leads nowhere. Here are some ways a follower could look at positioning itself:
• Against a Competitor. The Avis positioning, developed by Doyle Dane Bernbach is a classic positioning against a leader. Hertz was, for a number of years, the number one car rental company; Avis was number two. The consumers were well aware of this fact. In a seemingly self-deprecating move, Avis came out with its classic positioning – ‘We are No.2. We try harder.’ The campaign that followed from this positioning clearly demonstrated to consumers the benefits of going with the number two brand.
• In a Competitor’s category. This one is not so easy to do and is best illustrated by an example. In the US, the soft drinks category in the 1970s was dominated by colas with an almost 70% market share. 7-Up, a lemon drink, came out with the ‘Uncola’ position that positioned the brand vis-à-vis colas. Sales shot up. What is critical to note is that nothing was done to the product – the position was established in the minds’ of cola drinkers.
• Benefit. Owning a unique benefit could be a great way to position your brand. An example is Volvo and its positioning of ‘safety/the safe car.’ Safety was a major concern for car drivers, especially those who were married and had children. Volvo used the safety positioning so consistently that the benefit became synonymous with the brand. The positioning also led to the long-term Volvo strategy of developing, introducing or incorporating safety features in its cars. Many of the safety features found in automobiles were first developed and introduced by Volvo; the entire company strategy was aligned to the positioning.
• Product Attribute. You could use a distinctive product attribute to position your brand. I remember how Balsara toothpaste played up the clove in its toothpaste to take on Colgate. Clove was and is seen by Indian consumers as an effective anodyne (painkiller) for dental emergencies and its use in a toothpaste resonated with the consumers.
• Usage Occasion. Vicks VapoRub used the usage occasion of applying the ointment to a child suffering from cold at night into a very successful usage occasion positioning. Dettol soap became successful by positioning itself as a soap that provided a 100% bath when you and your children were too dirty or grimy. Even today, Dettol soap sales surge during the monsoon period in India; parents want to give their children the 100% bath when they may have played in muggy water. Burnol was strongly entrenched as a remedy for burns and Dettol for small cuts and wounds.
• User. A classic example is Johnson & Johnson and its range of products that are aimed at children. They are perceived as so gentle that almost every mother will use it for her child or children. The Dummies books are all positioned for beginners of a particular subject.
• Repositioning. Many marketers confuse repositioning with either changing the positioning of a brand or with comparative advertising (comparing brands on attributes and features). Actually, it is neither. Correctly used, repositioning is an extremely effective way to position your brand. You reposition your competition by undermining or overturning it. Some examples will amplify:

  1. Royal Doulton repositioned Lenox by saying that it was made in England (the country noted for its fine china) while Lenox was made in the US – “Royal Doulton. The china of Stoke-on-Trent, England versus Lenox. The china of Pomona, New Jersey.”
  2. Stolichnaya repositioned American vodkas with this ad – “Most American vodkas look Russian. Stolichnaya is different. It is Russian.”

• Other ways to position. High price can be a position – “There is only one Joy, the costliest perfume in the world.” Low price can be a position – “Walmart. Always low prices. Always.” Even masculinity can be a position; Marlboro changed its image from being a cigarette for females to a macho brand by using cowboys in its communication.

The Positioning Exercise
Finding a positioning for your brand would require some serious understanding (of the market, the consumers, the competition and your product) and some serious thinking! In many cases, you will have to do some marketing research to get a deeper understanding of the market, the consumers and their perceptions of various brands in your product category.

Given below is one way you could go about identifying and finalising the positioning for your brand.


Positioning is an important concept and is used by marketers regularly, although different companies have different ways of looking at it. The key to a good strategy is differentiation – how different your product is vis-à-vis competition. The difference need not always be in the product, as we have seen, but in the way it is communicated to and perceived by the consumers against the offering of competitive brands. Communicating that difference effectively is the essence of Positioning.

Visual courtesy : https://www.flickr.com/photos/76969036@N02/

About author

This article was written by andy

Sign Up for the BlueBarn Newsletter!

Just enter your e-mail and stay on top of things!