The Reference on top of “Positioning”

An old wrestling expression says that you can’t get pinned when you’re on top.

Being consultants we constantly read interesting books, try out promising techniques and follow new courses to stay on top of things so you, our customers, stay on top and don’t get pinned down.

This week we take a look at “Positioning - The Battle for Your Mind” by Al Ries and Jack Trout, a golden oldie and fun read that is, surprisingly enough and despite its outdated examples, still relevant. What did we learn from it?

Position yourself to get your message through to your customers

People are bombarded with messages and information. The brain reacts by accepting less and less of what is being offered. Only simple messages and the messages that agree with the perceptions and opinions of the receiver get through.

“The mind rejects new information that doesn’t ‘compute’. It accepts only that new information which matches its current state of mind. It filters out everything else.” 

On top of that, the mind oversimplifies the excessive amount of incoming information.

“To cope with the product explosion people have learned to rank products and brands in their mind. This can best be visualized by a series of ladders in the mind. On each step is a brand name. And each different ladder represents a product category.”


Can you remember the second woman to fly across the Atlantic? That’s why it is so important to be on the top rung of the ladder in your prospect’s mind.

Be the first

“One of the things that makes positioning thinking difficult for many people is the failure to understand the role of timing. The first company into the mind with a new product or new idea is going to become famous.”

In order to get into your prospect’s mind you have to position your business, product or service. If you’re the first to claim a space in your prospect’s mind, you’re on the top rung of a new ladder and you’re set as your competition will be perceived as imitations being on one of the rungs below you. The action word here is claiming a space first, not being the first with a new product or idea. It’s all about perception.

The only thing you need to do when you are first is to secure your position

  • by reinforcing the original concept;
  • by broadening the range of applications for your products;
  • by adopting every new product development as soon as it shows signs of promise.

“Unfortunately, leaders often read their own advertising so avidly they end up thinking they can do no wrong. So when a competitor introduces a new product or a new feature, the tendency is to pooh-pooh the development.” 

Don’t be a me-too-company...

...if you’re not the first you have to position yourself against the market leaders. This is not done by trying to claim the top rung of the ladder owned by the market leader but by trying to create a new ladder on which you can own the top rung.

“[…] the first rule of positioning is: To win the battle for the mind you can’t compete head-on against a company that has a strong, established position. You can go around under or over, but never head to head.” 

In order to find a new ladder in your prospect’s mind you have to know how your business, product or service is perceived. Don’t look at the product. Look at the space the product or product category occupies in the prospect’s mind. It requires market research to know what you’re up against, but only by knowing your prospect’s perception,  you can try to take a position that no one else has a firm grip on.

This is done by looking for a unique niche with an appeal that is not too narrow. You have to find that new ladder on which your business can own the top rung.


Many companies do not want to limit themselves by looking for a niche but you cannot be everything to everybody. You have to choose and choosing is losing but it is better to be the biggest fish in a smaller pond than a small fish in a big pond. As a big fish, you can always jump to another pond.

If positioning yourself by finding a niche is not possible, you might have to reposition your competition by moving an existing idea out so that you can move your idea in.


An example of this is 'aspirin', that was seen as thé product to still pain. Tylenol repositioned that idea with the following message:

“For the millions who should not take aspirin. If your stomach is easily upset…or you have an ulcer… or you suffer from asthma, allergies, or iron-deficiency anemia, it would make good sense to check with your doctor before you take aspirin. […] Luckily, there is Tylenol…” 

The right name

An important part of the book is about picking the correct name for your product, service and/or business.

“The name is the hook that hangs the brand on the product ladder in the prospect’s mind. ” 
Make sure that the name positions the product correctly in the prospect’s mind by choosing a strong generic-like descriptive name. (Think of a product name like “Vanish” for a stain remover.)

The right name fills the niche you have created and keeps the competition out.

Don’t water down the power of the name

It is important that a product name is used for one idea. The more products you hang on one name the less meaning the name has to the average consumer. Imagine the brand Coca Cola being used for lollies as well. It would water down the brand name.

By using a brand name for different products, the consumer can no longer use the brand name for the product category. It teaches the user that the brand is just a brand name and takes away the illusion that the brand name is a superior form of the product category.


Pick up the book for some sound observations on marketing and a great example collection of marketing Americana. Don’t miss out on how Al Ries and Jack Trout repositioned Belgium to the chagrin of the Dutch. 

An interesting read that puts the customer’s perception first as perception defines -to a great extent- the user experience. Have you found the niche that you can own? Does your customers’ experience strengthen your brand and the message you want to get across? Do you reach the customers you need to reach?

Contact the Reference -the agency at the crossroads of technology and marketing- if you need any help.


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