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The Battle for Your Mind

By: Jack Trout and Al Ries

Reviewed By: Bob Ruffolo

One of the biggest challenges facing B2B brands is trying to stand out in a crowded market.

With so many options available, why should customers choose your product or service over the others?

The answer to that question can be determined by effective positioning.

Jack Trout and Al Ries wrote the book on this subject, appropriately titled Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind.

Positioning is a must-read for B2B marketers and is arguably one of the best marketing books ever written on the subject. Many of the lessons from it may sound familiar, but that's simply because the book has been picked apart, examined, and implemented countless times.

Effective Communication

Trout and Ries argue that brands lack good positioning because for lack of a better word, their communication sucks. 

Since our minds take in so much information every day, we naturally block out anything we believe is less important or relevant to us.

This mechanism causes a tremendous amount of information to slip through the cracks when it isn’t communicated properly and that’s why so many businesses fail to get the message across.

According to Trout and Ries, positioning isn’t about what we do to our products, but instead what we do to the minds of prospects. It’s a matter of effective communication.

Why Positioning Matters

Trout and Ries provide a strong argument for the value of positioning, backed by notable statistics.

Keep in mind, Positioning was originally published in the 70s, but you’ll find many of these statistics match what you could expect today:

  • America consumes 57% of the world’s advertising.
  • Each year 30,000 books are published in America.
  • 98% of all American homes have at least one television set.
  • The average American family watches television more than 51 hours a week.
  • 5,000 new products are introduced into the American market each year.

The point they are driving home is that we are constantly bombarded with marketing messages and there’s a never-ending supply of new products to choose from.

To make sense of all this, according to Trout and Ries, we have learned to rank brands in our mind on a series of ladders.

For example, when you think of cola, most people think Coca-Cola first, followed by Pepsi, and so on.

An example of successful positioning from the book is the case of 7-Up and how they positioned themselves as the “un-cola.”

Trying to take on the major soda brands directly would be difficult, but by positioning themselves as an alternative to cola they are placed on a separate ladder and sit right at the top.

(You could argue that Sprite has since taken the top spot, depending on where you live.)

Positioning requires you to understand and dig deep into the psychology of your ideal customers.

Getting Inside Your Buyer Persona’s Head

The easiest way to claim a spot in your buyer persona’s mind is by being the first of your kind. The most difficult way is to be second.

Notable examples include:

  • Coca-cola was the first in cola
  • Xerox was the first in copiers
  • Kodak was the first in photography

The value of being first can’t be overstated.

How many times have you heard someone refer to buying a Coke when they meant any brand of soda? Or been asked to Xerox a document at work? You’ve probably even referred to a photo as a “Kodak moment.

Clearly, from these examples, it pays to be first, but most of the time we don’t have that option.

In those cases, businesses have to position themselves against existing competition.

It all starts by understanding your buyer persona -- their wants, needs, fears, dreams, goals, preferences, and opinions.

Once you understand all of that, it’ll be much easier to position yourself as the perfect solution for them.

Positioning Your Brand in the Market

Maintaining the top position is significantly easier than obtaining that top spot.

However, you don’t want to make the mistake of getting too cocky when you have the top spot because it makes your brand look insecure and creates vulnerability to losing your top position.

According to Trout and Ries, too many companies fail to realize that the power of the organization is derived from the power of the product and not the power of the organization.

In other words, a small company with an innovative product can gain the lead position by releasing their product first and maintain their position when much larger companies release their version.

It’s not that organization branding doesn’t matter because it matters a lot. However, positioning is determined by products more than organizations. (This is why major companies own so many brands, instead of releasing new products under the parent company name.)

Positioning as a Follower

There can only be one position as a leader -- they are the first of their kind on the market or they’ve taken the leader position and maintained it for an extended period of time.

What do you do if you can’t be first? This is what Trout and Ries call the “position as a follower.”

The mistake that companies make is following the American philosophy of bigger is better, thinking they can gain the leader position by one-upping the competition.

Trout and Ries suggest the opposite approach, instead of trying to take your competitor’s spot on the ladder, find a way to create a new ladder and be the first in that new position.

A notable example is one of the most successful advertising campaigns of all time, ran by Volkswagen for their Beetle.

The consumer opinion of the Beetle was that it wasn’t bigger or faster than other cars on the market. Volkswagen responded with their “think small” campaign and became the leader in small, efficient cars.

Here are several examples from the book:

  • Geritol - Positioning by age
  • Mobil 1 Synthetic Oil - Positioning by high price
  • Virginia Slims - Positioning by gender
  • Nyquil - Positioning by time of day

Another approach is to reposition your competition, which can be extremely effective.

Trout and Ries recounted how Tylenol repositioned aspirin by advertising the medical reasons for when and why consumers shouldn’t take aspirin. Their ads ended with the phrase “Fortunately, there is Tylenol” and sales skyrocketed. To this day, aspirin’s reputation still hasn’t completely recovered.

There’s a good chance your product or service isn’t the first of its kind, but that doesn’t mean you can’t gain the position as a leader. You simply have to find a way to position yourself as the leader in something, anything, important to your buyer persona.

Once you have won over the minds of your potential customers you will win the market.