What a strange word, “positioning.” Its origins are shrouded in the fog of history. The popular marketing writers, Jack Trout and Al Ries, started talking about position or positioning in 1972 or thereabouts, and took credit later for having invented positioning. However, I believe that positioning was an emerging concept and a term, in at least limited use, within the marketing and advertising community at the time that Trout and Ries first wrote about it. Certainly, the basic concepts of positioning were not new in 1972. The term “positioning” was described by Trout and Ries as the basic position in the consumer’s mind occupied by a brand. They saw positioning as an antidote to the “over-communicated” society, in which consumers were drowning in a sea of advertising messages. The key, they argued, was to occupy a unique position in the consumer’s mind to cut through all of the confusion caused by brand proliferation and advertising clutter.
The term “positioning” is widely used within the marketing and advertising communities today, and its meaning has expanded beyond the narrow definitions of Trout and Ries. Positioning is often used nowadays as a broad synonym for marketing strategy. However, the terms “positioning” and “marketing strategy” should not be used interchangeably. Rather, positioning should be thought of as an element of strategy, a component of strategy, not as the strategy itself.
The term “positioning” is, and should be, intimately connected to the concept of “target market.” That is, a brand’s positioning defines the target audience. For example, an airline might position itself against other airlines, which defines the target audience as airline travelers. Or, it might position itself against all modes of transportation between two destinations, which then defines the target audience as all travelers between those two markets. The second positioning reaches out to a much larger target audience.
Another example: A brand of peanut butter could position itself against all competing brands of peanut butter, which defines the audience as peanut butter users. Or the brand might position itself against margarine and butter, which defines a very different target market. Positioning, then, is analogous to aiming an artillery field gun. How you position the cannon defines who and what the target is. So, the term “aiming” is not a bad definition of positioning, and the term “targeting” is not a bad definition of positioning.
The positioning possibilities that exist for any given brand or service are almost infinite. Some commonly used positioning strategies are:
- Positioning against a broader market. For example, positioning a bicycle brand as a substitute for the automobile, rather than as a substitute for other brands of bicycles. - Positioning against a price segment of the market. One example would be positioning a car brand against luxury imported cars. - Positioning against a usage segment of the market. For example, positioning a brand of cooking oil as the very best brand of oil for frying chicken. - Positioning against a geographic segment of a market. An example of this would be positioning Ford trucks as made for driving conditions in Texas. - Positioning against a psychographic segment of the market. For example, positioning Volvo as the best car for drivers who are primarily concerned about safety. - Positioning against a channel of distribution, a season of the year, a particular type of weather, a human fear, etc.
Again, positioning possibilities are almost limitless for any given brand and can be defined in many different ways. The correct positioning of a brand is basic and fundamental to its success: An incorrect or suboptimal positioning can doom a brand to underperformance or failure. So, how does one arrive at an optimal positioning for a given brand? The search for an optimal positioning begins in the mind of the consumer, and it is here that we must turn to marketing...
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