Duck, Duck, Goose: A Review of the Book Positioning, by Authors Al Ries & Jack Trout

Ries, Al & Jack Trout. (2001). Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind. New York, Ny: McGraw-Hill. 213 pages. List price $14.95
This is a reprint of the first release in 1981.
Reviewed by Brandi L. Holder

According to authors Al Ries and Jack Trout, “Positioning is not what you do to a product. Positioning is what you do to the mind of the prospects” (p. 2). At its inception, Positioning was a revolutionary concept, which Ries and Trout point out often with back patting phrases throughout the book. Nevertheless, to someone with a superficial, or even an intermediary understanding, it is a revelation in the way of thinking about marketing. Understanding consumer needs and attitudes is an integral part of marketing and those with an advanced understanding would already understand the concept (one would hope anyway).

Before buying into the premise of a new concept one should question, who are the authors and how are they qualified to write this book? According to Al Ries’s website, he started to receive notoriety in his field in 1972. This recognition began with a series of articles about the concept of Positioning. The idea of positioning became popular enough that it turned into a book co-authored by Jack Trout. The website features articles and information on numerous publications. It is informative and conveys the tone that Al and his partner Laura, are experts in the field (without the overture of arrogance). His bio makes no mention of his credentials. (http://www.ries.com/about/).

Jack Trout’s website stands in complete contrast to Al’s. Jack’s bio feels forced and gives the impression that it was penned by him. Interestingly enough, it has the same back patting phraseology that liters the Positioning book itself. From the bio it appears that Positioning was the jump off point for Jacks career as well. He has several publications listed and mentions that he has over 40 years of experience in his field. An interesting note is about his team list, of the 35 employees on his team only one is a woman. This fact becomes especially important when reading that he works with the government in a role whereby he claims to “sell America”. How is it that Jack can work such an advisory role, when it appears that he does not embrace the principles of a representative workforce (http://www.troutandpartners.com/trout-partners-team.asp)? This appears to be in direct violation of Executive Order 11246 which establishes equal opportunity employment standards for contractors.

As a side note, both authors were contacted in reference to this review. Al responded with some detail about the Positioning concept and an explanation that both authors were equally involved. Jack’s secretary responded that “we just haven’t been approached by many women”. It should also be noted that both Al and Jack claim to be the originator of the idea of positioning as a marketing strategy. However, in a reprinting of another book they co-author, Marketing Warfare, Jack claims to be the originator of the Positioning concept.

The book itself is a simple read. It has short chapters and the digestible material takes the reader on a journey through the who, what, how and why that is Positioning. It can be broken down into sections comprised of:
• what is positioning
• the role of the over communicated society
• leading brands and position to relative to competition
• branding and names
• line extension
• several chapters devoted to mini case studies
Overall it appears as though the authors invite the reader to gain an understanding of what positioning is all about, how it affects your seat next to the competition, and how you can leverage your brand name and your position in the overarching sea of similar products and claims. The authors say, positioning should come before the 4P’s (product, place, promotion & price) so that the 4P’s are maximized.

Simply put, positioning requires a brand to “get there” first in the prospects mind. Just like in duck, duck, goose. You definitely want to be first. There is an argument for being second. But nobody wants to be the goose. The authors cite that the strategy of those first in line should do everything they can to defend their number one spot. They do this not by proclaiming to be number one, but by selling value to the prospect.

In contrast, the authors argue that in some cases by pointing out that a brand is second, or different in some way, it creates its own position in the prospects mind. Or perhaps it fills a “creneau” or a niche in what the authors call “glittering generalities” in our over communicated world (p. 7). This will allow a secondary brand to become first in the mind of the prospect for a given feature. The authors call this a repositioning strategy whereby a secondary brand can expose some weakness in a brand leader. The weakness can be exploited to become a strong feature for the secondary brand.

When it comes to a product’s name, the authors claim that is the most important aspect of marketing. In their view, the perception of quality of a brand has as much, or more to do with the name than any other aspect. Strong names are almost “generic” but descriptive, and can evolve with the language of the day while surviving through negative connotations. Also names should not be initials unless it rolls off the tongue and shortens the syllables. This seems to be a tall order and open to differing opinion. For example, they produce the names Elmer and Hubert as examples of “losers”. Then there is the section where the authors discuss “Negro” vs. “Colored” vs. “Black” whereas the latter allows the person to develop a sense of “pride” more than the former and “Colored”, as they say in the book, does not create a sense of contrast. This section should be revamped to explore the deeper meaning they are trying to achieve, or be deleted. The superficiality of the section feels ostentatious and awkward.

Ries and Trout claim that once a name is established, a way of ruining it is by attaching other products to it. This is what they refer to as line extension. An example the authors give is the DieHard battery vs the JC Penney battery. The logic is that DieHard claims a stronger position in the mind because the name is strong and people have associated it with a battery. The JC Penney battery may be just as good, but when people think of JC Penney they do not think of batteries. JC Penneys sells too many products for the prospect to differentiate them as quality battery makers. This logic also applies to brands that try to capitalize on success by introducing other products under the same name. The authors claim that this weakens the name and that each product should have its own name so that it has the opportunity to grab a slice of the prospects mind. In essence, what they are saying is that people tend to be categorical in their minds rather than brand loyal across categories.

My chief complaint with the book is its lack of up to date examples from its original 1981 publish date. I understand that it is a “classic” marketing book. But to what end do the authors want to take that “position”? As a stale and dusty has-been; relegated to the role of required reading to droves of students asking what the heck is “Madison Avenue” or a facsimile machine? Or as an example to be held up that can transcend the use of historical examples into contemporary internet driven marketing. I question how many of my fellow students even know what a facsimile machine is… but I digress. Without droning endlessly, I want to state how the lack of contemporary examples could be the lynch pin for eternal damnation to life on the shelf as a “classic”… a thing to own, but not to read.

I should stress that it is not all rotten tomatoes. The concepts are relevant. I enjoyed the easy read. Without beating the aforementioned lack of contemporary examples in to the ground, if nothing else perhaps it could include a section devoted to the social internet of things. The historical examples are great but the outdated language detracts from the message. It is what it is… a “pitch” or narrative of why you should buy into the concept of “Positioning” as a way of marketing. That’s my position anyway.

I’d love to hear yours.