The battle over positioning still rages to this day

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Advertising is communications. The objective of an advertising program is to communicate something about the brand. That's why advertising departments are often called "marketing communications" departments.

That's so obviously true who could disagree?

We could, that's who. Back in 1972 Jack Trout and I were running the advertising agency Ries Cappiello Colwell. In January of that year, we made a speech at a monthly meeting of the Sales Executives Club. Title: "The Positioning Era."

At the head table was Rance Crain, then a reporter, now editor in chief of Advertising Age. Positioning, Rance suggested, might make a good series of articles for his publication. And so they appeared in the April 24, May 1 and May 8, 1972, issues.

Our argument was that little communications take place between an advertiser and its target market. "Today's marketplace," we wrote, "is no longer responsive to the kind of advertising that worked in the past. There are just too many products, too many companies, too much marketing noise."

The goal of an ad program should not be to communicate, but to occupy a "position" in the prospect's mind. That's easy to do if the position is not already occupied, almost impossible to do if somebody else got there first.

The articles documented the many failures of brands that tried to compete "head-on" with market leaders, to take away somebody else's position. In particular, the failures of RCA and General Electric in mainframe computers.

But what got us into trouble were our comments about creativity. "Today it has become obvious that advertising is entering a new era, where creativity is no longer the key to success. The name of the marketing game in the '70s is positioning."

The creative community struck back with their own Ad Age articles.

"Is this the era of positioning? Greenland refutes stand of Trout, Ries" by Leo Greenland, president, Smith/Greenland.

The attacks kept the idea alive. On Dec. 13 of that year, The Wall Street Journal ran a cover story on "Positioning ads." According to the Journal, "The Trout-Ries articles spawned a debate that has raged in Advertising Age and on Madison Avenue ever since. Some critics claim 'positioning' is just a new name for an old idea ... One outraged adman dusted off copies of old publications to show that the soap market was engaging in positioning advertising as early as 1901."

Even Bill Bernbach found time to write an article denouncing positioning, and David Ogilvy, after initially supporting the idea, finally dumped on it with the comment: "Phooey on positioning."

The attacks continue today. "Beware of the so-called positionistas," warned Larry Light, McDonald's exec VP- global chief marketing officer. "They say that a brand can only stand for one thing in the mind of the market. Identifying one brand position, communicating it in a repetitive manner is old-fashioned, out-of-date, out-of-touch brand communication."

Maybe so, but unfortunately for the creative community, it still works. Let's review some recent positioning success stories.

* Barilla. "Italy's No. 1 pasta." In 1999, three years after Barilla was introduced into the U.S., the brand became the No. 1 pasta in America.

* Dyson. "The first vacuum cleaner that doesn't lose suction." Even though its vacuum cleaners sell for $400 and up, Dyson in just two years became the No. 2 brand in the U.S. market, second only to Hoover.

* Grey Goose. "Rated the No. 1 tasting vodka in the world." Introduced in 1997, Grey Goose was bought by Bacardi Ltd. last year for more than $2 billion, the largest sale in history for a single liquor brand.

* Subway. "Eat fresh." The dramatic advertising featuring Jared Fogle has moved the needle. In three years, sales per unit were up 17%. (I would have used "Eat healthy.")

So what's the best positioning campaign of all time?

First a little history. Countries have positions as well as brands. France is known for food and wine. Germany for engineering and beer.

Two reasons for Germany's engineering position are Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz, inventors of the automobile. Their company created Mercedes-Benz, the most famous luxury car in the world. How do you compete against a brand like Mercedes?

You become the opposite. Mercedes was known for roominess and comfort (rolling sofas), so BMW focused on smaller, more nimble vehicles. The 3 Series has thrived as it holds onto the entry point for driv-ers stepping up from the mass-market vehicle.

My candidate for the best positioning campaign of all time: "The ultimate driving machine." In spite of the power of the Mercedes-Benz brand, BMW outsells Mercedes in the U.S. market and most of the world. Overtaking a leader is extremely difficult. The "Pepsi Generation" is brilliant, but it didn't topple Coke. Apple's "1984" commercial is often cited as the best TV spot ever run, but Macintosh didn't outgun IBM. BMW not only drove past Mercedes, but it did so in an extremely competitive category. Furthermore, BMW manages to own a word (driving) that is unlikely to go out of date. Volkswagen owned "small" until customers started wanting larger cars. Volvo owns "safety" but the attribute appeals to only a segment of the market. Driv-ing has a much broader appeal. It's the ultimate reason for buying a car.

BMW has been the ultimate driv-ing machine for about 30 years now and is likely to remain so for another 30 years. (Consistency is one of the most powerful positioning tools.)

If positioning is everything, how can a brand without an effective positioning strategy remain successful? Take Toyota, for example.

Toyota positions itself as "Moving forward." (Don't Toyotas have reverse gears?) The company has 17 separate marketing plans, one for each model. A strategy that any positionista would condemn.

Toyota stays on top because they already own "the best Japanese car" position in the mind.

Positioning was the name of the marketing game in the 1970s and will continue to be for some time.

Proof? Twenty-four years after it was first published, our book "Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind" is one of the top sellers in the ad category at Amazon.com.

Al Ries is the author or co-author of 11 books on marketing, including his latest," The Origin of Brands." He and his daughter Laura run Ries & Ries. Their Web site is Ries.com.

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