Even in 1969-the seminal year for positioning as espoused by Messrs. Trout and Ries-"we were all doing it and we were all saying it. But these guys did it the loudest and owned it," said Dick Costello, president of TBWA, New York.
No especially momentous process led the pair to adopt positioning as the touchstone for their then largely industrial ad agency, Ries Cappiello Colwell, New York, which by 1989 had evolved into strategic consultancy Trout & Ries, Greenwich, Conn.
After much noodling, Mr. Trout sent a memo to his partners on Feb. 3, 1969. It began "For some time, I've been looking for a concept that presented our approach to the business of doing great advertising ... Gentleman, I present for your thoughts positioning ... I submit that the companies and agencies who excel in the 1970s will be those that understand and master `positioning."'
Up until that time, Mr. Trout had been diddling with calling the concept the "rock." But he said he found it "had no mileage in the publicity area because it didn't sound exciting. We had to verbalize it in a way to get inside the mind."
Or as he would later theorize: "Today's marketplace is no longer responsive to strategies that worked in the past. There are just too many products, too many companies, too much marketing `noise.' We have become an overcommunicated society. To succeed in this environment, you must create a position in the prospect's mind-a position that takes into consideration not only your own strengths and weaknesses but those of your competitors as well."
Mr. Trout's modest memo led to an article in the June 1969 issue of Industrial Marketing (now Business Marketing) and another in 1971. Mr. Trout finally cracked consumer marketing with a series of bylined articles in 1972 in Advertising Age, followed by some ink in The New York Times ad column and on the front page of The Wall Street Journal.
The clips begat speeches and then books, though primers might be more accurate, including "Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind" (1981), "Marketing Warfare" (1986) and the bombastically titled "The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing" (1993).
All of which begat much Sturm und Drang in the agency world.
Mr. Trout's first missives on positioning challenged the relevance of Rosser Reeves' "unique selling proposition" and the importance of brand imagery and creativity mandated by David Ogilvy.
At the time, Leo Greenland, then president of Smith/Greenland, New York, remarked: "7UP wisely decided to position itself as an alternative to the cola drinks that had the overwhelming share of the soft-drink market. Excellent positioning. But what if its message read `7UP is not a Cola' rather than `7Up. The Un-Cola?' Would Heinz have been effective if the line read `Heinz's ketchup runs slowly' rather than `The slowest ketchup in town?"'
Recalled Al Ries: "We got a lot of flak by the big mouths like Bill Bernbach and Leo Greenland."
But he shouldn't be ungrateful. He and his partner also got an invaluable boost, albeit indirectly, when Ogilvy & Mather took out a 1971 ad in The New York Times. Titled "How to create advertising that sells" and bylined by David Ogilvy, the ad ranked "How should you position your product" as the "most important decision." Further down on the list came brand image and big ideas.
A few days later, Rosenfeld, Sirowitz & Lawson ran a similar ad, noting "Accurate positioning is the most important step in effective selling."
But all things must be put in the context of their time. In contrast to the creative revolution's heyday, by the time Jack Trout and Al Ries came along, "creativity was viewed as the handmaiden of the devil," said one agency executive.
Of course, all things change with time. Even Mr. Ogilvy's perspective on positioning.
"Having reread the advertisement I wrote in 1971, I cannot argue with my statement that the effect of advertising on your sales depends more than anything on how you position your product," he said. "However, it was obviously an overstatement."