WHAT TROUT, RIES HAVE WROUGHT

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I have had from time to time some friendly arguments with Al Ries and Jack Trout about positioning, the marketing concept they have single-mindedly championed for the past 25 years.

I feel partially responsible for what Messrs. Ries and Trout have wrought, because they first laid out their treatise in the pages of Industrial Marketing (now Business Marketing) and Advertising Age. It was a three-part series in Ad Age back in 1972 that really got the ball rolling.

Almost immediately they drew the ire of the creative community, and to this day that animus still exists. In the opening paragraph of their first Ad Age article, they threw down the gauntlet: "Today, it has become obvious that advertising is entering a new era. An era where creativity is no longer the key to success."

One creative guy I talked to about Ries and Trout called them "brilliant self-promoters" but said they had been "destructive to creativity." By continually emphasizing strategy-creating a "position" for a product or service in the prospect's mind-the two convinced "skittish" clients they didn't need great advertising to move the merchandise, my creative friend contended. And, along the way, they "dissed" some good people and institutions.

In all fairness, if what he says is true, it's more the fault of wavering clients than any voodoo spin by Al and Jack. The trouble with the ad business is that it's more art than science, and its practitioners are willing to try anything to achieve even better results (sort of like golfers who go from one driver to another to gain a few extra yards).

The positioning doctrine is beguilingly simple. The basic premise is that "the most powerful concept in marketing is owning a word in the prospect's mind." Federal Express "owns" overnight, Domino's Pizza owns home delivery, Volvo owns safety. "What Volvo is exploiting is the fact that the car looks like a tank. They can fire all the designers," Al quipped at a 25th anniversary breakfast last week.

There's no question the positioning concept helps you winnow down what a brand or company wants to stand for in the consumer's mind. A brand or company can't be all things to all people (that's why IBM selected one agency to play up the IBM brand, with less emphasis on specific models).

Al and Jack want companies to stick to their knitting ("beware of the line extension trap" is one of their favorite maxims). Indeed, their new word for the next 25 years is "refocusing."

I grant you many corporate diversification moves-like Kodak into over-the-counter drugs and Xerox into computers-don't work out. But I've always thought the positioning concept has the best chance of working for companies with a narrow focus who get there first. And that leaves the vast majority of companies looking for another magic word to solve all their problems.

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