Paradigm Shift: What is “Positioning” in Marketing?
The “Positioning Era” can be traced to an article on the subject published by Jack Trout in 1969. In 1972, Al Ries and Jack Trout published a series of articles on the topic in Advertising Age. But it was Ries and Trout’s 1981 bestselling book, Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, which firmly established and popularized the concept on Madison Avenue.
The breakthrough part of the Ries and Trout’s conceptualization is that “a positioning” exists only in the mind of the customer. Ries and Trout felt that, in an era of information overload, which at the time was driven by continuous streams of advertising messages, the consumer would only be able to accept and absorb those messages consistent with prior knowledge or experience. “Positioning” would help the advertiser break through the message clutter. “Positioning” presents a simplified message consistent with what the consumer already believes by focusing on the perceptions of the consumer, rather than on the reality of the product.
The idea that consumer perceptions are critical to the success of a product changed the very basis on which new products could be developed. In their 1987 article entitled “Psychological meaning of products and product positioning,” Friedmann and Lessig (1987) argued that products can engender important psychological meaning to customers, and that these psychological meanings can be both complementary and convergent from differentiation strategies based only on rational product attributes.
Today, the concept of positioning is embraced by the marketing mainstream, with the vast majority of marketers using the term as part of their professional lexicon. The term “positioning” has evolved (or devolved, depending on one’s point of view) generally to describe any number of techniques by which marketers try to create an image or identity for a product, brand, or company in the mind of a target audience.
Popular tools to assess positioning include graphical perceptual mapping, market surveys, and certain statistical techniques. The marketing community seems to have lost the simple elegance of the original “positioning” idea. Marketing strategists have layered, expanded, and refined elements in the concept of “positioning.” Researchers have created a plethora of techniques to measure “positioning.” Yet, in the end what matters is how potential buyers perceive the product as it is expressed relative to the position of competition.