Category Archives: positioning

The top 10 ideas anyone ever had for marketing (or why Apple doesn’t use a Twitter account)

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If you plan campaigns, you’re likely awash in data, reports, presentations, requests, vendors, staff issues, email, deadlines and ideas. It’s all so damned complex. If only you had the right framework to coherently forge a path through it all.

Well, you do. Here are 10 of the greatest business frameworks we’ve discovered for planning business growth. We lean on one at least every day. Consider this a refresher on valuable logic tools to help you clarify your marketing strategy.

1. The Pareto Principle — The basis for understanding that in business, like life, not all things are created equal. Vilfredo Pareto was a late-1800s economist who noticed that about 20% of the population of Italy owned about 80% of the land. This “80-20 rule” occurs in most groups of resources, where a small fraction contribute the greatest value. About 20% of people at a party have 80% of the fun. About 20% of your customers give you 80% of your profits. Once you accept the tragically undemocratic fact that “not all customers or products or employees” are created equal, you can begin focusing on the smaller group that drives real value to your business.

2. Five Forces Model — Pan out to all of your business, and you face much more than just competitors. Michael Porter, business guru of Harvard Business School, has posited there are five forces in the business landscape: industry competitors whom you fight with daily; upstream suppliers; downstream buyers or customers; substitutes; and new entrants. You have to watch the entire landscape of these “five forces” to compete. Kodak, for instance, was blindsided by the “new entrant” of digital cameras that, despite Kodak inventing the technology itself in 1975, 30 years later made its old film business fade away.

3. Competitive Advantage — This was Porter’s second big idea (he wrote a book with this title) and while the term “competitive advantage” is tossed around today lightly as business jargon, what it really means is finding a profitable, sustainable position against the five forces above. Porter suggested there are four competitive advantage positions: on the customer side, you can go after (a) narrow or (b) broad targets, and on the product/service side, you can either focus on (c) lowest cost or (d) differentiation. Pick (a) or (b) and add it to (c) or (d), and you have a competitive plan. But you have to pick one spot; if you try to do everything, you end up “stuck in the middle,” the competitive version of warm porridge. Apple Inc. has a competitive advantage today in that it goes after a broad customer target with a clearly differentiated line of products. Walmart has a different focus, offering the lowest possible prices to a broad audience. Don’t kid yourself that speaking the words “competitive advantage” does the trick; you must focus your entire business on staking out a real competitive position.

4. Discipline of Market Leaders — This was an evolution of Porter’s competitive advantage concept by Michael Treacy and Fred Wiersema. These authors suggested there are actually three areas of competitive focus: Product innovation (think Apple); operations excellence (think Walmart or USPS, offering low costs due to efficient supply chains); and total customer solution (think ad agencies, who will do almost anything for clients). By “discipline,” Treacy and Wiersema meant your business needs the guts to stick to one of these strategies. You can’t build the most incredible product and drive down all costs and focus on incredible customer service at the same time. This explains why Apple, a product wizard, doesn’t have a Twitter account — it doesn’t need to worry much about fawning customer service.

5. Positioning — Moving to advertising, “Positioning” was the greatest brand book ever written. It grew out of a series of articles by Jack Trout in the late 1960s that noted consumers, awash in advertising, can only remember a few brands in any product category in their head. How many watch brands do you know? Hm, Rolex, Victorinox, Timex… unless you’re really into watches, you might not be able to name more than six brands. Consumers stack these few brands up on mental ladders, and a marketer who wants to capture a consumer’s attention must grab a “position” on these rungs. A classic example was Avis who in the 1960s chased car-rental leader Hertz by stating in its ads “Avis is only No. 2. We try harder.” The Coke-Pepsi marketing wars of the 1980s were a classic positioning battle. Political candidates constantly strive to “de-position” opponents. Positioning involves numerous tactics for grabbing mindshare or pushing competitors aside; if you haven’t read the slim book, go get it.

6. 1to1 Marketing — In 1993, former ad executive Don Peppers wrote a book with Martha Rogers that was the opposing viewpoint to “positioning.” Peppers suggested that customers, not products, should be managed, and thus the goal for marketers was to build a one-to-one relationship with each customer. Instead of market share, Peppers and Rogers wrote, businesses should go for “customer share.” They outlined an entire philosophy on how to do this, noting that different customers have different values to a business (Pareto’s old idea), and different customers need different things. The payoff is when a business learned enough about a customer to customize a product or service in response, thus locking in loyalty. This idea took off thanks to the new computer databases of the 1990s that held reams of information on customers, allowing marketers for the first time to interact with customers, record their history, and provide mass-customized service response. (Amazon.com with its radical personalization emerged in this period.) The 1to1 theory infused the Customer Relationship Management software craze that led us to Salesforce.com databases today. Peppers and Rogers missed the 2000s’ advent of social networks that changed the business-customer dynamic from one-to-one to many-to-one, but their ideas were ahead of their time.

7. Price Framing — Go to the movies this weekend and buy candy, look closely at the strange box, and you’ll see price framing in action. In 1980 Richard Thaler invented behavioral economics by publishing the paper “Mental Accounting Matters,” suggesting consumers are really bad at judging value, and so make mental accounting decisions in their heads that can be guided with “price framing.” This explains everything from product “sales” to Omaha Steaks packaged with mashed potatoes. If you see a dress on sale for $50 marked down from $250, you might jump to buy it … not considering the initial “$250” price point is an illusion. The clever retailer has simply given you a reference price of $250 to “reframe” your perception of the $50 real price. Cost savings, product bundling, and price obscurity are all tactics to reframe pricing to make it more appealing. That box of candy in the theater comes in an unusual shape for good reason: by “reframing” the packaging to obscure the price for the candy inside, the movie theater has made it hard for you to determine if it is a good deal.

8. Gartner Hype Cycle — The analyst group Gartner has built a practice around a simple idea: new technologies are met with increasing expectations, followed by a trough of disillusionment, until eventually we all settle down and realize the truth is somewhere in the lukewarm middle. If you had an iPhone two weeks after launch, kids would line up around the block to see it; now, it’s just another ho-hum phone in your pocket. Gartner taught us not to get too excited by new technology or media, but not to scoff too hard, either. Think of this next time someone tells you to buy a 3-D printer.

9. Lean Startup — A relatively simple but revolutionary idea from consultant Eric Ries, who says toss out the business plan and instead launch your business with rapid prototypes, fast feedback from customers in the market, “minimally viable products,” and an ability to “pivot” to new ideas that will really take hold. Ries posits that it is pure arrogance to assume your initial product idea is good, and instead you should include customers at every stage of product development to ensure success. Give them rough drafts; listen; change based on what they say. This clever idea seems logical until you realize how few businesses do it.

10. Whatever You Think — Let us know, we’re open to new frameworks, too.

So there you have it. Not all customers are created equal. There are more forces than just direct competitors at work. Your business needs to stake a clear competitive structural position, and your marketing must also capture a brand position in customers’ minds. You can play with pricing to influence people, and you should include customer or market feedback at each stage, especially early stages, of growth. And through it all, be careful about believing the hype.

It’s not an MBA, but it’s a start.

Deconstructing Samsung vs. Apple

Funny ad. What’s going on here? Samsung is depositioning Apple.

The best book on marketing ever written was “Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind.” In it, Al Ries and Jack Trout wrote, “In our overcommunicated society, very little communication actually takes place. Rather, a company must create a ‘position’ in the prospect’s mind. A position that takes into consideration not only a company’s own strengths and weaknesses, but those of its competitors as well…”

More gems:

- “Positioning is not what you do to a product. Positioning is what you do to the mind of the prospect.”

- “To be successful today, you must touch base with reality. And the only reality that counts is what’s already in the prospect’s mind.”

- “The basic approach of positioning is not to create something new and different, but to manipulate what’s already up there in the mind, to retie the connections that already exist.”

- “To cope with the product explosion, people have learned to rank products and brands in the mind. Perhaps this can best be visualized by imagining a series of ladders in the mind. On each step is a brand name.”

- “A competitor that wants to increase its share of business must either dislodge the brand above (a task that is usually impossible) or somehow relate its brand to the other company’s position.”

Nicely done, Samsung. This works much better than T-Mobile’s recent attacks on Apple (which just try to make Apple look dumb and shamelessly mirror the “I’m a Mac” campaign) because Samsung recognizes Apple has avid fans. You likely see yourself in the line outside the store. Samsung is almost saying, that’s cool, we get it, fanboys — but, just one thing, we’re also cool, perhaps cooler, with a bigger screen and a really new, unique product, so why not take a step over to our brand ladder? Hmm.

Positioning is an old strategy — Ries and Trout first wrote about it in 1972 — but that doesn’t mean human psychology has changed.

Ben Kunz is vice president of strategic planning at Mediassociates, an advertising media planning and buying agency, and co-founder of its digital trading desk eEffective.

Cavemen, Camel cigarettes and Christmas sales


This is a story about how holiday sales don’t really exist, but that’s OK, because you need the fiction to survive.

Communications designer and caffeine addict Hal Thomas found this classic Camel cigarette ad in a July 1952 edition of Life magazine. Ethics aside (for the record, our agency does not work with tobacco companies and has led anti-smoking campaigns), it reminds us of the basic strategy of framing value for your customers. If you have ever bought something on sale, marked “40% off” a higher price, you’ve been the recipient of framing. All those red tags with discounts in this holiday shopping season are simply attempts by marketers to follow Richard Thaler‘s advice: “frame” the price against another benchmark to convince consumers they’re getting a good deal.

Customers, as we’ve written before, are bad judges of value. We don’t know what a diamond should cost — but if the engagement ring is $3,000 marked down from $5,000, it feels fair. We’ll pay $3,000 perhaps if we see an illusory $2,000 above it in “savings,” even if that higher price point never really existed. This old Camel ad does the same thing to consumers of the 1950s, framing a cigarette choice as a safer alternative by juxtaposing it against images of doctors. Businesses fall for this all the time, too; take the marketing director who demands “30% in value-add” from any media buy; she’s likely getting the same amount of ad space within a given budget, but feels better because the vendors restructure the pricing of ads to give “some” away for free. (Hey, not that we negotiating don’t try.)

We shade truth because we need nuance

Why do people insist on this? It’s human nature. We all tweak communications in a way to make them more appealing to the recipient. If you call home late from work tonight, you will likely explain you’re on deadline or stuck in traffic (late due to outside forces, beyond your control, not really such a bad thing). The message arrives inside a context, and if we set the context appropriately, it sounds better. The dissembling tactic likely has an evolutionary benefit; no one survived in the wild by collecting all the data carefully and analyzing it — a wild lion would eat you before you ran the odds of where to run — so we had to make snap decisions based on what others told us about our environment. Comparing options to other choices also helped humans evolve; the caveman Ooga might not have been handsome by today’s standards, but if cavewoman Booga thought he was the hottest in all the tribe, she passed on the best genes.

Framing is everywhere, when you look for it. Are you buying stuff “on sale” for Christmas? (Suckers.) Does your business judge new potential vendors by their case studies? (If they succeeded there, they may help you here.) Do you get upset when your child gets a B at school? (If others get an A, then he is slipping by comparison.) Is your Twitter follower score above 2,000 yet? (If so, you must be really clever, because other clever people have lots of followers.)

Or — in the most obvious framing device of all — how is that fictitious number with zeros after it in your bank account doing lately; is the personal score we call “money” moving up or down?

So here’s a provocation for your marketing team’s next meeting: Explore all the ways you can compare your product attributes to something else to make it more appealing. Tactics include communicating discounts from other price points (think clothing sale), or bundling your product in an unusual configuration (think candy boxes at movie theaters or auto dealer option packages), or even framing it against other brands (Coke vs. Pepsi). If you focus on the product itself without putting it in context, customers may not get what you mean … or want what they’ll get.

(Thanks, Hal, for inspiring this holiday spirit.)

Doctors on camels: Framing the benefit


Communications designer and caffeine addict Hal Thomas found this classic Camel cigarette ad in a July 1952 edition of Life magazine. Ethics aside (for the record, our agency does not work with tobacco companies and has led several anti-smoking campaigns), it reminds us of the basic strategy of framing value for your customers. If you have ever bought something on sale, marked “40% off” a higher price, you’ve been the recipient of framing. All those red tags with discounts in this holiday shopping season are simply attempts by marketers to follow Richard Thaler‘s advice: “frame” the price against another benchmark to convince consumers they’re getting a good deal.

Customers, as we’ve written before, are bad judges of value. We don’t know what a diamond should cost — but if the engagement ring is $3,000 marked down from $5,000, it feels fair. We’ll pay $3,000 perhaps if we see an illusory $2,000 above it in “savings,” even if that higher price point never really existed. This old Camel ad does the same thing to consumers of the 1950s, framing a cigarette choice as a safer alternative by juxtaposing it against images of doctors. Businesses fall for this all the time, too; take the marketing director who demands “30% in value-add” from any media buy; she’s really getting the same amount of media, but feels better because the vendors restructure the pricing of ads to give “some” away for free.

We shade truth because we need nuance

Why do we do this? It’s human nature. We all tweak communications in a way to make them more appealing to the recipient. If you call home late from work tonight, you will likely explain you’re on deadline or stuck in traffic (due to outside forces, beyond your control, not really such a bad thing). The message arrives inside a context, and if we set the context appropriately, the message sounds better. The dissembling tactic likely has an evolutionary benefit; no one survived in the wild by collecting all the data carefully and analyzing it — a wild lion would eat you before you ran the odds of where to run — so we had to make snap decisions based on what others told us about our environment. Comparing options to other choices also helped humans evolve; the caveman Ooga might not have been handsome by today’s standards, but if cavewoman Booga thought he was the hottest in all the tribe, he and she passed on the best genes.

You’re beautiful is nice. You’re the most beautiful person in this room is so much better.

So here’s a provocation for your marketing team’s next meeting: Have you explored all the ways you can compare your product attributes or costs to something else to make it more appealing? Tactics include communicating higher price points now X% off (Talbots sale), or bundling your product in an unusual configuration (candy boxes at movie theaters, or those collections of food items from Omaha Steaks), or even framing it against other brands (Coke vs. Pepsi). If you focus on the product itself without putting it in context, customers may not get what you mean … or want what they’ll get.

(Thanks, Hal.)

Starbucks’ unbranding and the persuasion defense


Whoa, say brand observers. What’s up? Starbucks recently opened coffee shops in Seattle with unique names totally unrelated to the master Starbucks brand. One outlet is called 15th Ave Coffee and Tea, which Liz Muller, director of global concept design at Starbucks, says will make the chain more accessible. “Is this for every Starbucks?” she says. “No. There is a place for this in specific neighborhoods in the U.S. and potentially globally. Each approach will be different to reflect the neighborhood it is in.”

You heard that right — each approach means Starbucks is expanding such “unbranding.” Morningstar analyst R.J. Hottovy seemed puzzled “since the Starbucks brand has been such an integral part of their success.” And Starbucks is hiding the master brand well; 15th Ave’s web site has no mention of the corporate parent and hints it’s run by a pleasant woman named Jenna.

We asked Branislav Peric, social influence marketing lead at Duke Razorfish in Paris, what he thought. “Unbranded, in the case of Starbucks, does not mean another brand, but compromising the Starbucks’ difference,” Branislav said. “Unbranded also means that this new Starbucks experience will be close to unbranded coffee shops … unpredictable.”

Consumers are building a persuasion defense

Media analyst Gladys Santiago counters Starbucks is making a savvy move, similar to Pepsi’s recent decision to allow consumers in Argentina to misspell its name. It’s all about overcoming consumers’ defenses to your brand, she says, pointing to a landmark 1994 thesis by Marian Friestad and Peter Wright on persuasion knowledge. In simple terms, persuasion knowledge means consumers know that you are trying to seduce them, so they filter every message accordingly. Like a businessman arriving in a foreign hotel who is suddenly approached by an attractive woman, consumers are constantly on guard against the hidden motive.

Consumers know, for instance, that attention, emotion and trust are common tactics in influence. Celebrity endorsements capture attention. Scare tactics spur emotion. Brands provide trust. And when any of these aspects seems suspect — is William Shatner really your gateway to travel savings? Will health care reform really kill old people in death panels? Is Starbucks really so trustworthy that you wouldn’t rather try a little unknown coffee shop? — consumers move on.

Marketers have known for decades that consumers are gun shy about buying from single brand entities. Brand architecture often creates fragmented options to provide the illusion of choice and to remove boredom; stroll down a convenience store beverage aisle or the laundry detergent row in your grocery store and you’ll see hundreds of sub-brands produced by the same five or six corporate parents.

But Starbucks’ move poses a deeper question, as well, of whether Jack Trout’s 1969 concept positioning has finally met its match in the 3,000 marketing claims consumers must now process every day. Positioning held that a marketer could grab a top rung in a consumer’s mind; but if the little brand ladders in our heads are now filled with 1,000 rungs in every product category, perhaps being totally unique is as good a brand position as any. Uniqueness suggests authenticity, and authenticity has value. We hear you can find it on 15th Avenue in Seattle.

Image: Konekotichy

Brand framing: Not you, not them, but the box in-between


We told a friend today about price framing, the old Richard Thaler psychological concept used in most retail pricing in which products go “on sale.” In price framing, marketers invent a fictitious high price — say a dress marked at $250 — and then draw a line through that to convince you the product is now on sale, 50% off, at $125.

Price framing works because people are bad at judging value and feel almost relieved when you give them a place to start. The “savings” of course is fiction — after all, you’re spending more than one hundred bucks and not saving a dime — but you feel good about it. Credit cards out. Ka-ching.

This made us think about brands and whether they could try brand framing as well — you know, comparing their innate values against a competitor’s supposed bad ones. If good-deal-bad-deal works in everyday pricing, why not good-brand-bad-brand perceptions as well? In this haggard economy we’ve seen a little of this recently: Microsoft-fueled laptops touted as less expensive than Apple Macs; the new Bing search engine positioned as a better alternative to the Google stalwart; WolframAlpha as smarter than Google. Brand framing is a nuance within the realm of positioning, the classic brand vs. brand battles first conceived by Al Ries and Jack Trout in the 1972 pages of Advertising Age. You don’t have to read their book; just watch the 1980s “Where’s the Beef?” Wendy’s commercial and you’ll get the drift.

Brand framing recasts your brand’s potential flaws — Microsoft’s previously clunky laptops or search, WolframAlpha’s unknown potential — by making your competitor seem less good. Note the competitors in these examples are the leaders on top: Apple’s beautious design, Google’s miraculous instant answers. Brand framing differs from positioning in that rather than capture a new rung on the mental consumer brand ladder, we’re here while the other brand is there, you focus on the distance between the rungs. They’re wasteful/slower/expensive/missing something and we are not.

It would make a cool whiteboard exercise: draw a box between your brand and the leader you want to catch — then fill it with all the negatives that might push that brand away from you in the minds of your customers. If it all sounds a little nasty, remember that sometimes success in marketing is not about giving consumers pleasantries they’ll like, but helping them avoid the perceived harm they don’t want.

Image: Gabriela Camerotti

Dead breakfast cereals, or how to survive the coming brand contraction


Remember Yummy Mummy? Gunaxin has a nice ode to discontinued breakfast cereals, which reminds us of the current brand collapse going on inside consumers’ heads.

Product brands today are under tremendous pressure to survive, and it’s not driven by companies like GM desperately seeking to cut back. The root cause is the decline in consumer consumption and the corresponding lack of interest in brand options. Decades ago Al Ries and Jack Trout wrote the brilliant book Positioning, explaining that consumers (even back in the 1970s) faced information overload and so defended themselves by creating little ladders of product consideration in their heads. If a person is only moderately interested in a product — say watches — she might be able to rattle off Casio, Timex, Swiss Army and Rolex. In her mind, she only has four rungs on the watch brand ladder. By comparison, a guy who loves watches might think of scores of brands: Accurist, Adriatica, Alpina, Aviator, Baume et Mercier, Bell & Ross, Breitling, Bulgari, Bulova … with lots more rungs in his head.


The goal of brand managers is to grab a rung in that mental positioning ladder, and the classic strategy is to “position” your brand vs. someone else. If Hertz is No. 1 in car rentals, Avis tries harder. This positioning strategy was hot in the 1980s and early ’90s — think of the Coke vs. Pepsi wars or Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef?” — but has cooled off recently, with far fewer brands attacking others or deliberately taking position against a competitor’s attributes. It’s time to reconsider. As consumers retrench in this severe recession, their mental consideration set of potential consumption options is way down. There are fewer rungs in their heads. Someone may love Saabs, but what about Saturns and Pontiacs? And if some brands will fade from these mental ladders, shouldn’t you try to make sure it’s your competitor, and not you?

The point for marketers is you now need to be aware, more than any time in the past two decades, of how your brand is positioned against other options. Consumers are backing away from the cereal aisle, and some sweet brands are about to get taken off the shelf.

Via Make the Logo Bigger and Graham English.

Better Homes vs. a better brand name

One glaring mistake some marketers make is insisting on one brand in online communications — when consumer behavior is to pass through numerous sites related to your product or service. Here Dan Hickey of Meredith Interactive discusses why they moved away from the well-known “Better Homes & Gardens” brand to create a new microsite “pure to food and recipes.” The new site, Mixing Bowl, is still in development with Ripple 6.

Extending your brand online to carefully selected, focused consumer needs can create a hub-and-spoke system to pull awareness toward you. To put it another way, the old 1970s branding argument that your iconic name must be focused to grab a “position” in people’s minds no longer works, when consumers search through millions of sites looking for specific answers. People want what they want. Let them find it first, and then they may come find you.

The logo is dead. Long live the logo.


Garret Ohm has a nice post about how your poor brain may be tired of responding to logos. It seems that when volunteers in a recent “neuromarketing study” were scanned by MRI machines while they viewed images, the portions of their brains responsible for craving lit up more when given general photos vs. iconic logos. Smokers, for instance, experienced more craving when shown Western landscapes reminiscent of cowboys with cigarettes than when they saw the simple Marlboro logo.

The study was written up by Martin Lindstrom over at Ad Age, who concluded that logos may be irrelevant because consumers are over-saturated in a media-frenzied world. He wrote, the logo isn’t dead yet, but I would bet its days are numbered.

Wrong. Lindstrom makes a simple logical mistake in this analysis (and we say this with respect because we have no idea how to run an MRI machine). Showing a human a picture of a red racing car or other real-world image taps a very different mental response than asking the same human to decode an abstract pictogram, even if the symbol means “Ferrari.” Mammalian minds have evolved for millions of years to respond to the natural world of three-dimensional objects, while writing started in Egypt and Mesopotamia only about 200 generations ago. So if our gray matter lights up faster when given nature vs. numbers, maybe that’s cause nature is real. None of our ancestors had to flee for their lives running from a bad Olympics logo, but a striped tiger is another story.

Sure, it is plausible that logos have saturated the mental landscape. The classic book Positioning notes that consumers only have so many mental rungs in their heads for each product, so perhaps Marlboro has cornered the market on dry deserts with tumbleweeds. Some top marketers are now stretching the definition of logos to enable different customer experiences; Pepsi just redesigned its own mark with a flexible circle that can expand aggressively or contract girlishly based on the amount of caffeine in the bubbly product.

But we vote for logos. Don’t count icons out just because they tickle a different part of our brains. Understanding code is nuanced, and with only 200 generations of decoding under our belts, singular graphic identities can’t possibly be dead.

Illustration by Tod Kapke via Joy Engine.

The randomness of success


We’ve been thinking of the book Positioning recently, which explains that for each brand category only a few names can fit in the mental ladder within consumers’ heads, and have begun to wonder if some success is simply random.

This doesn’t mean the brands that win don’t have smart leaders or brilliant marketing or killer benefits. We think, though, that in any crowd of human ideas — and the human crowd is vast — there may be thousands of concepts qualified to make it to the top. The photo of Rio, above, shows the lights of just one city on the planet. Imagine the millions of people in that photo, and how many might have the brains and talent and ideas to create a leading politician, celebrity, religion or product.

If there are just a few slots for success, and many qualified candidates, are the winners merely random? Is the highest rung of any marketing ladder open to those who are accomplished and who also happen to win some lottery of fate? This dynamic — random success — would be fueled by word of mouth. Marketing, no matter how strong, can only create impressions; as consumers listen they begin to tip toward one or two leaders in each category, amplifying the message within their communication networks, until an Obama, McCain, Twitter, Brad Pitt, Facebook, Tiger Woods, Rolex, or Apple gain a far greater share of mind than their human/component parts truly merit.

One thing is true: No matter how smart your marketing, you’ll never be certain of winning. The odds are many, many others just as qualified as you are vying for success.

Photo from Dear God.