Book: Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind

Once in a while, something comes along that changes the way you look at things. It might be a movie, a book, a person you meet on the train (or, for the late Steve Jobs, allegedly dropping acid and the resulting Apple, with “Think Different”).

Two texts, specifically, blew my mind when I studied literature.

The first one was a social anthropology article by Clifford Geertz: “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight.” The guy went to Bali, checked out some rooster fights, and came up with the theory that what you are is what you do. The Balinese reaffirm their identity by betting on rooster fights together. Simple, yet liberating, isn’t it?

The second was an iconic feminism book, at the time when I, brought up with the old school Soviet, wasn’t comfortable with using the “f” word. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s Madwoman in the Attic exposed the reductionist portrayal of female characters as either “angels”

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or “monsters,” in Victorian novels.

Uploaded to Flickr by Leo Reynolds

Created by predominantly male writers for centuries, a woman could exist on a page either as a docile wife & womb or by going nuts/turning into a witch, and cast aside.

Similarly, Positioning: The Battle For Your Mind by Al Ries and Jack Trout, written in the 70s, changed the way I view communication. The idea is simple: connect with your audience by carving out a niche for yourself in their mind. Success has nothing to do with your awesomeness, but with how well you “position the product in the mind of the prospect.”

There’s too much noise in our overcommunicated society. “To cut through the traffic jam in the prospect’s mind, you must use Madison Avenue techniques,” the authors advise.

A month ago, I would have said: are you guys teaching me to manipulate people? To be a phony? I better go write a clever short story or a lesson plan, I, the mistress of my Ivory Tower.

It’s as if the authors were sitting under my kitchen table and spoke directly to me (an uncomfortable notion, actually). And the more they spoke, the less obvious their green horns and Satanic glow in their eyes became.

“Professional people used to consider advertising beneath their dignity. But as competition heats up, lawyers, dentists optometrists, accountants and architects are starting to promote themselves…Get off your pedestal and put your ear to the ground,” they say.

“To many intellectuals, advertising is selling your soul to corporate America – a subject not worty of serious study…[However], if it works in advertising, most likely it will work in politics, religion or any other activity that requires mass communication.”

The authors, in their short, choppy ad-style sentences, just teach us to be aware of how we appear to others if we’re new on the block or on the shelf, the end goal being acceptance and, gosh, popularity.

Having won some skeptics over, Ries and Trout go on to describe the rules.

Get into the mind of the prospect first, they say. Not even the best, but first, a challenge with so many options around. “Marriage, as a human institution, depends on the concept of first being better than best. And so does business.”

It’s like that “Sex and the City” episode, where the girls compare marriageable men to cabs: suddenly, the “available” light goes on, and the first person to hail the cab gets the ride.

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The authors recommend not to fight an industry leader head on. Find a hole in the market and fill it or, as they say in French, “Cherchez le creneau.” The niche can be anything unique about you: the features of the product (an orange watermelon, wow!) or its price (the cheapest and strongest vodka! Or the most luxurious helicopter ever made!).

A non-weird name that speaks for itself is also important. In one study, teachers were given essays to grade, and they gave an average grade point lower to Huberts and Elmers than to Davids and Michaels. Avoid acronyms because they don’t stick.

Another tip is to connect to what the audience already believes. “The mind has no room for what’s new and different unless it’s related to the old.” Admittedly, this is herd mentality, but you’ve got to start somewhere.

Once you find a niche, stick to it and don’t go affixing your name to everything and confuse people. Heinz used to be the top pickle seller until it got into ketchup. So it won the ketchup market, but in process lost its top pickle place to Vlasic.  Make your name substitute the generic name (Kleenex is now tissue, Chapstick is lipbalm).

Who cares, if people still buy? Ries and Trout have this to say: “Many products with the wrong name are sold ‘in spite of,’ rather than ‘because of.'”

A couple of examples are Avis, who was losing market share to Hertz car rental. Avis then advertised: “Why go with us? We try harder” – and sales grew. They didn’t actually try harder, but they positioned themselves as such. Same with 7-Up, whose sales trailed behind the colas. So it successfully differentiated itself by calling itself “the Uncola.”

If you’re already a leader, don’t annoy the public by repeating that you’re number one, or people will wonder why you’re so insecure, the authors remind us.

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