Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind

In this post we want to talk about positioning. Al Ries and Jack Trout wrote about this in their book Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, first published in 1980, and based on articles the two authors wrote in the 70s.

The book is well into its adult life yet many of its ideas are still valid today. It is clear, concise and written with forceful words.

The mind

They refer to positioning as finding a position in the mind of the prospect; it can only happen in the mind and it must take into account what is already there; it means creating an association in the prospect’s mind; it means starting there and not with a product’s features when designing a marketing strategy.

Prospects don’t buy, they choose. Among brands of automobiles, gadgets,… What matters is the position relative to other choices.

Why? Because we “have become an over communicated society”; because “the noise level today is too high”. There are too many products, too many me-too companies and too much marketing noise. The mind is a battleground that is continuously impacted with news, information, marketing messages and calls to action.

The aim is getting heard in an over communicated society.

With so much noise, the only defence a person has is simplification, so people tend to accept only what matches what they already know, their prior experience. The result is “You can’t change what’s in the prospect’s mind”. “Mind changing is the road to advertising disaster”. New information that cannot be reconciled with past experience will just not stick.

What is positioning? The book gives a great example: “In beautiful Belgium there are five Amsterdams”. This was a campaign the Belgian airline ran in the 1970s. Amsterdam was already a popular tourist destination and the campaign positioned Belgium relative to this reference point.

What is not positioning? line extension, being everything to everyone, advertising the company’s own aspirations (these are not in the prospect’s mind).

3 ideas in the book, among many, that are worth highlighting:

The product ladder

The product ladder” People in their mind rank products, companies, and other people. For each specific category we can visualise a ladder with a few steps; each step is a position in our mind; each step is occupied by a brand and there are not many steps; for most categories we can think of, only a few names will come to mind.

How to occupy a step in a ladder? Being first to get in the mind (the best option); dislodging someone that is one or more steps above (difficult); relating to the top brands in the ladder and emphasising the contrast (the differences with these market leaders); introducing a new product category (easier if it’s related to an existing one).

Being first does not mean being the inventor or the innovator. It just means being first into the mind. Some companies just get to own the leading position in a product category; and this often leads to a bigger market share.

When being first is not possible, to occupy a step in the ladder we must find a hole, a niche not covered (a price segment not covered and with latent demand; an unattended demographic or distribution channel). The way to carve out this hole is communicating the contrast with the bigger players.

Line extension

The line extension trap”. This refers to using a strong brand in an established product category to launch a new product in a different category with the same brand.

When a brand has a strong position it is clearly identified with a generic product (a Mac is a computer, a Tesla is an electric car). A strong position means that if we write the name of the brand we immediately know what product we are referring to. The iPad is a clear example of this. When the association is very strong, promoting the general category is the same as promoting the brand.

But line extension blurs the association in the prospect’s mind between the brand and the generic product he needs. When a brand does line extension, it goes from representing the same as the generic product category to being a company that sells different products under a brand.

The book points out situations where line extension is OK: when the new product will be small volume (the new product will create little confusion with the main one); when the competitive field is very crowded and the product is really a commodity (customers don’t have strong attachments to any brand, so familiarity and availability are enough); when marketing spend will be low; when the product is not selected by the customer but sold by a sales rep.


You must look for a name that begins the positioning process”. The name is the first point of contact between the product and the mind and it is easier to remember a name if it sounds right; the mind will hear a name even when it is read. A name sets up a chain reaction in the mind that predisposes us in one way or another and how the name sounds will emphasise this effect.

A name should be almost, but not quite, generic. The book cites BusinessWeek as a good example. One important point to consider when choosing a name is avoiding the competition from preempting a strong word that could be important for us.

Some companies do fine with mean-nothing names. When you are first to the mind, with a new product that becomes a success, then a mean-nothing will not be a problem, the position is already established. Something similar happens with initials; they are not an issue if someone already is well known and has a clear position in everybody else’s mind. But when that is not the case, initials obscure identity and meaning.

The book focuses a lot on advertising but more generally it is about communication.

In practice

The approach is simple but not easy. It takes time and money to establish a position and also to hold on to it. Because it is not easy, positioning strategy should not change much. The position must be not only unique but also relevant in the prospect’s mind. Politics is an example where it is possible to establish a fringe position but it will not be effective.

The reality is it is very difficult to move beyond a weak position in prospects’ minds. As the book says “many products are sold, few are positioned”.

In our experience, positioning, in the sense explained above, is not an approach we see often when framing a marketing strategy. Many companies focus on the product, its features and the value proposition; it is not common to have marketing messages clearly anchored in the prospect’s mind and what is already there.

Keep reading