5 Reasons To Stop ‘Positioning’ Immediately

Positioning is fundamentally out of step with our times. Today’s leading companies have abandoned it in favor of a new approach.

5 Reasons To Stop ‘Positioning’ Immediately

“Positioning” is the well-connected sibling of the dangerous term “consumer,” both of which encourage an outdated consumption-and-communication mentality that forces a misleading frame onto how we think about people.

But positioning is an even more damaging concept because it sits at the center of contemporary marketing, promoted by a vast ecosystem of MBA courses, advertising and branding agencies, marketers, innumerable client briefs, and blockbuster books—a positioning industrial complex. When people’s jobs depend on a term, you can be sure they’ll do what they can to protect it.

This is a problem because positioning is fundamentally out of step with today. Now approaching 50 years old, it’s the product of an earlier era of business that has been eliminated by contemporary market realities. Today’s leading companies have abandoned it in favor of a new approach.

First, let’s remind ourselves of the theory. Positioning was popularized by Jack Trout, later joined by Al Ries, in a series of articles and books starting with the 1969 essay “Positioning Is A Game People Play In Today’s Me-Too Marketplace” and culminating in the juggernaut book “Positioning—The Battle For Your Mind,” published in 1981. The thesis: In a crowded, overcommunicated media landscape, unique product benefits no longer cut through. Instead, marketers must carve out a unique place for their brand in people’s brains, positioning it relative to the other brands that might be considered. The battlefield is not market, but mentality.

At first sight, this approach seems more relevant now than ever. Overcommunication has expanded relentlessly, in ways that make the landscape Ries and Trout surveyed look downright quaint. They note that in 1972 there were 500,000 U.S. trademarks in force; the average supermarket held 12,000 items; the annual spend per capita on advertising was approaching $100; and 96% of all television households can receive four or more TV stations while “a third can receive 10 or more.” Fast-forward to 2016 and the world has 1.8 million U.S. trademarks; 35,000 items per supermarket; per capita ad spend of $582; thousands of TV channels; over a billion websites, and an ongoing explosion of new social platforms, from Facebook and Twitter to Periscope and YikYak.

So we’re drowning in overcommunication. Why, then, is positioning a Jurassic concept, and why should we quit using it?

Reason 1: Today Is Transparent

The premise of positioning is that marketers can make people think better of a product than they otherwise would. This was a viable approach in the one-way communications landscape of the 1970s, when information rained down from brands onto audiences and people had few ways to share their views. Back then, a meaningful gap between positioning and reality could be maintained, making product performance a secondary consideration. As Ries and Trout said, “You concentrate on the perceptions of the prospect. Not the reality of the product.”

But the Internet has pulled the rug out from under that. True product performance has become painfully transparent due to online reviews, rating sites, blogs, social networks, and personal broadcast platforms like YouTube. There is an unending and unsparing reckoning of products, services, and companies. A typical example: Last year Cadbury quietly changed its crème egg recipe, but after a Twitter firestorm, saw a huge sales slump. The lipstick gets wiped off the pig pronto.

Reason 2: We Have Higher Expectations

The rise of transparency is mirrored by a cultural trend that’s just as significant: a huge shift in what we expect from companies. People today pay keen attention to the societal contribution a company makes. A 2015 Nielsen survey found that 66% of people are willing to pay more for products and services that come from companies committed to positive social and environmental impact—up from 50% in 2013.

Simply put, we expect companies to do things, not just say things, and we reward them when they do. This places positioning in an awkward light. If a marketer positions a pen or a car or a checking account, they don’t make it any better. There’s no societal contribution. They simply make it look more attractive than it otherwise would. So if you focus on positioning, you miss the bigger game of truly contributing.

Reason 3: Positioning Can Trap You

Positioning urges us to be selective—to concentrate on dominating a Luxembourg rather than colonizing a continent. This leads marketers to segment their categories and their audiences ever more finely in hopes of finding a niche to own with overwhelming power.

Dollar Shave Club offers discount subscription shaving supplies to budget-conscious Millennials. Skull Candy makes midpriced headphones for young extreme sports aficionados. But most leading companies today do the opposite: They define huge, often edgeless categories. Tesla defines its category as technology that expedites a shift from the mine-and-burn economy rather than as electric cars. This view is leading them into the huge market of domestic energy production and storage. For companies with this approach, growth and innovation are unleashed by an expansive, not a segmented, view of the category. So conversely, a narrow segment can prove to be a growth trap, limiting long-term expansion avenues. It will be interesting to see how long Dollar Shave Club is able to grow.

Reason 4: It’s About You, Not Them

Positioning’s central method is to map the competition’s positions and then to identify which locations are open—as Ries and Trout put it, the craft of “looking for positions, or holes, in the marketplace.”

But today’s leading companies are less and less worried about their competition; they believe that being as good as they can be is more important than games of contrast. As Larry Page recently commented: “I worry that something has gone seriously wrong with the way we run companies. If you read the media coverage … it’s always about the competition. The stories are written as if they are covering a sporting event. But it’s hard to find actual examples of really amazing things that happened solely due to competition.”

When it started, Google didn’t set out to find a niche that Lycos, Excite, and Yahoo had left unoccupied. It set out to build the most useful search engine possible. Over-analyzing the competition can freeze you in the frame of the existing market and make profound breakthroughs harder.

Reason 5: Positioning Creates Silos

In his original article, Trout argued for a strict separation between marketing and product: “Trust no-one, especially product managers.” And companies historically organized themselves this way. Brand was a to-do for the marketing department, which received a shrink-wrapped product from the product development team and then decided how best to position it without having contributed to its creation.

But today’s most successful companies have long since erased such artificial boundaries. Products have become experiences across multiple dimensions; they connect to apps, to social networks, and to useful tools and information, blurring the line between the object and the experience around it. Think about how Nike has moved from shoe-maker to digital performance coach for athletes or how Net-A-Porter is now a style network through its social platform “The Net Set.” To create experiences like these, companies need to assemble collaborative teams across multiple disciplines, connecting the empathy and creativity of marketers to the creation of products and experiences.

There are many good reasons to move on from the era of positioning. But what replaces it? The context I’ve described—one of transparency, high expectations, expansive vision, and collaboration—demands a new approach to brand building. Rather than defining a niche in the human mind, successful companies today aspire to positively contribute to the world around them—and then use that aspiration to drive their product development, marketing, sourcing, selling, and customer service. Whole Foods aims to “support the health, well-being, and healing of people and the planet.” Nike’s mission is to “bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.” Both frame a broad, meaningful contribution, and both propel invention within and outside their company’s core category. Neither defines what anyone should think of them.

At co:collective, my partners and I call such companies Storydoers—enterprises that build their brands on ambition more than on positioning and on innovation more than advertising. They don’t define a positioning; they define a quest, an aspiration to positively impact the world, and they build actions around it. And these actions communicate by fueling positive word of mouth and social advocacy. In acting this way, Storydoers are more focused on being than on positioning. They think about who they are and what they contribute rather than the perceptions they create. And in doing that, they create even better perceptions and even better shareholder value. It’s ironic.

This approach—of focusing on being rather than positioning, on a contribution to the world rather than an impact on a prospect’s mind—is not a luxury. It’s essential to compete in today’s over-positioned marketplace. The stakes are high. If you continue using yesterday’s marketing approach, others will beat you tomorrow. Or to put it another way, if you are merely assuming a position, you are probably, well, assuming the position.