Advertising Disrupted

Jack Trout and Al RiesAt the height of the Mad Men era — the year was 1969 — two New York ad men penned an idea that has driven advertising ever since. Al Ries and Jack Trout discovered and innovated the concept of “positioning,” and followed it up with articles and then a series of books that established methods of manipulating audiences through branding. Madison Avenue quickly responded, and the rest, as they say, is history.

But history evolves. Seasons end as easily as they begin, and the season of positioning is running into the realities of empowered consumers and what Jay Rosen calls the Great Horizontal. It cannot last, and those who pursue it and only it may well be left holding an empty bag.

Ries and Trout’s original book is still considered foundational to contemporary marketing. It was called “Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind.” Here’s a brief definition from the book:

Positioning…has revolutionized the way products are advertised. It’s the first body of thought to deal with the problems of communicating in our overcommunicated society. With this approach, a company creates a “position” in the prospect’s mind — one that reflects not only the company’s own strengths and weaknesses but those of its competitors as well.

Ries and Trout knew that this could be controversial, so they “positioned” it not as a form of advertising but as a form of communications, of which the examples chosen were from the advertising field.

And most of the examples are from the most difficult of all forms of communication—advertising. A form of communication that, from the point of view of the recipient, is held in low esteem. Advertising is, for the most part, unwanted and unliked. In some cases, advertising is thoroughly detested.

To many intellectuals, advertising is selling your soul to corporate America—a subject not worthy of serious study.

In spite of its reputation, or perhaps because of it, the field of advertising is a superb testing ground for theories of communication. If it works in advertising, most likely it will work in politics, religion, or any other activity that requires mass communication.

What’s never really discussed is the potential for mischief through deceit. The sneaky nature of it likewise assumes, up to a point, an ignorant mass, and that has a great potential to backfire.

There are two enormous problems with the whole concept today. One, mass marketing is increasingly problematic, for mass audiences are a dying breed. Oh, there are still events like the Superbowl and the Academy Awards that draw big audiences for advertisers, but now, even popular “second screen” activities get in the way by giving viewers something new to do during commercial breaks. Positioning just doesn’t do as well in a fragmented environment or in a network. Everybody functions as a media company in the network, so any “position” can be spread virally, especially if the product or service being positioned doesn’t work as advertised. Two, it’s hard to “position” somebody when they’re hip to being positioned (and don’t like it). Ries and Trout’s “The Battle for Your Mind” doesn’t ask for approval to wage war in such a private place, and this is its most challenging aspect, especially in a world where people can do something about it. The idea of waging war in our minds was advanced in Ries and Trout’s second book, aptly named “Marketing Warfare.” The rude assumption that enough money buys a ticket to play war in the battlefield of the mind is revealed for what it is, a self-centered effort at human manipulation.

What the leader owns is a position in the mind of the prospect. To win the battle of the mind, you must take away the leader’s position before you can substitute your own.

Good luck with that in a world of equal nodes on a vast network.

One of the problems with this business is that it relies on tolerance as the measurement of what “works” and what doesn’t. The assumption of tolerance is a dangerous proposition in a world where people are actually able to not tolerate, and one would hope that this is troubling to Madison Avenue.

Nearly ten years ago, Umair Haque wrote that the best marketing for tomorrow would be the product itself, and that business resources would be better used in product improvement instead of marketing about products. In other words, positioning and all that fancy Madison Avenue footwork won’t “move” people to like something of poor value that simply doesn’t work. In a network, business is helped by people talking to and sharing with each other, because the idea of a “mass” audience is blown apart in a network. The best position, therefore, is one of reliable quality. People may pass around fads for a season, and perhaps enough to make a difference, but people in general today tend to not be easily switched, and especially when the attempt is through old-fashioned mass marketing.

Positioning, however, is Madison Avenue’s lifeblood. Starting with research, the smart marketer can determine what it is that people are seeking from whatever product is being researched. From this data, sophisticated campaigns can be created to help move the product, either by shifting the brand in the minds of consumers or by creating an entirely new brand. Some are better at this than others, and so much of advertising’s pecking order is based on success stories brought about by Ries and Trout strategies and tactics. Success, of course, is determined by how the concept impacted sales, not by how it impacts people. Corporate America marches onward, while the recipients of the marketing magic are unaware that they’ve been shifted, or so the thinking goes. Again, contrary to what the advertising world would have us believe, what the people in today’s network think matters. Tolerance, again, is a poor measuring stick.

If Madison Avenue is to thrive in tomorrow’s universe, it will have to find a replacement for positioning, but mostly, it’ll have to find a replacement for trickery and deception. Until that happens, however, there’s simply too much money at stake to even begin to entertain the idea that contemporary communications is at odds with advertising’s practices. The first thesis in the network’s seminal book The Cluetrain Manifesto is “Markets are conversations,” and there are plenty of people playing with concepts of conversational marketing. Marketing in the network is and will always be one-to-one instead of one-to-many. Consider a party. Which is more likely to produce success, signs on the walls of the party or direct communications with individual party-goers. This is the conundrum for advertising, circa 2013.

Above all, corporate America — the target of everything Ries and Trout — has to stop insulting the very people who support it through purchasing the products and services it makes. This sounds so logical, and yet it’s not even top-of-mind with those who practice the selling of what America makes.


  1. Great article Terry and I could not agree with you more. For so many companies the foundation of their advertising is one of trickery and manipulation. The branding process begins with identifying a core customer attitude. Too many corporations do back flips to change their culture and try to become something that the viewer want them to be. The days of faking a brand position are behind us. Today’s consumers are far too sophisticated and can sniff out inauthenticity quickly. Great brands are about a solid commitment to an internal set of values and an ethic that matches the customers deepest held beliefs. Companies must stand for something and far too many advertisers change their brand over and over again, proving that it is fake and marketing trick.

    One of the companies that I admire most for realizing this is Chevrolet. Take a look at this post and notice how they went from advertising to something deeper and far more resonant. It speaks to the values of the organization and the commitment of their customers.

    We’ve all got to stop phoning it in on marketing campaigns and decide what we will stand for.

  2. I am a long time reader… just wanted to say this is a nice revision to the look of the site, Terry. Clean and fast loading. I’m glad to see you using WordPress. I can’t remember if you were using it before, but I’ve been using it forever on several blogs and sites. If you haven’t used it before, I think you’ll like the interface. Also, if you aren’t doing so you might want to activate the Akismet plug in that comes with the WP install, worth the time and money. It will really cut down on spam… I also use Peter’s Custom Anti-Spam plug in, helps with robots. And, lastly, I’m glad you’re still writing! Take care.

  3. Kudos, Terry. Good post. Allow me to suggest that while Trout & Ries were certainly influential they were not the first to write about nor popularize what is the essence of their positioning concept. The brilliant ad man Rosser Reeves was first to proffer such a theory which he called “unique selling proposition” (USP). Moreover, Reeves made a proper case for his theories writing Reality In Advertising, an epic work in American advertising published in 1961. In my opinion, Trout & Ries did a great job repackaging the Reeves’ theory and scored a home run in creating the “positioning” label to describe their version of the practices. Thanks for your always thought provoking writing.

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