We live in an overcommunicated society, so claim Al Ries and Jack Trout, authors of the 1981 book Positioning (see more recent edition here). Because humans have finite minds and a subconscious screening system to weed out unimportant data, one cannot remember every brand for every product and make a rational choice of the best one. Because of this, advertising is becoming less and less effective, causing businesses to advertise in greater volumes to compensate. This in turn only adds to the cluttered landscape of ideas, worsening the problem.
The authors start by saying that whoever is first in an industry, will stay there and no amount of advertising will be able to knock them into second place. It is wasted money if the population can absorb no more unconnected information. The key word here is “unconnected”. Humans can absorb more information if it relates somehow to a framework of knowledge they already know. That is why one must position their company or product relative to that of one’s best known competitor. For example, 7up, rather than having its great taste being advertised, competing directly against other soft drinks, was advertised instead as the “uncola”. It was positioned as an alternative to the most popular soft drinks Coke and Pepsi.
The authors also criticize the common act of line extension. When a brand, such as Xerox, becomes known for one product, such as copiers, the population begins to equate the product and the brand. All copiers become known as Xerox machines, whether they are or not. Then, when Xerox decides to line extend into the world of computers, while still using the Xerox brand, potential customers get confused. With all the wealth of information poured into the brain on a daily basis, most of it almost subconsciously, one cannot usually remember later when they hear the word “Xerox” whether that word means a computer or a copier. Xerox computers never did well.
Incidentally, it is mentioned in this book that there are rare cases in which line extension can work, such as when one’s product is sold by representatives, or when there is no competition. Also, if the “mental distance” between the products is large enough, such as Cadillac selling dog food, the interference is minimal.
Finding a new use for the same product to appeal to a different customer base is also okay (to a point), and is called reverse line extension. When taken too far, however, the company slips into “the everybody trap”. By trying to be everything to everybody, the image of a company becomes too complex and murky to appeal to anybody. Another trap is the “no-name trap”. Only companies that are already well known can get away with using initials. With mere initials, it is more difficult to remember what the company does and distinguish it from other abbreviations encountered in life. These concepts and others are covered in this book and the authors explain everything by using numerous real-world examples. It is a great book.
The book, of course, was written in the eighties and things may have changed slightly since then. Today, it seems that branding is all the rage. Even so, in my experience people care little about brands and usually have no idea what they are buying. People are interested in products. Also, we are still overcommunicated and can absorb no more information unless it is positioned against what we already know. I realized this myself from personal experience before I even read this book. This is why species are grouped into genera, families, orders, classes, phyla, and kingdoms, rather than simply being listed alphabetically or in order of discovery. It makes them much easier to remember.
I do have some objections to some of the specific details of exactly how the human mind ignores advertising in this book, even though I find nothing wrong with the authors’ final conclusions. In the beginning, the authors seem to indicate that people remember primarily the first and dominant in a category because it is first and dominant, not being able to remember others very well – but to know which was first and dominant, one would have to know something of the others initially to compare. Many of the companies I remember were never dominant, nor were they first in their field. Rather, they were first in my mind only. Which names are first to stick in the mind of a child that has just learned the language is an almost random thing. Although I can name a few motel chains, I couldn’t begin to guess which is dominant or which (if any) was the first. The mental framework can be built on a characteristic other than dominance, such as price, service, geography, or even the phonetics of the name or slogan (often this is all one can go on). Because of this, not everyone will remember the same motel chains when asked how many he/she can think of. I just don’t think people think that way.
To show what I mean, I take an example from the book. The authors declared that in car rentals Hertz was first, Avis was second, and National was third. To position themselves against Hertz and be noticed, Avis ran the slogan: “We try harder.” The problem is that until I read this book I did not know who or what was dominant in car rentals, I thought Hertz was a repair shop (due to its poor commercials) named after a unit of frequency, I got Avis and Avon confused with each other, I had never heard of National, and the only car rental company I could name was Enterprise. I have never had to rent a car, but the Enterprise commercials I have seen since my youth, and they were the only ones to stick in my mind. To me, Enterprise was first (I used to be a trekkie). The “we try harder” slogan of Avis would have meant nothing to me had I ever heard it (and I probably haven’t heard it considering when this book was written).
Another objection I have is to the reasoning behind the advice not to use initials until the company is well known, even if the full name is messy and long. Sometimes, initials are enough. I learned that AT&T was a telephone company easily, but I still don’t know what AT&T stands for. When a company lasts for more than one generation and has already switched to initials, as AT&T has, it essentially starts over with the next generation with initials only. Considering the ease at which AT&T, TWA, HP, GM, GE, and others are remembered by those that were not even born when they were still using full names, it would seem that even a brand new company could get away with using initials. In fact, if a company is already using a full name, it may be better to stay that way, so as not to cause confusion.
How have you tried to cut through the noise by positioning your brand/product/service against others?
My name is Dan. I am an author, artist, explorer, and contemplator of subjects large and small.