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August 18, 2005

News & Opinion: Susan Sontag on positioning

By: Dylan Schleicher @ 6:01 PM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

"It is not the position, but the disposition."
In Chapter 4 of my book I say that positioning is pass

"We're living in a marketplace driven by creativity and innovation. The concept of branding is a much more dynamic idea. Standing still and trying to persuade people with clever advertising and image-building campaigns is a self-centered waste of time and money."

This is the one opinion that has caused me the most blow back. Here's a recent email that I received from a book reviewer:

"FYI, several of those who have read my review of A Clear Eye for Branding have contacted me re: my remark that I do not agree with you on every point made (e.g. positioning is pass My response is the same and I may add it to the review:
Old Positioing (i.e. Ries and Trout): "Capture" the customer's mind re her or his perceptions of a given product or service. Product or service is the focus.
New Positioning: "Capture" the customer's heart as well as mind (hopefully creating an evangelist) re her or his perceptions of herself or himself. Nourish with multi-sense experience. Increasing and enhancing the customer's sense of self-worth, self-esteem, self-fulfillment, self-image, etc. is the focus.
Presumably you agree that the New Positioning is not pass

And here is my email response:

"As far as positioning goes, I suppose it's semantics. Although semantics may be what it's all about. ;-)
Of course I agree with your new positioning description. Although the metaphor "capture" should probably be changed to something like "continuously attract."
And the word "positioning" . . . well. It originally meant: my position relative to my competitor. So I still say it's passGreat brands don't compete today. The word competition literally means "seeking together . . . choosing to run in the same race." Instead, great brands step off of the track. They defy positioning."

Here is an example of classical positioning: "We Try Harder."
How did it work? The advertiser simply keeps saying it over, and over, and over again. Thus carving out a place in the consumer's mind (or "positioning" it in the mind relative to its competitors.) Then, when it comes time to choose a car rental business, "We Try Harder" comes to mind and we; a. believe it, and b. go on autopilot and choose it. We don't check prices on line. We respond to the comparative positioning. How it exists in our mind. "Wow. The other guys must not really try as hard. Why even bother checking."
Now for the other use of the word "position." The one I think most people elude to today. Southwest Airlines is "positioned" as a low cost, no-frills airline. So is JetBlue. It is NOT a game of mind control. Simply check their prices. Starbucks is "positioned" as a premium brand of coffee. Ditto.
Now, if your "position" relative to others is, for example, high price/high service, then you must uniquely express that position. How? It depends what type of business it is. If it's a restaurant, then the aesthetics of everything is supremely important. As is the exclusivity of your guest list, etc.
Forget about trying to carve out a unique position with advertising, pr, taglines, etc. Instead, uniquely express that position.
Here's another excerpt from Chapter 4 of A Clear Eye for Branding:

"Look, times are pretty strange. People will go out of their way and pay a premium for products and services that are important to them, to their self-definition. But in categories or for things that don't matter to them emotionally, they're basically looking to save time and money. Why do you think that brand power has shifted away from fast-moving consumer goods companies and local merchants, to the big-box retailers?
Because of a larger selection and lower prices?
Exactly. An expectation - based on experience - of saving time and avoiding a bad decision on stuff that simply doesn't matter much. Stuff that's "good enough."
Yes, but I've even noticed some of those retailers getting into high-end stuff. Luxury items and designer products.
And why shouldn't they? They've earned the customers' trust, and now they're going to try to go deeper into those relationships with stuff that does matter - whether it's aesthetically pleasing items or a range of services."

And now this from a recent USA Today article: Wal-Mart aims to clean up stores, improve goods

"Wal-Mart Stores (WMT) said Friday it needs to clean up its stores, treat employees well and bring in more upscale goods like organic food and trendy clothes to revive sales and profit growth. Executives at the world's biggest retailer said their "game plan" for this year involves targeting wealthier shoppers who may buy basics like food at Wal-Mart but look elsewhere for fashionable items like clothing and housewares."

Once you get a visceral understanding of what a brand is all about and why people choose the ones they choose, you'll be able to see this kind of thing coming. Hurry up, before it's too late.

About Dylan Schleicher


Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.