Jack Trout and “The New Positioning”

It was June, 1969 when Jack Trout wrote his first article on “positioning” for Business Marketing magazine (then called Industrial Marketing). Today, after almost 30 years, he has become one of our industry’s most prolific authors, lecturers and business counselors. I tracked him down recently to find out how things are going in “battle for your mind.”
What’s the battle field look like to you these days?

“Well, there’s good news and bad news on the battle front. The good news is that, because of all the downsizing and re-engineering we’ve gone through in recent years, U.S. companies have learned how to handle global competition very well. The bad news is it is still amazingly competitive out there — kill or be killed.”

In your recent book, The New Positioning (McGraw-Hill, 1996), you talk about the explosion of information in business today, and our inability to handle it. Isn’t it good to have lots of information?

“Not really. Many people have so much information these days it paralyzes them. The Internet has made things worse, because it’s full of non-edited information. I call it ‘non-information.’ It’s a vast wasteland of unfiltered facts, pseudo-facts and non-facts, and the mind doesn’t know what to do with all this data.”

You quote experts like Edward de Bono and Jack Welch on the “lost art of thinking.” Does this result from information overload?

“To some extent, yes. The thing I find dramatically missing in business today is common sense. Many managers are so concerned about losing their jobs, they spend a disproportionate amount of time collecting and generating data to back up whatever decisions are ultimately made. ”

How can business-to-business communicators benefit from this insight?

“Read the first six chapters of my latest book. This is not as self-serving as it might sound, because for almost 30 years we’ve studied the psychological aspects of marketing, and we’ve based our consulting practice on understanding the human mind and how it works. We’ve just never publicized the amount of information we collected from expert psychologists until this most recent book. My advice to communicators is, if you understand the mind, you’ll do fine.”

In 1989, you and Al Ries wrote an article in Advertising Age titled, “The decline and fall of advertising.” In that article, you chastised agencies for being preoccupied with awards instead of creating selling propositions for clients. Is it still true today?

“If anything, it’s worse. Everybody hooted us down for that article, but the chickens have come home to roost: there’s less client loyalty today and more accounts up for review. Agencies are turning out so-called creative campaigns that win awards, but fail to move products.”

Can you cite some examples?

“Nissan’s ‘Enjoy the ride’ animated spots are very popular, but sales are down and dealers are very anxious. I’m not sure what to say about the new ‘Miller Time’ spots. The only brand image I can associate with Miller Lite is that they like goofy things. I think the inmates have taken over the asylum.”

Why do you think this is being tolerated by marketers?

“Well, I can’t speak for every marketer, but too many agency people claim that, because their client’s products are essentially the same as the competition, they feel their advertising must be different in order to make those products stand out. It’s one of the most tragic observations we hear, because an agency’s job is to FIND A WAY to differentiate products based on product features and consumer benefits.. Those are the only things that count. Unless advertising helps build brand images that support product positioning and provide customers with solid buying incentives, it isn’t good advertising.”

Probably the most controversial “trick of the trade” described in your new book is the importance of sound versus sight, or words versus pictures. This would seem to have enormous implications for marketing communicators.

“Absolutely. I’m a little surprised we haven’t been challenged on this by the advertising community, but it’s well documented that you can put ideas in people’s minds without pictures a lot more successfully than you can without words or sounds. The old saying, ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ is probably backwards.”

Have your consulting assignments changed over the years as positioning has matured as a marketing strategy?

Surprisingly, no. I’ve probably counseled close to a thousand companies now, and marketers still want us to help them do two things: (1) Differentiate them from the competition, and (2) Define exactly what it is they are selling (the category). In my latest book, we discuss the concept of “repositioning” as a way of dealing with change. New technologies and changing consumer attitudes are reasons why we should constantly reassess our playing field.

Do you have any examples of business-to-business marketers that have gone through this “repositioning?”

“Silicon Graphics is a good example. Their initial success was based on defining their market as ‘3D graphics.’ When they started to feel stiffled by this definition, they created a bigger position — ‘visual computing.’ Now that technology has made it possible to do this inexpensively with low cost computers, Silicon Graphics has changed the playing field again by defining a new category: ‘high performance computing’.”

What’s your best advice for advertising and marketing people as we look ahead to the 21st century?

“It’s still a battle for the customer’s mind, and perceptions are your key to success. Because advertising and marketing people are charged with building perceptions, you will be more important to your company’s success in the future than ever before. In order to do this, however, you must understand how the mind works and package your communications programs for maximum effect.”

And so the battle rages on. The good news according to Jack Trout is we’re more than holding our own against foreign competition. The bas news is it never gets any easier than it is right now.