The past few weeks have been busy ones for the GWU Social Marketing class. We have been experiencing those waves of excitement and foreboding about our client assignments. Trying to not just absorb, but put some meaning to all the information being collected as part of the situation analysis. Grappling with the most difficult question in any social marketing project – who will be our priority audiences?
In the midst of all this (actually at exactly the right time), the reading assignments for the class were the books Positioning and The Brand Gap. Why the right time? Because now, having settled on priority audiences the big questions of strategy loom. And before creating and executing a marketing plan is the time to consider the branding and positioning platforms for each of our programs. As Marty Neumeier notes in The Brand Gap: for most of us, brand happens while we’re doing something else. Not this time!
The first articles on Positioning appeared 35 years ago, followed by the book. Reading through it again brought home for me how few marketers of any stripe understand and practice some of its basic tenets. The brands that are discussed as examples of the good, bad, ugly and indifferent stand as great historical context for where marketing was in the 1970’s; it also provides as much insight and thoughtfulness for current brand management as it did then. Where would Starbucks and Wal-Mart be if they had read and stuck with the playbook Al Ries and Jack Trout laid out then?
Here are some of the immutable truths I pulled out from a second reading of this classic (personally validated after 20 years of social marketing work):
- The only reality that counts [in positioning and branding] is what’s in people’s minds.
- Our job as marketers is not communications, it’s selection. You should not try to present all the information about a behavior, product or service to a customer; rather you need to figure out and select what’s the most important thing to talk about from the audience POV (positioning).
- Our second job as marketers is to ‘cherchez le creneau:’ find the window. The open space – what we called in Consumer-Based Health Communication ‘the openings’ – when and where the audience is in the right frame of mind to be attentive and receptive to our marketing and ready and able to engage in the behavior. Try designing your formative research studies around answering that question!
- Every ad is a long-term investment in the image of a brand – substitute the word ‘action’ for ad, and you get the bigger idea. And brands aren’t ‘made’ or ‘redesigned’ in months or even a few years – logos, slogans and product attributes are.
- Messages are sounds, not words. The point being that when print messages are written to be heard - not read, they motivate, inspire and create more lasting impressions (the best demonstrations capture the essence of when radio is referred to as ‘the theater of the mind’). Too many times I have seen creative talking reduced to bureaucratic writing by the TUMS practitioners (a term used by a senior manager who admonished her staff before reading some of our ad copy to avoid Territorial Urinary Marking Syndrome – translation: keep your pens and pencils in your pockets while you read this!).
- Their discussion of ‘repositioning the competition’ reminded me how often in social marketing and public health that this is exactly our challenge: how to reposition people’s existing behaviors into one’s they would like to change.
The feedback from students about Positioning has been uniformly exceptional. An easy read that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Al Ries is still focused on brands. You can listen to Jack Trout differentiate the marketplace.