Marketing and management schools have always based a large part of their teaching on the ‘four Ps’. Every marketing plan had to include product, price, place and, above all, promotion strategies.
This, recalls Philip Kotler, professor of International Marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Evanston, before a series of articles published inAdvertising Age by Al Ries and Jack Trout, two of the most important advertisers of our time, completely revolutionised the industry by introducing a fifth “P”. This element has since become dominant:positioning.
When a product fails to yield the desired fruit in terms of sales or visibility, experts usually respond: “We have a communication problem”. A response that Ries and Trout found trivial. Because, according to them, in a world where information overload is the rule, the problem may not be how we communicate, but the very fact that we communicate.
Communication per se has become ‘the’ problem. It is, Ries and Trout explain, because in the hyper-connected world, broadcasters can multiply their messages endlessly, but the attention of receivers remains limited.
Attention is a scarce commodity, increasingly difficult to obtain. And attention is the new object of any advanced marketing strategy.This is why positioning is so important and, as explained by the authors of Positioning, a classic of sector studies (recently published in Italian by Roi Edizioni), is based on this simple principle: in an overcrowded market, whoever comes first in the customer’s mind wins.
Get in the mind first and be careful not to give a reason to switch
Al Ries and Jack Trout, advertising executives
Here again, however, error is around the corner: it is not the best product that is the object of positioning, but the best strategy to activate and capture attention. Whoever arrives first creates an imaginary, permanent place in the consumption and life habits of individuals. After achieving this by no means easy objective, commercial results are an inevitable consequence.
The basic approach of positioning is therefore not to create something new and different but, the authors explain, “to manipulate what is already present in the mind, rewiring existing connections”. Today’s market is no longer responsive to the strategies that worked in the past: there are too many products, too many companies, too many advertisements.
The most common question in this regard is: why, if we have too many products and too many messages, do we need a new approach to advertising and marketing?Just to make room for themselves, Ries and Trout explain. There is in fact only one thing that makes brand marketing effective: be able to carve out a perennial space in the consumer’s mind. It is no coincidence that the most successful products are those that manage to impose their name on the entire product category. Today, positioning is not only about goods and commodities, brands and companies. It also covers workers, especially knowledge workers, who need to know the rules of an increasingly crowded market, but also increasingly rich in opportunities and resources.
Positioning is one of those revolutionary transformations that bring marketing to life
Philip Kotler, Professor of International Marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Evanston
A new branch of cognitive economics also deals with this. Not surprisingly, this branch is called attention economy. who posited that attention was the “bottleneck of human thought”. The scarcity of attention limits both what we can perceive from the environment by withholding stimulating messages, and what we can do with those messages (e.g. buy a product).Simon was the first to point out the paradox that “too much information creates a scarcity of attention”.
In America alone, Ries and Trout insist, per capita consumption of advertising is about $376.62 per year: “If you spend a million dollars a year on advertising, that means you are bombarding the average consumer with less than half a cent of advertising, spread over 365 days. And this consumer is already exposed to another $376.62 of advertising from other companies”.
In the hyper-communicative society, to talk about the ‘impact’ of advertising is to exaggerate the potential effectiveness of the message. Nothing could be more wrong. The message should not be ‘blown out of proportion’, but ‘placed’ in the only strategic position that matters: the first page of the client’s mental agenda.
Ries and Trout teach that “advertising does not work like a hammer: it is more like a light mist enveloping your potential customer”. A positioning strategy should not be confused with a ‘communication’ project in the strict sense of the term. It is, if anything, an information selection project. Information selected, organised, ‘positioned’ in order to capture attention. The first thing to do to fix a message in a customer’s mind forever is not the message, but the customer’s own mind: you have to know and guide it.
In the era of positioning, just inventing or discovering something is not enough. Maybe it’s not even necessary. Gaining a foothold in the mind of the potential customer and capturing their attention in a lasting way is vital.An example? “IBM didn’t invent computers, Sperry-Rand did. IBM was the first company to make room for computers in the customer’s mind”. In fact, everyone remembers IBM, not Sperry-Rand.
Marketing, explains Philip Kotler, “is not a static discipline: It is constantly shifting and positioning is one of those revolutionary transformations that make the field of marketing alive, interesting, exciting and fascinating” in the age of information overload.