Is it time to put positioning to bed?

40 years ago this year, Jack Trout published his first article on positioning. But the term didn’t really become advertising jargon until his articles entitled “The Positioning Era”, were published in Advertising Age in the early 1970’s.

There are numerous definitions of what positioning is today but to ensure we’re all on the same page, I propose this version:

But in today’s marketplace, positioning has multiple problems:

1) Positioning is immeasurable: You can’t say “our positioning has improved our sales by 5 % or as a result of our positioning strategy, our brand is 12% better than competitions. Furthermore, it is impossible to measure the ROI or benchmark positioning.

2) Positioning is only suitable for mass markets. Yet branding today is about segmentation and communicating and engaging with those segments via relevant channels and with messages that resonate specifically with those segments or niche markets. Does this mean that a company should develop different positioning for different niches?

3) Positioning is suitable for mass markets with limited competition and limited consumer access to media and information. Today, consumers can get any information they want on anything from anywhere.

4) The wikipedia definition is a top-down, company knows best, hierarchical marketing approach. Yet we live in a C2C environment in which consumers define brands.

5) Positioning is one-way. The company knows best and you must listen to us. We tell you how our products are positioned. But today, if you are not entering into 2 way conversations with consumers you are about to join the brand graveyard.

6) Positioning was developed for the US mass market of the 1970’s. But we’re in a globalized world now, with much more competition and more knowledgeable consumers.

7) Positioning is competition, not customer driven. The basic premise of positioning is that you want to be number 1 or number 2 in a category in a prospect’s mind. If you can’t be number 1 or number 2 in an existing category because of competition, you make your own category. In today’s congested marketplace, the investments required to develop a new category are enormous. Furthermore, besides the difficulty and expense of creating your own category, you are also letting your marketing be driven by the competition rather than consumer demands for value.

8) Positioning is dated. With limited competition (by today’s standards) in most categories, positioning was a compelling theory. The problem is that the world has changed a little since 1969. Yet agencies continue to recommend positioning as the foundation for any brand strategy.

9) Positioning uses mass market channels such as TV and billboards to reach as many consumers as possible using repetition to create interest. Yet ask yourself, what do you do when the commercials come on? Surf? Put the kettle on? Go to the bathroom? Text a friend? Surf the web? Basically, do anything but watch the commercial. Same with billboards. How many billboards can you remember from your morning commute?

10) Positioning requires massive, and I mean massive budgets that few companies have. If you do have a massive budget and you do execute your campaign across multiple channels for say six months, what happens if it doesn’t work?

So my question is, what are agencies doing recommending a theory that was developed before the PC was invented? I welcome your comments.


18 thoughts on “Is it time to put positioning to bed?

  1. I differ with the statement
    “Positioning is suitable for mass markets with limited competition and limited consumer access to media and information.”

    As the channels for information increases, the need for what they are looking for increases. That means positioning becomes more important than ever before.
    so positioning is very important when consumers access to media and information is high.


  2. I believe positioning just needs a better definition as positioning will always be needed to raise one product above the rest.

    My definition:

    Positioning your product means making sure it has certain unique characteristics that your target market wants or should want.


    1. Hi Scamo

      Many thanks for responding to my blog.

      Thanks too for your definition. I have a challenge for you: take a product, any product, B2B or B2C and tell me how you would go about positioning that product.

      The reason I challenge you is that I just don’t see how a product can have unique characteristics that appeal to everyone.


  3. Positioning does not require “unique characteristics that appeal to EVERYONE.”

    One of the strengths of positioning is that it helps to segment the market. The famous positioning of 7-UP as the “Uncola” perfectly positioned that product for those who did not want to consumer cola drinks. For those who do (like me, a Coca-Cola fanatic), 7-UP had no appeal. But I am not their prospective customer anyway (even though THEY may think I am a prospect).

    The entire proposition of the Blue Ocean Strategy is based on the funadmental and core strengths of positioning.

    Positioning is far from dead. What is missing, however, is marketers and executive management who understand how to properly use this powerful marketing and communications tool.


    1. Hi Steven

      Many thanks for your comment.

      Not many of us have a product like 7-UP or the heritage and resources of Coke. Most of us are venturing into the market from much lower down the food chain and with limited resources.

      Moreover, with the fragmentation of the media and changes in consumer habits and attitudes, it is simply not possible to take the same approach yet agencies still recommend trying to position the product in the mind of the consumer.

      I simply don’t accept that companies are finding a spot in my mind and positioning their product their through communications, be they TVC’s, PR, digital and so on.

      Brands are building relationships with consumers by offering economic, experiential and emotional value at all touch points.


  4. Building brands are building relationships with customers. How do you do that? Identify and engage with them. By positioning your product to your customers, you let your customers experience,engage and have an emotional attachment. Brands like 7-Up and Coke have been built over the years. Is it that lower valued brands don’t occupy any position in the minds of the consumers? Do only the strategic thinkers have say in organizations and not the creative brains?


  5. Interesting question. Or rather, I should say debate.
    Positioning,in my humble opinion, is still very much a critical requirement. In a nut shell, positioning (as the term suggests) is a stance or benchmarking the brand vis-a-vis competition. The process of doing so, has indeed, over the years changed. But it’s still a must do for brands. Else how else would the brand have a starting point?
    And Steven makes a very valid observation– the entire proposition of doing a “Blue Ocean” strategic direction is on positioning! It’s identifying a different set of rules that can be applied, and changing the game so as to call the shots. Again,(though I may be repeating myself), without starting with identification of a “position” to take for the brand, developing a blue ocean direction would be impossible.
    Moving on to the positioning and consumers. Yes, we are very much in a consumer economy market today. But, the importance of “positioning” varies depending upon the “need hierarchy” of the consumer. For eg: a car purchase would not only involve the positioning but a host of other elements. But to start with the positioning will get the brand into the preferred list. On a more personal area, male consmetics– again the positioning will get the brand shortlisted. usage and repeat buying will be governed by a host of other elements. But when it comes to items of low importance such as,commodities, positioning becomes insignificant.
    In sum, positioning is good and a must have as a starting point. It’s like the starter’s block in a race. You use the support to kick off and then use the power in your legs to either sprint or pace yourself depending if you’re running the 100mts or 400mts. From the positioning, will come certain brand characteristics which will be the “identifyors” for engaging consumers ie starting a relationship.And then, lastly, building that relationship and building loyalty.
    Whether its a mass brand like Coke/Pepsi or individual brand like Nike at the end of the day if we want brands to succeed (over time) we have to have ‘conversations” with consumers which lead to relationship. And as with all relationships, there has to be a process of give and take, honesty and transperency for a thriving brand.


  6. I can see where you’re going with this argument on positioning. Consumers can begin defining the positioning of a brand/product on their own: “Macs are only good for designers”, “Plug-in electric cars are not green because we still burn things to get electricity”.

    When the crowd defines the message, the company’s positioning can be lost. But that said, many consumers depend on the positioning of companies to make decisions. A good example is sports drinks. I don’t drink coke or 7-up after a run, I trust 100plus, H-two-O, and Gatorade’s positioning. And it works. Until I discover what’s so bad about drinking those after I break a sweat, then I’ll change my mind on their positioning.


  7. I think the weakness of positioning is that it is limited to the functions or benefits of the products. What if we position it as a characteristic or with a personality instead, as most products are generic these days? Can that kind of positioning work better?


    1. Hi Carmen

      It’s nice to find someone who agrees with me on this issue! At the heart of my argument is the fact that positioning is very company driven, with no thought for the customer, yet today, in the customer economy, customers define brands, not companies. I don’t think personality works either – I recently bid a project with an oil company. We lost out to an ad agency who developed a personality for the brand. It revolved around this little gem, “If we were a drink, we would be an isotonic drink.” IMHO that is utter crap and a complete waste of money. Do you think that would get the big oil companies in Texas or wherever to use the company? Of course not.

      Positioning is no longer a viable option to build a brand. It’s bigger than this, but in terms of communications, what is required is a geographic focussed, segment specific approach that resonates with each targetted segment.


    2. Hi Carmen,

      Positioning, per se, does not have to come from the functions or benefits of the products. Infact, today, very few brands are positioned in that basis. Simply because across all categories, there’s product parity in terms of benefit and features.

      Where positioning is going is to identify a “perceived emotional need fullfillment” of a particular type of consumer and therefore through that make the brand more desirable than its competitor.
      As you mentioned, yes, brands can be positioned on a strong emotional benefit (to the consumer). And this maybe part of the brand’s personality.


  8. I agree that positioning is dated especially if it is used as a brand foundation.
    Knowing where you are positioned in the marketplace was certainly the key, before the world and brands turned Global.

    Today, with so much going around and so many global and local brands fighting on the same markets, basing yourself on competition to position yourself is crazy. So I would rather focus to the brand constants: defining ‘who you are’ in essence and identity, ‘what you say’ to whom and ‘how you deliver’ your promise. Somehow focusing on yourself (as a brand or a company or a product-brand) makes more sense when you speak to customers, rather than just positioning to their segment and giving a pitch that will fall short to expectations.

    I find that working out the external facets (identity, logos, essence, values) and the internal facets (internal comm, sales, prod/serv) is a tough challenge by itself, but that the brand outcome will come out more ‘obvious’ and true to customers. Check out the blog about ‘Obvious Adams’, it is a great story.


  9. Though this thread is ‘old’ the issue is still very relevant. I don’t believe positioning is dead, but it is in need of redefinition.

    Central to the common understanding of positioning is even more dated USP thinking – the search to find rational, unique product features and benefits to own. This makes consideration of usually more important emotional benefits more difficult. While many brand owners understand the value of emotions they tend to feel more comfortable with the idea of ‘owning’ a tangible point of difference. With many categories now at product parity on key product features and performance, this means brands are being ‘positioned’ on minor or irrelevant points of difference.

    With the myriad touchpoints available to brands now, a better way of thinking about what a brand should represent is what its story is rather than what its positioning is. This is beyond benefits and personality to its values, what it believes in, its purpose in ‘the world’, its ambition. The result is usually a unique combination of associations rather than a single unique association. (For instance, some may argue Apple is positioned on simple & intuitive technology while others fall back on its creative values of ‘thinking differently’. Both of these are valid as are the myriad other associations that make up the Apple story).

    A brand story is typically not single-minded though it often has a central theme. In this respect positioning as a single ownable thought that can be packaged in a 30 second television spot is probably redundant. As the idea of a unique, ownable story it is alive and well. And companies need to have and steer those stories even as their customers may also be shaping them. As the saying goes, “If you don’t know what you’ll stand for you’ll fall for anything”.


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