Positioning, an exercise in naive manipulative futility

I have a great dialogue going with Derrick Daye at branding strategy insider

I told him that positioning is an outdated strategy that wastes money, is immeasurable and should be confined to the marketing graveyard. He replied that I am wrong because although the world has changed in the last 40 years, the human condition hasn’t.

Here is my response in full.

Derrick you make the fundamental mistake that the majority of other marketers make – that the human condition hasn’t changed. Do you really believe that? Do you really believe that despite all that extra noise and clutter and, let’s face it, false promises on product capabilities and deliverables; despite the radical changes that have occurred in the way we lead our lives and so on, the tools and channels that we use to source information, the human condition is the same in 2009 as it was in 1969?

The world has been through unprecedented changes since Mr Trout published his first article on positioning. Yet advertising agencies and brand consultants continue to recommend positioning to clients, whatever their industry. I do agree that in its day, positioning could work, and I stress the word could, for large consumer-oriented firms but with MAYBE one or two exceptions, it is not the right way forward.

It is exactly because of the multiple sources of information available to the consumer, including from those that the consumer respects and, more importantly, believes and the subsequent over-communication of product controlled messages as mentioned by you, as well as the fact that there is an abundance of choice and channels, the consumer can now control the relationship the brand has with them and therefore define the brand.

Indeed, any attempt to ‘own a singular concept in the mind’, or as someone else put it, ‘find an empty space in the consumers mind and then park your brand there’ is basically an expensive exercise in naive manipulative futility.


4 thoughts on “Positioning, an exercise in naive manipulative futility

  1. Lots of good insight here, Marcus. I couldn’t help but zero in on the phrase, “find an empty space in the consumers mind and then park your brand there.”

    Whoever said that was off-base on two critical points: 1) You can’t assume your consumers are empty-minded. Modern consumers are more savvy, discerning and critical than ever. They are also presented with an overwhelming array of choices clamoring for their attention. Brands must be savvy as well, and differentiate through design to stand out among the clutter. 2) You can’t “park” your brand anywhere. Brands must be in constant motion, constantly adapting to consumers as their wants and needs evolve. Brands that park will be passed by.


    1. Ken
      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      Doesn’t the whole concept of positioning assume that there is space in your prospect’s mind for them to position their product? Trout says that positioning is “How you differentiate your brand in the mind of the consumer.” I deduce from that that he assumes their is space in your mind for the differentiation to take place. He also points out that the clutter is growing and says new channels are tools to be used but doesn’t address the fact that all these tools cost money. Fine if you are Coke/Apple/Microsoft/GM, oh, sorry not GM and so on. But most of us don’t have the sort of budgets they have.

      And the other key point that winds me up about the positioning crowd is what if it doesn’t work? Then what? Try another one!

      I agree 100%, Brands are fluid, as are consumers. So i guess therefore you are supposed to make your positioning strategy fluid. More massive investment.

      I agree, design is important and I’m going to read your article tonight.


      1. Marcus,

        I respectfully disagree with Mr. Trout. Design is differentiation, not merely positioning. Brands offer an experience and the key is to own that experience by designing it in your brand image. Start from the customer perspective, from their experience, and design outward from there to give them a better experience. Make your brand synonymous with that experience in every way. As a result, the “positioning” takes care of itself.

        Funny you should mention Apple & GM (you”ll know why when you read my latest blog post). Really, in that post I’m discussing this very thing but from the perspective of differentiation through design.



  2. Positioning is the consumer’s perception of a brand in relation to others, with emphasis on points of differences and similarities. A consumer doesn’t need “space” for positioning, but only points of reference. This is why differentiation is paramount to positioning. The way you make positioning work for your company is to develop your product or service to meet the unmet needs of the maximum number of consumers. By taking this approach, positioning is determined by the market you are trying to please, and not by a guy in an office (which is the expensive route).


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