Why are you still using positioning to build a brand?

Back in the late 1960s, Al Ries and Jack Trout published their first article on positioning. But the term didn’t really become advertising jargon until the articles entitled “The Positioning Era”, were published in Advertising Age in the early 1970’s.

You can read the original articles here

There are numerous definitions of what positioning is today (Google ‘what is positioning’ and you get 24,900,000 responses). Even wikipedia isn’t sure but anyway you can read their definition here

But in today’s marketplace, positioning has multiple problems. Here are 11 reasons why you shouldn’t use positioning to build your brand:

1) Positioning was developed for the US mass market of the 1970’s. Is the Malaysian market similar to the US market? I don’t think so. The Malaysian market isn’t even similar to the Singapore market and they used to be the same country! And Thailand has little in common with Indonesia and so on. So why use the same model here?

2) In a smaller, flatter more competitive world, advertising agencies have used increasingly desperate and outrageous claims in their advertising to position products in the consumer mind. In Malaysia, Proton uses ‘You’ll be amazed’ to describe it’s MPV. I’m sure it is a good car but if it will amaze me, how will a Lamborghini make me feel? Consumers have been carpet-bombed with such claims for so long that now, they rarely take any notice of traditional advertising.

3) 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. It’s also about retention and relationships. Does this mean that a company should develop different positioning for different niches? Or does it use the same approach for every niche? And does it use the same approach for existing customers as well as prospects?

4) 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 competitors. Furthermore, it is impossible to measure the ROI or benchmark positioning.

5) 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.

6) Positioning is one-way. The company knows best and you must listen to us. We tell you how our products are positioned and you will accept what we tell you. But today, if you are not entering into 2 way conversations with consumers you are about to join the brand graveyard. Today, consumers get any information they want on anything from anywhere at anytime and then make their own decisions.

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. This means you are always playing ‘catch-up’.

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 TV? Surf the Internet? Put the kettle on? Go to the bathroom? Text a friend? Basically, you do anything but watch the commercial. How many TV commercials can you remember seeing over the weekend? It’s the same with billboards. How many billboards can you remember from your morning commute? And even if you remember those commercials or billboards, how many of the brands have you explored and purchased?

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?

11) To use a sporting analogy, in the early 1970s, professional tennis players were still playing with wooden racquets. Soon after the first non-wood racquets appeared. These were initially made of steel, then aluminium and after that, carbon fiber composites. Today’s racquets include titanium alloys and ceramics. As technology has broken new ground, the tools have improved. It is the same in every Industry yet when it comes to building brands, we’re expected to use the same technology and tools as we have been for the last forty years.

If your agency recommends developing a positioning strategy to build your brand politely show them the door and call us!


12 thoughts on “Why are you still using positioning to build a brand?

    1. Hi Neil
      Thanks for your comment. It depends on your business/industry and whether it is B2B and B2C and what stage it is at and what your goals are. But the constants are 1) Branding is not just a communications exercise. 2) You must provide economic, experiential and emotional value to customers, on their terms. 3) Retention is key.


  1. I read the Ries and Trout article you linked to.

    Their ideas always makes a lot of sense to me. For me their message is about knowing what you stand for. How this makes you different from the competition. And communicate this in a good way.

    Although I have not had the opportunity to work with big brands and big budgets, I believe that a lot of ideas of the ‘positioning era’ still apply. Most of those things however might be categorized as branding.

    “Does this mean that a company should develop different positioning for different niches?”

    If these niches don’t have the same reason for buying your product, a different approach might be good. Tools today allow to have narrower segments.

    But I completely agree with the main points of your article. These principles shouldn’t be applied without adaptation. Communication is just one of the many things that have changed over the years.


  2. This is an interesting read but I one that I disagree with wholehartedly. I address each reason you presented below:

    Ad 1)
    You state chat a model that was developed for the US mass market in the seventies is not applicable to other countries or through time. Why does a market have to be similar in order for a model to work? All markets have the same elements (competitors, customers, manufacturers etc.) don’t they. If you extend your statement to other theories it is the same as saying that economic theories cannot be applied in Malaysia because they were thought up by Americans or English in another era. This reasoning in my opinion is flawed.

    Ad 2)
    Bad claims or outrageous claims developed by agencies for the clients doesn’t mean that the concept of positioning is no good. It means that agencies did poor work.

    Ad 3)
    I am not sure what you mean by your statement that positioning is only suitable for mass markets. As long as there is competition and there are customers you can use the concept. Even if there is no competition you can still position your company or your brand.

    Ad 4)
    Mission and vision, values, BHAG’s; there are tons of stuff in business that are immeasurable. Or they are measurable but aren’t measured. Does that mean that the concept doesn’t hold? I don’t think so.

    Ad 5)
    Wikipedia is no official standard. It could be my opinion or yours; whoever comes last. So dimissing positioning because you do not like the definition in Wikipedia is a sophism. Skipping that and going back to Ries & Trout, the wrote a book on bottom-up marketing and always had the consumer/customer/prospects in mind.

    Ad 6)
    You state positioning is one way communication. The company is telling the customer how the products are positioned. I think that you are confusing claims with positioning again. I hope companies would be smarter than to communicate their positioning to their target audience. Who cares?

    Ad 7)
    To me positioning is both competition and consumer/customer driven. That is the way I work and I know that others do too. And Ries & Trout say the following: “To find a tactic that will work, you have to leave your ivory tower and go down to the front where the marketing battle is being fought. Where is the front? In the minds of your customers and prospects”.

    Ad 8)
    Of course the world has changed significantly over the last 40 years but that doesn’t mean that theories and models aren’t true or usable anymore?

    Ad 9)
    You state that positioning uses mass market channels. To me positioning is a strategic concept and not equal to marketing communication. So what you really seem to be saying here is that mass market channels aren’t of this day and age. I agree with you there, but it has nothing to do with the concept of positioning.

    Ad 10)
    Advertising can cost a lot of money. You are equaling positioning and advertising. Positioning is a strategic concept and Advertising is a possible form of execution of the strategic positioning for a company or a product.

    Ad 11)
    Of course tennis rackets have changed throughout the years because of the possibilities technology offer, but since 1873 tennis has been played with a racket. The concept of the tool is still the same. People still play tennis with a racket. If I apply this analogy it would mean that the theory of positioning can be innovated and developed throughout the years, and still be a tool to be used.

    You state some undeniable facts. Markets and consumers have changed. Communication channels are of another era. But your arguments for positioning being outdated and unusable are – in my opinion – flawed and have not convinced me. I also miss an alternative. It would be great positioning for your agency: The brand agency with the alternative to positioning!


    1. Hi Pepita – if that’s not your name I apologise

      Thank you for taking the time to visit my blog and for making some excellent comments. I’ll try to respond in the next week or so.

      Thanks once again



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