The act of positioning is a core element of a successful marketing strategy.

This is a change—a healthy one—from the days when it was considered simply a tactic: A means of deriving a slogan and providing some kind of fabricated difference between a product and its competitor.

Today, handled correctly by smart strategic marketers, it informs, identifies and lays the foundation for the relationships with the multiple marketplaces a company serves. And over the next few columns I'd like to bend your ear a little about just this topic.

More Than a Tactical Tool

The formalization of positioning began with Trout and Ries' Positioning, The Battle for Your Mind. It's still an important book, but it was written for a market landscape that has changed fundamentally since its publication. The book was written by ad people for a non-strategic marketing landscape where segmentation, chasm crossing, channel and partner marketing, one-to-one marketing and all the other concepts that today characterize a strategic view of marketing didn't have much currency. At the time, they were voices crying in the corporate wilderness. It was a time when “marketing” was looked on as primarily a tactical act—and marketing executives spent way too much time reviewing brochures and sweating over press releases instead of defining and defending markets.

While that book (now in a 20th Anniversary Edition) still applies to basic retail/commodity products—like toothpaste and rental cars—marketplaces and marketing have evolved considerably since its publication.

Positioning itself must undergo a similar evolution. What is demanded is that we move the act of positioning away from being simply a retail tactic and more to a marketing imperative; away from a clever manipulation of the market's perception to a clear reflection of a company's true self; and away from a methodically selected piece of pure market fluff—to a true and verifiable view of your company's value to the market.

Positioning Has Always Been with Us

I said that positioning was formalized by Trout and Ries. But the act of positioning has been around long before they gave it a name and a face. One of our favorites is the 1925 campaign for Lucky Strike Cigarettes, which positioned the main market rival of Camel as a health and fitness product (“To Keep a Slender Figure No One Can Deny...Reach for a LUCKY Instead of a Sweet”). You will no doubt have favorites of your own.

That kind of (we're being gentle here) balderdash-based marketing still serves the consumer marketplace well—if you make a commodity product like motor oil or soft drinks or baseball bats, this is exactly the right approach to take. The goal here is to manufacture product differentiation where no inherent distinctions exist. Brand A doesn't really get your clothes whiter than Brand B but good retail brand management—good old P&G-style brand management—dictates that you must say it does.

The world has become far more complex than that. So many of us market expensive products, with multiple market segments, across multiple channels, with high degrees of customization and months-long sales cycles.

Retail's rules of positioning just don't apply. Here, positioning is no longer a hunt for an angle you can hammer home. It is a careful and accurate reflection of the value you, as a company, bring to the marketplace.

Positions Must Be Objective

In this modern market landscape, claims become more than empty generalizations, they become verifiable statements of who you are (which means they must be true). And the nature of that marketplace is expanded—you no longer have a single position (another outdated law of retail positioning), you have multiple positions, depending on which of your markets you're approaching (your direct-sales marketplace has totally different concerns, and needs totally different things, than do your distribution channels).

This change is a reflection of the core fact that your customers care more about the company they're doing business with than they do about the product. In the retail world, product is the endpoint of the relationship. In the commercial world, product is just the beginning: it is a requirement to entry. Once you demonstrate you have product, then the real process of selling begins—delivery times, financial strength, service and support, partnerships, product enhancement plans (and more) all play critical roles in the process. The question is not who has the better elevator, it's whether you want to do business with Otis, Kone or Schindler.

And here is where your positioning really comes into play—in framing and establishing the relationship between your company and your customers. And it's this that consumes my thinking—how do we change the principles of retail positioning so that they make sense to today's markets?

It is the fundamental question “Who Are You” that we, as marketers of sophisticated products, operating in multiple channels, requiring expensive and complex sales cycles, must answer every day. This is a world in which omnipresent, (and for that mater “omni-cliché”) positions like “ROI Leader” and “Highest Customer Satisfaction” have no more value than “Gets Clothes Their Whitest!”

So that's what I'm going to talk about in the coming months. We'll look at the difference between product and corporate positions; about how to make sure you're handling positioning strategically not tactically; about the need for you to establish multiple positions to address multiple marketplaces...and more.

All with a healthy smattering of anecdotes and examples of who's doing it well—and who's not.

I hope it's useful to you.

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image of Michael Fischler

Michael Fischler is founder and principal coach and consultant of Markitek (, which for over a decade has provided marketing consulting and coaching services to companies around the world, from startups and SMEs to giants like Kodak and Pirelli. You can contact him by clicking here.