What’s Your Favorite Position?

A serendipitous conversation with an old radio friend halfway through writing this piece really drove home for me that this is a conversation we should be having more often. And sorry if the spin on the word “position” in the title seems kind of click-baity, but it definitely works in this context.

It relates to one of my favorite books on marketing and advertising, written in 1980 by legends Al Ries and Jack Trout, called “Positioning: The Battle For Your Mind“. They’d follow it up in 1987 with a gem called “Marketing Warfare“. Two books I’d recommend to literally anyone who has ever had to sell anything to anybody. While we’re on the subject, let’s get something out of the way nice and early: Everyone on the planet can benefit from having a better understanding of the concept of positioning as it relates to marketing. If you run a car dealership or a hardware store, your product or service is obvious, and whether you succeed or fail will depend largely on your skill at positioning. But I’d argue the same is true for the less obvious among us. Whether you have a podcast or a profile on Plenty Of Fish, there are tons of people whose product is themselves. And positioning is just as important for them.

In the case of my radio friend, we were bemoaning a radio market we’re both familiar with where there’s no clear leader among the morning shows. Sure, there’s a station that’s #1 in the ratings, but I mean a leader in the positioning battle. There’s no “must-listen” morning show in this particular market, or one you’ll find people talking about on the subway. And I think that’s true in a ton of radio markets, as more and more people rise through the ranks in management who don’t have an appreciation for The Top 40 Wars of the 70s and 80s, where having your show and your station be the subject of water-cooler talk was absolutely critical to a show’s success and a station’s survival.

Think about it – when’s the last time you saw a morning radio show trending on social media? The only time it seems to happen is when someone on the show has said or done something offensive. Indeed, radio seems to have ceded that ground to podcasting. There are a hundred times more stories out there about something that was said on a podcast than there are about anything happening on a radio show.

In the radio market that my friend and I were discussing, there is no king of the hill. Which means it’s a hill that’s ready to be taken.

What’s your position in your industry?

In “Positioning”, Trout & Ries talk about the place you hold in your audience’s subconscious. For brands, it’s easy to talk about positioning, because the market leaders have done a really effective job of it. A Corvette, for example, holds a very different position in the consumer’s mind than a minivan. Soy milk is positioned differently than whole milk. Starbucks vs Dunkin Donuts. Mac vs Windows vs Linux. You get the idea.

So what is your position? You should have one, whether you’re in podcasting or auto repair, dentistry or radio, power washing or banking. A position is, in many ways, similar to a niche. Except a niche can be way more broad and can occupy several competitors. Your niche could be rental cars. Your position could be the rental car company that will come pick the customer up at their home rather than force them to come into a retail location. You might be one of a dozen coffee places in my neighborhood – ‘coffee place’ is your niche – but maybe your position is as the place with the barista in the morning who’s even perkier than the Sumatra.

One of the interesting – and sometimes frustrating – things about positioning is you’re not 100% in control of what that position is. And that’s perhaps the greatest difference between your niche and your position. You establish your niche. Your position might be assigned to you. You have complete control of the former, and can only guide the latter – successfully, if you’re applying the right marketing techniques.

I think of examples like rental car agencies, especially in the 70s and 80s. Out of the gate, let’s establish that “rental car agency” is the niche. There are some who have drilled down further and only rent out luxury cars, but once you’ve chosen the rental car niche, your positioning becomes critical if you’re going to succeed. Back in the day, Hertz was the undisputed #1 by a landslide. Nobody was ever going to touch Hertz. Then Avis came along with a positioning statement that said, “We’re #2. So we try harder.” Different than just a slogan, “We try harder” was brilliant positioning because Hertz had accidentally stumbled into the position of sometimes resting on their laurels. Phoning it in, if you will. Being #1 and knowing it to the point of being cocky about it. By more modern turns of phrase, we might have called Hertz, “Big Rental”. So Avis took the position in the crowded rental marketplace as the ones who – pardon the pun – went the extra mile. Years later, Enterprise would tell us in their positioning statement, “We’ll pick you up, and never let you down.” Clever slogan, sure, but an effective positioning statement as well, because now when I think of rental car agencies, they own positions in my mind. Hertz is the biggest. Avis tries harder. Enterprise will pick me up and bring my rental car to me.

It’s the same in the cell phone world. At a time when providers in a crowded niche were fighting it out on price, but customers were complaining about spotty cell phone coverage, Verizon introduced us to the guy who seemed to be walking all over the country, stopping every few feet to ask, “Can you hear me now?” So whether it was accurate or not, Verizon positioned themselves as the network with the best coverage. They did it SO successfully that other providers had to devote time in their commercials toward trying to counter Verizon’s claims. Now, thanks to some hilarious commercials by actor Ryan Reynolds – who also owns the company – Mint Mobile has firmly established a position as a solid low-cost option AND as a company that doesn’t take itself too seriously. The perfect alternative for people who are tired of being screwed over by Big Mobile and their super-rigid corporate policies.

I have a dozen options if I want to buy a hammer. Home Depot will have 37 different hammers for me to choose from. Maybe Ace is closer, and because it isn’t a massive warehouse, chances are I’ll be served by Josie, the manager, who’s always super-friendly and ready to help. Then again, Crazy Larry’s House of Discount Tools probably has a decent hammer for 99 cents. Harbor Freight will likely have the same 37 tools that Home Depot does and maybe even a few more, and the Harbor Freight guy probably knows exponentially more than any of my other options. They’re all in the tool business, but they all occupy very different positions in my psyche.

Your position doesn’t necessarily require that you do something different within your niche. Instead, it’s more about how people think of you, whether that entails different execution or not.

Even my podcast has a position, and it’s one I sought out deliberately. My radio friend and I were talking about the episode called “Normalizing Mediocrity” where, among other things, I told podcasters that if their ad rates are lower for commercials that come up in the middle and end of the show because a big chunk of their audience is gone by the middle of the show, that’s not because podcasting is a quirky medium where listeners do unpredictable things, it’s because the show wasn’t interesting enough to listen to all the way through. My friend said that cemented my position as the guy who tells you the truth you need to hear, whether you like hearing it or not.

But everyone has a position. Maybe you’re not a person who guides the marketing for a Fortune 500 company. Maybe you work in Customer Service at an insurance company. Okay… what’s your position among your co-workers? What do they think of when they think of you?

The danger – that I described earlier as a mere ‘frustration’ – is that if you’re not conscious of your position, and you’re not trying to guide it, a position will be assigned to you that you might not be thrilled about. Quick example of this and I’ll let you get on with your day: Listerine was far and away the #1 brand of mouthwash in the world. Then Scope came along with the two words that forever changed the playing field: “Medicine Breath.” Scope was minty fresh. Listerine was a great product, sure, but it make your breath smell medicine-y.

So what is your position within your niche? What do people think of when they think of you? If you haven’t given it conscious thought and haven’t tried, on some level, to steer that positioning, how do you know you’re not your industry’s version of “Medicine Breath”?

About the Author

You may also like these