Book notes: Positioning by Al Ries & Jack Trout

Positioning by Al Reis and Jack Trout book summary

Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind by Al Reis & Jack Trout


“The first book to deal with the problems of communicating to a skeptical, media-blitzed public, Positioning describes a revolutionary approach to creating a “position” in a prospective customer’s mind, one that reflects a company’s own strengths and weaknesses as well as those of its competitors.

Ries and Trout provide many valuable case histories and penetrating analyses of some of the most phenomenal successes and failures in advertising history. Revised to reflect significant developments in the five years since its original publication, Positioning is required listening for anyone in business today.” -Audible

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Opening thoughts:

I think this book came from recommended titles when browsing Audible. From what I remember from 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, the other book I’ve read from these authors, it had a lot to do about advertising and marketing, and felt really dated from what I remembered. Half of the case studies and examples they used were from companies that were either gone or past their prime. Either way, this book had solid reviews so I figured I would give it a shot.

Key notes:

  • Failure to communicate is the single most common must universal reason people give for their problems

Chapter 1: what positioning is all about

  • Advertising isn’t a sledgehammer it’s more of a light fog
    • In the communication jungle out there, the only way to score big is to be selective, to concentrate on narrow targets, to practice segmentation
    • In a word, positioning
  • In general, the mind accepts only that which matches prior knowledge or experience
    • Millions of dollars have been wasted trying to change minds with advertising. Once a mind is made up, it’s impossible to change it
  • The best approach to take an our over-communicated society is the oversimplified message
    • In communication, as in architecture, less is more
    • You have to sharpen your message to cut into the mind
  • By turning the process around, by focusing on the prospect and not the product, you simplify the selection process
    • You also learn principles and concepts that can greatly increase your communication effectiveness

Chapter 2: the assault on the mind

  • The first company to occupy the position in the mind is going to be awfully hard to dislodge
  • Make sure you can’t find something to be first in
    • It’s better to be a big fish in a small pond and then increase the size of the pond than to be a small fish in a big pond
  • Advertising is starting to become less poetic and more effective
    • One strategy is to copy your competitors but strip away the creativity and simplify in order to position in your consumer’s mind
  • Establishing the against position is a classic positioning maneuver
    • If a company is not the first, it has to be the first to occupy this number two position
  • You must look inside your prospects mind to find your concept
  • More than anything else, successful positioning requires consistency

Chapter 6: positioning of a leader

  • Consumers are much more comfortable with a pecking order that everybody knows about and accepts
  • Product leaders should swallow their pride and adopt new product developments when shown promise by their competitors
  • Despite conventional beliefs, the power of the organization is derived from the power of the product, the position that the product owns in the prospect’s mind
  • Leadership is not the end of a positioning program, it is merely the start
    • Leaders are in the best position to exploit opportunities as they arise
    • Leaders should constantly use the power of their leadership to keep far ahead of the competition

Chapter 7: positioning of a follower

  • Instead of adopting a “me too” strategy and try to make a better product in the consumer’s mind, a better strategy is to find the hole in the leader and fill it
  • Your marketing and advertising should clearly position your brand in a particular price category
  • Don’t fill a hole in the factory, fill a hole in the prospect’s mind
  • To move a new idea or product into the mind, you must first move an old one out
  • Don’t try to reposition your brand comparatively with the leader by saying you are better
    • If you were better, you would be the leader

Chapter 9: the power of the name

  • The name is the hook that hangs the brand on the product ladder in the prospect’s mind
  • You must look for a name that begins the positioning process, a name that tells the prospect what the products major benefit is
  • Only when you’re first in the mind with an absolutely new product that millions of people are certain to want can you afford the luxury of a “mean nothing” name
    • Otherwise, stick with common descriptive words and avoid the coined words

Chapter 10: the free ride trap

  • Proctor and Gamble carefully positions each product so that it occupies a unique niche in the mind
    • It’s dangerous to hang a well-known name on a new product and product ladder, as that name is strongly associated with its own sharply defined ladder
  • In dealing with media, you must conserve your anonymity until you are ready to spend it
    • Then when you spend it, spend it big, always keeping in mind that the objective is not publicity, but in order to achieve a position in the prospect’s mind

Chapter 11: the line extension trap

  • Inside-out thinking is the biggest barrier to success, outside-in thinking is the best aid

Chapter 12: when line extension can work

  • The name is a rubber band, it will stretch but not beyond a certain point
  • The more you stretch your name the weaker it becomes, just the opposite of what you might expect
  • Line extension is a trap, not a mistake
    • Line extension can work if: your competitors are foolish, your volume is small, you have no competitors, you don’t expect to build a position in the prospects of mine, you don’t do any advertising

Chapter 13: positioning a company

Chapter 14: positioning a country

  • There’s a moral here: whether you’re selling colas, companies, or countries, “out-of-mind” means “out-of-business”
  • In any positioning program, if you can start with a strongly held perception, you will be that much ahead in your efforts to establish your own position
  • A successful positioning program requires a major long-term commitment by the people in charge

Chapter 15: positioning an island – Jamaica

Chapter 16: positioning a product – Milk Duds

  • Most positioning programs are nothing more or less than the search for the obvious
    • Yet the obvious is easy to miss if you zero in too quickly on the product itself
  • Important lesson from the milk duds example: The solution to a positioning problem is usually found in the prospect’s mind, not in the product

Chapter 17: positioning a ski resort

  • It’s a great strategy to include your product in the world’s top best list
  • When you use a recognized authority to give your product or service credibility, you are tapping into a fundamental aspect of human nature
    • There’s security in not having to trust your own judgment

Chapter 18: positioning the Catholic Church

Chapter 19: positioning yourself and your career

  • Define yourself. The most difficult part of positioning is to select that one concept to hang your hat on
    • What are you? What is your own position in life? Can you sum up your own position in a single concept and can you run your own career to establish and exploit that position?
  • Anything worth doing is worth doing lousy
  • Confusion is the enemy of successful positioning
    • You can’t burn in a name that’s too common. Avoid the No-Name trap
  • Trying harder is rarely the pathway to success, trying smarter is the better way
  • Success in life is based more on what others can do for you than on what you can do for yourself
  • Always try to work for the smartest, brightest, most competent person you can find
  • Two types of people come in looking for jobs:
    • One who excels in a specialty and wants to offer their services because the company is weak in it
    • The other acknowledges that the company is strong in their specialties and wants to work with the best
  • The more business friends you make outside of your own organization, the more likely you are to wind up in a rewarding job
  • For ideas, anything “definitely in” is already on its way out
  • An idea or concept without the element of conflict is not an idea at all
  • The fifth “horse” to ride is faith in others and their ideas
  • It is possible to succeed in business or in life all by yourself, but it’s not easy
    • Like life itself, business is a social activity with as much cooperation as competition
  • Six questions to ask yourself to get your mental juices flowing when choosing a positioning strategy:
    1. What position do you own? Positioning is thinking in reverse: instead of starting with yourself, you start with the mind of the prospect
    2. What position do you want to own?
      • The job market today belongs to the people who can define and position themselves as specialists
    3. Whom must you out-gun?
    4. Do you have enough money? It takes money to establish and hold a position
    5. Can you stick it out?
      • It’s important to take a long-range point of view. To determine your basic position and stick to it
      • Positioning is a concept that is cumulative. Most successful companies rarely change a winning formula
    6. Do you match your position?
  • Words don’t contain meanings. The meanings are not in the words, they are in the people using the words
    • You must select the words that trigger the meaning you want to establish
  • Simple ideas work today, simple concepts expressed with simple words used in a straightforward way
    • Often the solution to a problem is so simple that thousands of people have looked at it without seeing it
    • When an idea is clever or complicated, however, we should be suspicious because it probably won’t work since it is not simple enough
  • Positioning is simple but not easy
    • The difficulty is finding an open position that is also effective
  • The secret to establishing a successful position is to keep two things in balance:
    1. A unique position with…
    2. An appeal that is not too narrow
  • The essence of positioning is sacrifice, you must be willing to give up something in order to establish that unique position
  • Companies look for places to make their brand successful and then roll it out to other markets
    • Examples: the geographic rollout for specific locations first, the demographic rollout, chronologic rollout among a specific age group, distribution roll out from specific shops and then expanding

Closing thoughts:

Reminds me a lot of 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing. Lots of repeated information and a lot of dated examples from when the book was written. The principles are definitely solid and insightful in terms of marketing, but mostly gears towards advertising and big companies that deal with “line extension” and being on the “top rung” of their respective product ladders.

A majority of the last half of the book was a lot of rehashing the same points against specific examples, which is why I didn’t take too many notes. The last 15-20 minutes of the book was some of the best meat of the book. It summed up the main takeaways on positioning, as well as some reflecting questions you can use to apply the concepts to your own brand or business. I was losing hope halfway through the book, but this last snippet definitely redeemed the book. Good thing it was a relatively short read or else I might have skipped it.

Overall, solid principles about advertising, marketing, and positioning. Great if you’re head of marketing or brand management. If you’re not in that field, it can just be a nice foundational book on how advertising worked the last few decades. Otherwise, the information feels a bit dated. If you’re in the marketing field or trying to advance your knowledge, I’d skim through the main points of 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing instead, and then read more recent marketing books.


The key to positioning is being narrow in your focus, with your product and target audience. Strong positioning requires sacrifice, but is more effective.

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