The Politics of “Positioning”: Position the Competition

(originally written Q4 2007)

Positioning, an important marketing strategy used by smart marketers the world over, is a concept that gained a lot of attention after the publication of a seminal book by Al Ries and Jack Trout called “Positioning (The Battle for Your Mind).” Since its publication, the positioning concept has played a crucial role in the way we advertisers approach our discipline.

There are a variety of points to discuss regarding positioning, one of which is “positioning the competition.”

Within the mind of the consumer, there are categorical ladders on which the consumer subconsciously hangs various brands, according to the position the consumer sees a particular brand as occupying. Because of this, positioning the competition is a useful strategy for companies that have not yet gained a position in the consumer’s mind, or want to differentiate themselves from a category leader.

The main example utilized by Ries and Trout in their book is Avis’ “We try harder” campaign, in which Avis positioned itself against the #1 car rental company, Hertz. The campaign allowed Avis to use their second-best status in a positive way, by essentially giving the impression that Hertz didn’t work as hard to please its customers. In 1962, before the campaign launched, Avis was unprofitable and held only 11% of the U.S. car rental business. Within a year of launching the campaign, Avis was making a profit, and by 1966 Avis tripled its market share to 35%.

The relatively recent Macintosh ads are a perfect example of positioning the competition. They are so simple, and yet perform so well. By placing a “Mac” character next to a “PC” character, and then pointing out all the “flaws” of a PC in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, they are positioning themselves by positioning the competition. Whatever your feelings about Macs or PCs, there is no denying the brilliance of this ad campaign.

This positioning concept works equally well in politics. Remember the presidential race of 2004? (Disclaimer: No political statement is intended here—trust me; this is simply a great demonstration of the concept…) John Kerry will forever be linked to the now infamous words, “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.” But why? Not simply because he said it.

What did the Republican strategists follow this statement with? Positioning the competition. Near the end of his speech at the 2004 Republican National Convention, Bush simply stated, “…In the last four years, you and I have come to know each other. Even when we don’t agree, at least you know what I believe and where I stand.” Without even mentioning the competitor, Bush positioned himself against his competitor and his competitor’s previous “flip-flop” statement, allowing the pundits and public to make the connection. Think what you want about either political party or candidate—this was brilliant positioning strategy, equaled only by the unbelievable lack of response from the competition.

“Positioning the competition.” Look for the politicians to make this a signature strategy over the coming year—and make sure to keep this strategy in your marketing toolkit.

Leave a Reply