Rethinking positioning – are Ries and Trout still relevant?

Jack Trout and Al Ries are referenced in every marketing textbook for their work on the concept of positioning…which doesn’t necessarily mean that everything they say regarding marketing is correct or totally on point.

A couple of recent articles on renaming Guatemala (Ries) and word-of-mouth marketing (Trout) have got me thinking about whether these marketing legends are still relevant in today’s environment of media proliferation and technology adoption.

Ries makes some good points about why Guatemala should change its name, but misses in his recommendation.  Sure, many countries have changed their names in recent history, but as a result of government changes (Eritrea, Myanmar, Czech Republic, Slovakia, etc.) – not for marketing purposes.  Good counterpoint at Adrants (until Steve Hall hedges following a Laura Ries comment).  In any case, lucky for Mr. Ries, he didn’t suggest this change for a predominantly Muslim or otherwise anti-USA foreign entity.  I don’t understand the improper grammar at the end of Ries’s article but I assume it is some sort of attempt at ethnic humor.  Difficult to take him seriously after this one.

On the other hand, Trout gets it right for the most part in his take on WOMM – but the [over?]reaction in the WOM community is quite heated – see Brand Autopsy and George Silverman.  Trout doesn’t actually recommend against WOMM; he advocates using it as "another tool in your arsenal."  This echos Forrester’s view that the most effective marketing is integrated and optimized for cross-channel media.  However, Trout misses the fact that despite a company’s best effort to position its brand, it cannot control how a consumer will react.

The real key is customer experience.  Companies do not control brands and must understand "social computing" in order to thrive and ultimately survive.  Technology has changed the name of the game and that’s why there’s so much buzz about word-of-mouth marketing today, as its efficacy has improved dramatically.

So back to the concept of positioning:

  • wrong, if you think it means a company can control what a consumer thinks
  • wrong, if you think advertising alone can get the job done
  • correct, if you think a company can offer a suggestion of how they should be perceived, then support that concept by delivering a relevant experience, meeting or exceeding consumer expectations.

The way that the concept was originally introduced in the 1970’s was as part of marcom – not customer experience.  Maybe as a first step, these guys should start blogging to understand the nature of consumer-generated content/media/etc. and then update their concepts to become legends in 21st century marketing as well.

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