This is a post about a very powerful marketing strategy that has fallen into disuse. Why? I have no idea, unless it’s about creative people thinking that it’s not creative. It’s called “repositioning the competition” and I, along with my ex-partner Al Ries, wrote about it in a book called, Positioning: The Battle For Your Mind.
In simple terms, to move a new idea or product into the mind, you must first move an old one out. “The world is round,” said Christopher Columbus. “No, it’s not,” said the public, “it’s flat.”
To convince the public otherwise, 15th century scientists first had to prove the world wasn’t flat. One of their more convincing arguments was the fact that sailors at sea were first able to observe the tops of the masts of an approaching ship, then the sails, then the hull. If the world were flat, they would see the whole ship at once.
All the mathematical arguments in the world weren’t as effective as a simple observation the public should verify themselves. Once an old idea is overturned, selling the new idea is often ludicrously simple. As a matter of fact, people will often actively search for a new idea to fill the void.
Never be afraid of conflict either. The crux of a repositioning program is undercutting an existing concept, product, or person. Conflict, even personal conflict, can build a reputation overnight. Where would Sam Ervin have been without Richard Nixon?
For that matter, where would Richard Nixon have been without Alger Hiss? And Ralph Nader got famous not by saying anything about Ralph Nader, but by going out and attacking the world’s largest corporation single-handedly.
People like to watch the bubble burst.
Tylenol went out and burst the aspirin bubble for Johnson & Johnson.
“For the millions who should not take aspirin,” said Tylenol’s ads. “If your stomach is easily upset…or you have an ulcer…or your suffer from asthma, allergies, or iron-deficiency anemia, it would make good sense to check with your doctor before you take aspirin.”
“Aspirin can irritate the stomach lining,” continued the Tylenol ad, “trigger asthmatic or allergic reactions, cause small amounts of hidden gastrointestinal bleeding.”
“Fortunately, there is Tylenol….”
Sixty words of copy before any mention of the advertiser’s product. Sales of acetaminophen-based Tylenol took off. Today, Tylenol is the No.1 brand of analgesic. A simple but effective repositioning strategy did the job against an institution like aspirin. Amazing.
Stolichnaya burst the American vodka bubble.
“Most American vodkas seem Russian,” said the ads. And the captions said: “Samovar: Made in Schenley, Pennsylvania. Smirnoff: Made in Hartford, Connecticut. Wolfschmidt: Made in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. Stolichnaya is different. It is Russian and it’s made in Leningrad.” (Now St. Petersburg)
One of Procter & Gamble’s most powerful programs was the one that really launched Scope mouthwash. P&G used two words to reposition Listerine, the king of Halitosis Hill:
“Medicine breath.” Who wants their breath to smell like a hospital?
Over 20 years ago, BMW launched its very successful car by repositioning Daimler-Chrysler’s Mercedes Benz. The headline of the introductory ad said, “The ultimate sitting machine verses the ultimate driving machine.” Who wants just a living room on wheels?
The success of the Tylenol, Scope, Stolichnaya and other repositioning programs has spawned a host of similar advertising. Too often, however, these copycat campaigns have missed the essence of repositioning strategy.
“We’re better than our competitors” isn’t repositioning. It’s comparative advertising and not very effective. There’s a psychological flaw in the advertisers reasoning which the prospect is quick to detect. “If your brand is so good, how come it’s not the leader?”
A look at comparative ads suggests why most of them aren’t effective. They fail to reposition the competition.
Rather, they use the competitor as a benchmark for their own brand. Then they tell the reader or viewer how much better they are. Which, of course, is exactly what the prospect expects the advertiser to say.
Once upon a time, Ban deodorant ran an ad that said, “Ban is more effective than Right Guard, Secret, Sure, Arrid Extra Dry, Mitchum, Soft & Dry, Body All and Dial.” The reader looks at an ad like this and asks, “What else is new?”
Ironically, where this strategy is alive and well is in the land of politics. Karl Rove did enormous damage to John Kerry by repositioning him as a “Flip Flopper.” This helped President George W. Bush set up his position of being a strong leader. Unfortunately, the Kerry campaign was too busy trying to position him as a Vietnam War hero instead of attacking the Bush record. They should have used repositioning against the Bush strategy by saying that President Bush was “Strong But Wrong.”
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