Lessons of Advertising 2 — Positioning


The first lesson of advertising was “Reasons Why,” the importance of giving compelling facts and persuasive arguments in your advertisements—not simply relying on image or branding to relate to your customers.

Over the last century or more of advertising, it’s a lesson the industry has returned to again and again. After a period of prosperity, advertising relaxes into image-focused branding efforts that don’t express clear reasons why to buy the product. But since the economy is growing and the rising tide is lifting all markets, it doesn’t appear to matter all that much. But then, as happened several discrete times over the past century, hard times come back—and with them, the hard sell. Suddenly, ads need to work again.

When the hard times and hard sell return, they often bring with them the art of positioning—re-discovered anew every few decades, and often renamed—which happens to be our second lesson of advertising.

What is positioning?

David Ogilvy said it was simply, “what the product is, and who it is for.” Michael E. Porter paints a broader picture, saying positioning “means performing different activities from rivals’ or performing similar activities in different ways.” Basically, presenting your product to your audience in a way that actively sets it apart from competitors.

In the 1970s, Jack Trout and Al Ries blew up the advertising scene by heralding a new era of positioning. They even claimed that, “today, creativity is dead,” and positioning had taken its place. Of course, that’s not true, but the overstatement points to a truth—without positioning, creativity is, if not dead, weakened.

In recent years, positioning has taken the form of simple comparative advertising: “Our tissues are 30% softer than the ‘other guy’s,” or, “our car gets more mileage than the leading luxury sedan.” To the extent it works, it works because you know who the “other guys” are. That’s positioning—connecting a new product to an existing product in your mind. A new concept hitches a ride on one that’s already well established.

The Cycles of Advertising

Positioning, like Reasons Why, isn’t new. It wasn’t even new in the 1970s when Trout and Ries “pioneered” it within the industry.

In fact, this anecdote from The Mirror Makers is an excellent illustration of successful positioning—from 1932.

The agency had recommended a campaign with the headline, “Look at all three,” directly referencing Ford and Plymouth:

“Why the hell do I want to sell Fords and Chevies?” asked one. But the proposed ad was included among others submitted by Walter Chrysler, and he was told the objections to it. “I don’t give a damn,” he said, slapping his hand on the desk, “I want to run that ad!” In final form it carried the headline in bold black type above a starkly lit photograph of Chrysler leaning over the hood of a Plymouth. The copy quoted Chrysler on the technical reasons why anyone should prefer his car over the unnamed competition. First run in April 1932, as Ford and Chevrolet were also introducing their new models, the ad drew attention by skirting the advertising industry’s informal ban on competitive or comparative pitches. Getchell did not name the other two, but the reference was obvious. By June Plymouth sales had improved 218 percent over the same period the previous year.

During the height of the creative revolution, Mary Wells Lawrence used a nearly identical approach to market the Javelin, with the headline, “An unfair comparison between the Mustang and the Javelin”—not just implicating the competition, but naming them:

We had to position those cars in automobile buyers’ minds just as we were positioning them in our own minds by driving them and the competitive cars out there at the airport. The only way to do that was to compare each American Motors car, side by side, with a competitive car that was a star, a famous car that everybody knew and admired and was similar to the American Motors car. Such a direct comparison would tell prospective buyers what sort of animal the American Motors car was and, if we were clever, get across the idea that the American Motors car was superior to the other, well-known car. For example, comparing the Javelin to the Mustang would tell you instantly what sort of car the Javelin was, and if we played our cards right, we would persuade you that the Javelin was the better high-performance car of the two.

Why do we keep coming back to the same lessons again and again, repackaged for each new era? We’ll get into this more in our third post in this series, but the short answer is: people get used to advertising. Ads follow a style, the public grows accustomed to it, so it stops working. In an effort to increase effectiveness, the old tricks are repurposed, repackaged, and relearned. As The Mirror Makers says, “In most important respects advertising has proceeded not down a line but around a circle.”

In changing its style, however, it often changes its substance—leading to periods of image-focused ineffectiveness—only to return to the reasons why. Too often, advertisers forget that styles can change while the substance remains the same—and remains effective.

Comparative Advertising?

Does this mean all positioning is a form of comparative advertising? Absolutely not. It’s just the most direct application.

You can position your product against an idea, or another way of behaving if you don’t have a direct competitor. For instance, a brand new software product may position its benefits as opposed to doing nothing, or attempting to solve the problem on your own. The important part is connecting the offering to an experience or idea you’ve already had.

One of the best examples of positioning that doesn’t mention the competition is the original Dollar Shave Club ad, made in-house for a budget of just $4,500. They don’t just position a product, they position a lifestyle and way of thinking:

They position their price against the big guys, but position their product against a lifestyle—don’t be the type of person who overpays for blades, be the type of person who saves money.

And of course, we know how the story ends.

Billie, the women’s subscription razor brand, is effectively positioning themselves against the rest of the shaving industry by focusing on the industry’s unfair “pink tax” and condescending “goddess” advertising.

How can you apply this?

First, by remembering why positioning works: because it’s easier to adapt or hitch a ride on an idea already in someone’s mind than it is to create a new idea. That’s why “We’re the Uber of xyz” is such a common phrase in Silicon Valley.

One way to use positioning is by employing Trout and Ries’ “Law of the Opposite.” In your own marketing, think about the idea or perception of your industry, product, or competition that your audience already has, and position your product, service, or organization as opposed to it. Where they are big and expensive, you are small and affordable. Where they are small and boutique, you are big and sophisticated. Where they are fast and affordable, you are deliberative and careful. As long as it is a concept that your audience actually holds, you can use it in your position.

It does not work, however, if your audience doesn’t actually hold the belief. If you want to position yourself as the cost-effective option, that won’t work if nobody sees your competition as expensive. Otherwise, you’re just an also-ran.


By studying the history of advertising, we can learn its cycles and prepare for the next revolution—because it will look very similar to the last one, almost certainly a return to harder sells and reasons why.

Up next: The third lesson of advertising, and last of the series, is also the most important—Get Noticed.