Admirals Ries and Trout and the new positioning

Ries_and_trout Positioning in marketing is a simple idea, really.  It locates the brand relative to the competition.  In a sense, positioning is a lot like retailing, it’s all about location, location, location.  But this location exists not in the real world but in the structure of the marketplace. 

Examples: Pepsi is positioned to be more current than Coke.  Marlboro is positioned to be more masculine than Kools.  BMW is positioned to be sportier than Mercedes. 

The idea of positioning, attributed to Ries and Trout (pictured), helped marketers be more strategic.  It encouraged us to parachute the brand into a marketplace at just the right place, where other brands had inadvertently opened a space and an opportunity. 

But the world has changed.  We now longer drop the brand into a fixed terrain.  We drop it into turbulent markets that stream with change.  The location we care about shifts constantly. 

To steal a metaphor from the Tom Wolfe, positioning is a little like landing an F16 on an aircraft carrier. The carrier is steaming forward, a veritable moving target.  In high seas,  the carrier is also moving up and down and side to side. Finally, the landing zone is incredibly little and we are moving incredibly fast.  Thank God for flight school.

But that’s the problem.  Flight school is still manned by Admirals Ries and Trout, men who were raised in another tradition and a world much stiller than our own (note classical columns).  The trick is to think about what happens to the art and science of positioning in a more dynamic world.

Let us use as our talking point, the case of Kathy Griffin, the comic who fought her way out of obscurity and onto the D list.  She dated Quentin Tarantino and had a cameo on Pulp Fiction.  As the moment, she has her own show on cable. 

Griffin is all about positioning.  She places herself as a struggling actress, someone on the verge of celebrity, someone trying to climb the slippery slope of fame.  This is a great strategy.  It make Griffin likable, approachable, relatable, close enough to celebrity to give us a closer view, but not so close to become a fixture in the world she likes to mock. 

But Griffin has a dynamic positioning problem.  The success of her TV show and stand-up tours pushes her relentlessly out of her present location.  If she ever was D-list, she has enough momentum now to relocate her at C or B. Even if Griffin does nothing here present position will drift remarkably out of and away from her preferred location. 

Now there are ways she can address the problem.  She can work the resources at her disposal, using her TV show, for instance, to good effect.  As when she is shown regaling someone in the street.  As it turns out, they have no idea who she is.  Good!  And when she offers them free tickets to her show, they turn her down flat.  Better!  And then they look at her like she just asked them for money.  Perfect!   D-list status is renewed, at least for another show.   It is entirely possible that Griffin is now excluding all the things captured by her reality TV show that make her look A list, and searching out material that helps renew her D-list status. 

Let’s take another, more difficult example.  The world of the medical drama in the early days was defined by shows like Dr. Kildare and Ben Casey.  The doctor in question was an authoritative, paternal, wise and thoughtful male, always male, healer.  St. Elsewhere open things up a little with doctors who were a little less God-like but still exemplary.  The show Becker featured Ted Danson as a crank who relished his imperfections, scorned his patients, and smoked like a chimney.  You could see the original TV genre building out with each successive position.  Thus did the genre and the audience expand.  Thus did TV adjust to a changing culture.

House, M.D., launched in 2004 on Fox, and pushed the envelope still further.  Gregory House is contrary, willful, self centered, staff abusing, patient mocking, and drug addicted.  Wow.  If you had asked me before the fact whether such a show would work, I think I would have said "no."  Wrong again.  It worked brilliantly.  House has won ratings and awards…and the genre and our culture took on new depth and complexity.

But here’s the problem.  House is the kind of property that wears or wears out.  I would be very surprised if there were any steady state at which the show can cost.  Those who find House difficult are eventually going to find him impossible.  Those who like him are eventually going to want him to ramp up the acerbicness.  This is what marketing calls a rock and a hard place.  And these are moving targets because different consumers are going through these arcs at different times.  This is what marketing calls a dynamic problem set. 

This is not a problem to be solved with a little Griffin-esque D list tinkering.  This calls for producer Bryan Singer to work two very different signals into the same show and the same character.  House must become both less redeemable and more redeemable not just once but for several audience as they migrate from present position to new positions.   It’s a lovely problem because it’s an impossible problem.  (Hey, but if anyone can do it, it’s Singer.  He’s the guy who did The Usual Suspects.) 

I have used TV examples here but I believe this problem presents itself in the world of product marketing, and that it will do so more and more as brands break out of their present addled geniality and take more marked and interesting positions in our culture. 

In sum, positioning is newly challenge.  It demands of us the ability to find a moving platform that consists of several audiences with disparate tolerances, moving at different rates in different directions.  Back to flight school…for the flyers and the admirals. 


Ries, Al and Jack Trout.  2000.  Positioning: the battle for your mind.  New York: McGraw-Hill.   

7 thoughts on “Admirals Ries and Trout and the new positioning

  1. Seamus McCauley

    Hi Grant – I think your choice of TV programming as an example is especially illustrative of the problem of moulding plot and character arcs to multiple audiences in a dynamic culture. Too many of the targets are moving for a satisfactory solution to emerge from a unitary medium that continues to try to find what Virginia Postrell derides as “the one best way”. For the groundbreaking cultural solutions to this problem, I’d point you instead to the games industry which of course makes narratives that change to suit the choices and development of each individual player/watcher/participant in a way that TV and film almost inevitably fail to. “Work(ing) two very different signals into the same show and the same character” becomes almost trivial when you work in a medium that dynamically creates a unique story for each audience member as a response to their cumulative choices.

  2. Tom Guarriello

    I guess I’m at an early phase of the “had it with House, already” group. I enjoyed the show but have recently found him increasingly difficult to take and shy away from watching the program. This has created a minor problem in our household as I believe Karen has a wee crush on him! Hence, 5 episodes reside in TiVO-limbo…

  3. Zeus Jones

    Great post Grant, something I’ve been wanting to write about for a while. Notice also how many of the 22 immutable laws aren’t so immutable anymore either

  4. House Fan

    I think you may be wrong about House, MD tho’ only time will tell. There are so many episodes where the deep humanity of the character is portrayed against his will: My favorite being the episode where a ‘fetus’ he wanted to abort to save the mother’s life reached out and touched his hand during surgery to correct it’s problems before birth. House was absolutely mezmerized (as so beautifully portrayed by Hugh Laurie) and at the end of the show, we see House, settling down on the sofa for a night of lonely television, absent mindedly rubbing together the fingers touched by the little person he now can’t stop calling a ‘baby’. His problems with depression and pain and loneliness touch many fans of the show to the heart who can see beneath the roughness of his outer character.

  5. steve

    A few thoughts here:

    1) Since positioning is a relative concept, having to do with “distances” between a given offering, rival offerings, and customer preferences, a shifting environment may not force much repositioning if it affects everybody about the same amount. For example, if demands for luxury in hotel rooms go up as people’s houses get nicer and more decorated, that affects all hotels in pretty much the same way, and the direction to go is pretty obvious: spiff up! On the other hand, if the shifting environment is moving in different directions at the same time, all bets may be off, and you may have to replot your improvement vector frequently and alertly.

    2) The above exogenous shifts should be distinguished from endogenous instability created by the success of a position itself, a la Kathy Griffin. The latter don’t really have to do with positioning strategy per se, but with positioning tactical feasibility–you may know where you want to be, but you can’t figure out how to stay there. If you decide that you can’t stay there, then you’re forced to make a strategic repositioning.

    All offerings that attract customers by being marginal, “alternative,” etc. face this issue if they get any kind of traction. Too much success destroys their marginality, requiring either a) that they take preemptive steps to limit their success (e.g., rock bands insulting fans or creating less-accessible music) in the hope of stability or b) that they broaden and strengthen their offering to transcend their marginal niche and reconceptualize themselves as “mainstream.” Honda and Toyota pulled off the latter feat in the US auto market.

    3) Multivalence–Grant’s talked about this a lot. Maybe you don’t want a position that looks like a point in space, but you want to be like a cloud or a set of discrete points simultaneously. We’ve hashed that one over quite a bit on previous posts.

    4) There may be saturation problems. If the BMW accelerates faster than the Mercedes, it will seem (and be) sportier. But if the Mercedes can do 0-60 in 2 seconds and BMW can do it in 1 second, that difference may no longer signify much to the buyer, since either level of acceleration is sufficient to blow the doors off all the other traffic (and even to merge onto the I-75 in Dallas). So that’s another source of instability for positioning strategy.

    5) Don’t land F-16s on carriers. No hook to catch the arrester wires, landing gear not suitable for the shock of carrier landings. Probable result: big splat followed by skidding off the end of the deck, drowning, and other unpleasantries. (Sorry–couldn’t resist.)

  6. Anthrodiva

    Funny you should mention Kathy Griffin (and not for the first time) as I have been immersed in her life lately thanks to Bravo. One thing you did not mention about positioning (but which was implicit) was that we can rethink the longevity of projects. No longer must television narratives be conceived as something that must last 30 years (like soap operas).

    ‘House’ can just tell an arc of the story through one personality’s lens, before scrapping it for a new show, storyline, what-have-you through another character, much like spinoffs do. See Gray’s Anatomy.

    Or the longevity can take place in different settings. The ‘Frasier’ character was played by Kelsey Grammer for over 20 years in (I believe) three different shows. Even today, the brand of ‘Frasier’ goes on – yesterday at the movies I heard ‘him’ voicing over an extended Hyundai brand positioning ad in which Hyundai was touted as being ‘smart’. Since I have no idea how smart Grammer must be (except to cling to and milk this character, meanwhile having a taste for strippers) I must assume that Hyundai is like ‘Frasier’!

  7. secret asian man

    I’m shocked I’m the first to say this but:

    The F16 is an Air Force aircraft. It’s incapable of landing on carriers.

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