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.