What is a Positioning Strategy? Answers from Vonnegut, Camus, McKenna

A prospective client recently asked me to explain what I meant by “positioning strategy”. I received the question by email, right after I ordered an appetizer at a restaurant known for fast service, and I wanted to respond before the eagerly awaited arrival of the shrimp tempura with a side order of avocado hummus. I quickly wrote: “Think of it as the story that you tell yourself about yourself, edited to better harmonize with pre-existing perceptions.”

For a hangry man, not a bad answer, worth elaborating. The idea of a positioning strategy is highly intuitive, both in its rationale and application, and it encompasses a variety of ways in which human beings use language to shape their daily social reality. We routinely construct narratives and assign labels to influence behavior including, importantly, our own. On a larger scale, global politics, business, culture and ideology increasingly conform to the “battle of narratives” metaphor.

Regardless of the context, stories are the winners and losers, soldiers and generals, partners, and adversaries vying for dominance on the battlefields of capital, consumer and commercial markets. As warriors, stories gain competitive advantage by following the path of least resistance and by harnessing rather challenging prevailing perceptions. An effective positioning strategy locates a brand or an idea in the most favorable context that creates the conditions for increased sales, stronger consensus, more votes or any other desired outcome.

Effective positioning can yield break-through results. In 1929, Edward Bernays, the founding father of modern PR, doubled the addressable market for the tobacco industry by positioning cigarettes as “Torches of Freedom” that symbolize the aspirations of the women’s rights movement. In 1962, Avis revived its business with the “We Try Harder” campaign, which embraced the company’s second-place position (vs. Hertz) as the inspiration for its focus on customer service. Numerous entrepreneurial ventures and lumbering giants have catapulted to new plateaus simply by re-describing their products in ways that connect them to their most responsive audiences with messages that the market is predisposed to embrace.

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Many companies pay branding firms millions to develop effective brand positioning strategies, and some of them actually should. But the essential aspects of the art of positioning have been amply elucidated by diverse thinkers throughout history.

“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” ― Kurt Vonnegut

“Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” ― Albert Camus

“The world is made of language.” ― Terence McKenna

“Strategy should evolve out of the mud of the marketplace, not in the antiseptic environment of an ivory tower.” ― Al Ries

“The aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well the product or service fits him and sells itself.” ― Peter Drucker