Reeves’ theory revolves heavily around the concept of uniqueness, with the word even being baked into the title of his theory. This was underlined further by Al Ries and Jack Trout in the 1980 book Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind.
This positioning theory suggests that in the overcrowded marketplace, the battle isn’t just for shelf space but for “mental real estate” within the consumer’s mind. The goal being to carve out a unique position that differentiates you from competitors.
The phrase “positioning” wasn’t particularly new, in fact ad legend David Ogilvy (brother-in-law and advertising sparring partner to Rosser Reeves) stated there was no real consensus as to the meaning of positioning among marketing experts, choosing to define it as:
“What a product does, and who it is for. For instance, Dove has been successfully positioned as a bar of soap for women with dry hands, vs. a product for men with dirty hands.”
– David Ogilvy
These types of comments have led some people to argue that Ogilvy invented positioning as early as the mid-1950s. But nevertheless, Al Ries argues that positioning is:
“An organised system for finding a window in the mind. It is based on the concept that communication can only take place at the right time and under the right circumstances.”
This system comes down to the fact that each product depending on category has a set of attributes and your product becomes unique by owning one of these attributes. Owning an attribute allows you to highlight your product but you can’t own the same attribute as a competitor.
While a 1980s life without YouTube, TikTok or mobile phones seems like an oasis of calm, this theory was originally touted as a way to compete with the information overload of modern life. One of the ways it did this was by suggesting that the mind only accepts information it agrees with. People generally see what they expect to see and hear what they expect to hear. Which means you need to build ladders to what you want them to accept, especially if it is a new idea.
For example: with something as wildly unfamiliar as the very first motor car, naming it a “horseless” carriage allowed people to build associations. Equally the famous Avis line launched in 1962 “Avis is only No.2 in rent a cars. So we try harder” exploited their underdog status, positioning them as caring more and as a side-effect positioned Hertz (the market leader) as lazy and complacent.
But this theory still requires an awful lot of ‘uniqueness’, we’re making products unique or identifying unique elements to create unique positions – just like Rosser Reeves was asking us to dig out the unique selling proposition based on unique benefits or claims.
So for 60 years or more the idea of DIFFERENTIATION with a hefty helping of uniqueness was the trendy cocktail that brand builders and marketeers were drinking. At least until 2010, when Ehrenberg-Bass Institute professors Byron Sharp and Jenni Romaniuk crashed the party in a big yellow bulldozer called DISTINCTIVENESS. But more about that in Part Two. In the meantime, think about your brand; think about its position in the market; think about what you’re communicating. Is it differentiated? Is your product or service really unique? Is there anything you could be doing to make it more so?
Keep an eye on the blog for Part Two of our exploration into Differentiation and Distinctiveness.