A marketing great dies: His positioning concepts live on

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Marketing guru Jack Trout, 82, has died. With colleague Al Ries, he led a marketing revolution with key concepts that live on today, and probably will be vital for the forseeable future.

The message: Your marketing concept needs to be unique, powerful, and top of mind within your potential audience. In other words, you need to differentiate. This can be in a practical sense, but often can be emotional.

An example of a business success — and failure — remains from the earliest years of my own business.

In 1990, I started Ottawa Construction News (OCN), this region’s first construction periodical, and in fact, one of the first of its kind in North America. It succeeded, in that it has lasted 25 years in publication.

But there was a break near its start. OCN was a spin-off from my original publication, Ottawa Real Estate News (OREN) — a regional publication geared to Realtors. Initially it, too, seemed quite successful, but ultimately the market dried up for local sales, and I was too late to capture a hidden opportunity for a national publication for real estate agents and brokers, which succeeded through another publisher’s initiatives.

However, in 1992, I thought I could combine the weakening real estate publication and the construction title into a new, dynamic, colourful, and content-rich general business newspaper for the region. I called it The Ottawa Transcript, based on an US regional legal/business newspaper.

We set out in the market with a launch issue shortly after my honeymoon in 1993 with a rather dramatic story about offshore financial operations and tax scams. (That was a fun story to write — to research it, indeed, I needed to travel to the Turks and Caicos Islands — taking a day off from the Club Med resort with my new wife to visit Richard Hape, at British West Indies Trust. I ended up quite legally writing off half the cost of my honeymoon by writing the story about offshore financial scams. Hape ended up serving time a few years later after running afoul of Canadian drug and money laundering laws and a constitutionally challenging legal case which ended up in the Canadian Supreme Court — because evidence was gathered by a squad of RCMP officers who descended on his Grand Turk offices to cart out a mass of documents — clearly far outside of their normal jurisdiction.)

While the story succeeded, the publication failed. It’s only advertisers were the few remaining real estate advertisers from OREN, and the loyal OCN advertisers. I couldn’t figure out at the start why it wasn’t working, and then I read Reis and Trout’s book Positioning: The Battle for Your Mindand the answer became clear to me.

I had indeed published a better business newspaper, but there already was one in Ottawa — Ottawa Business Journal. No matter how hard I tried, unless I poured an incredible amount of money into an impossible venture, the project was doomed to fail.

Eventually, I resurrected OCN, and the rest of the story is history.

Maybe we could publish the best business newspapers in our communities, but we certainly could be the first and only specialized construction industry publication in the market area . . . a simple story of differentiation in practice.

There are of course other ways to achieve positioning, such as the Avis slogan “We try harder” to play on its second-place status against Hertz in the rental car sector. So you don’t need to be objectively different (after all, both companies rent cars, largely at airports) — but you certainly need a compelling message/slogan/concept that causes you to stand out — and saying you “offer great customer service” certainly doesn’t do that!

In general, proficient marketers will always ask you: “What makes you truly different and unique” and will see if your uniqueness truly resonates with potential clients before going much further in devising the marketing strategy.

Jack Trout, undoubtedly, deserves credit for advancing this vital marketing concept. It is uniquely, if perennially, important.

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