in search of the obvious

July 5, 2017

The brain behind some of the freshest ideas in marketing over the past few decades, Jack Trout is easily the world’s foremost marketing strategist. His concept of positioning is widely recognized as a world leading marketing strategy. He is the founder and president of Trout & Partners Ltd., one of the most prestigious marketing firms, headquartered in Old Greenwich, Connecticut, USA, with offices in thirteen countries.

Having started his career in the advertising department of General Electric, Trout went on to work for twenty six long years with Al Ries, chairman of Ries & Ries. It was during this fruitful association that the two mavens of marketing coauthored the winning Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, a book that not only changed the way people advertised but also succeeded in propelling Jack Trout into the top fifty marketing gurus of all times. Interestingly, the concept of positioning is just as fresh today; if at all, it has become even more relevant to advertisers and marketers.

In 1993, Al Ries and Trout authored one more best-seller,The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing: Violate Them at Your Own Risk!; the basic premise of the book being that just like the universe is governed by the laws of physics, marketing programs must conform to the twenty-two laws of marketing in order for them to be successful.

Among a slew of other books, the 2008 Differentiate or Die: Survival in Our Era of Killer Competition, authored by Trout and Steve Riskin, stressed on the importance of differentiation as a way to beat the competition. In this book, Trout comes down hard on marketers for taking the easy road all too often. The only way to truly differentiate one self, he warns, is by marketing a product’s unique qualities.

Featured in our ‘Smart Talk’ is Trout’s latest book, In Search of the Obvious: The Antidote for Today’s Marketing Mess, wherein he spells his mantra for marketers as searching for that one obvious differentiating idea rather than adding to the razzmatazz (read clutter) which already surrounds the marketing profession.

You have consistently emphasized on the principle of differentiation. Yet, as you yourself have observed, differentiating products has become more difficult, what with low cost technology becoming the great leveler – Comment

That is the reason I wrote the book. There are many ways to differentiate a product beyond features. Such things as leadership or preference or heritage lead you away from price which is rarely a good differentiator.

It can be said that there is no such thing as a sustainable competitive advantage as it doesn’t take long for competition to imitate a unique idea, making it commonplace. If one, therefore, takes the perspective that differentiation has to be an ongoing process, how can businesses ensure that differentiation is pursued constantly? In this context, is differentiation an outcome of a strategic process or an organization’s culture?

Differentiation is a constant and it is built into a company’s culture. BMW has been an ‘Ultimate driving machine’ for decades. Titleist has been ‘The No. 1 ball in golf’ for years. Papa John’s has been about ‘Better ingredients. Better pizza’ for years. It’s all about taking ownership of a differentiating idea and staying with it.

Where there is no clear-cut differentiation, do you think the power to out shout competition makes a difference?

It is a start. But I still prefer to be ‘outshouting’ with a point of difference.

In your book, In Search of the Obvious, you have opined that the real problem in marketing today lies in the unnecessary complexity created by convoluted business models and jargon. On the other hand it can be argued that marketing needs such streamlined models to help develop it into a discipline. Comment

I disagree. Marketing needs more common sense and simplicity, not streamlined models or whatever. Winning  the battle of the mind over your competitors requires easy to understand ideas that are obvious. Those models tend to add complexity to the process and become more about process than concepts.

You have stated in your book, that businesses ignore the obvious solution because it is…obvious! Could it also be that in the attempt to be unique, “simple, obvious” solutions are ignored? If this is true, doesn’t it somewhat contradict your emphasis on differentiation?

No. Powerful differentiated ideas are obvious. Here’s an example. Nike owns 400 of the world’s best athletes. Their obvious point of difference is ‘What the world’s best athletes wear.’ When I see these athletes with that ‘swosh’ it becomes very obvious.

Can the obvious and differentiation coexist?

Yes. See the previous answer. McDonald’s obvious position is ‘The world’s favorite place to eat.’ When I see them all over the world, it becomes obvious that this concept is true.

In your book you have said that, “Business school education…is submerging common sense.” Could you elaborate? What should bschools do to rectify the situation?

Just read the work of academics. Their favorite way to teach or impress you is to use complex charts and concepts, not common sense. If they did, they would be uncomfortable as they wouldn’t be demonstrating their intelligence.

In your book In Search of the Obvious, you have dealt in depth with the problems ailing the advertising industry today. What steps should the industry take to get out of the rut?

Step one that I write about is to stop trying to push ‘creativity’ and winning creative awards. An agency’s role should be that of looking for that obvious point of difference and dramatizing it. I would like to see agencies talk about ‘dramativity’ instead of creativity.

This interview is a reprint from the July-August 2009 issue of The Smart Manager.