positioning is equally relevant today in a completely cluttered world of brands

July 5, 2017

John Francis ‘Jack’ Trout died on 5th June, 2017 in Old Greenwich, Connecticut, US.

Jack Trout, as he was known for the bulk of his effervescent years, succumbed to colorectal cancer at the age of 82. Jack was father to Joanne, Nancy, Susan, Christine, Timothy, Peter, and Positioning.

That is how I would like to remember him.

I met Jack Trout just once. But that meeting is a memorable one. The year was 2012, I think, and I was on a lecture-tour in the US. I met two great minds speaking at the same forums that I was waxing eloquent at. The motorcycle riding Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev at the Berkeley Haas School of Business and Jack Trout in Boston. Both memorable meets.

Jack Trout then.

I had heard a lot about him and read a little of him. His name preceded him, his reputation, his looks, and everything else. So a little bump-in it was. I had finished my talk on my specialization of ‘Customer Orgasm: The ultimate theory in customer satisfaction mechanisms’. Jack Trout had done a keynote in the morning opening session.

I was thrilled to have the very ‘Guru Of Positioning’ in the audience listening intently to my 30-minute imposition on the audience. I knew this was an audience of the best academics in the United States, but having Jack Trout out there, without getting as fidgety as many of us speakers do when we sit in on someone else, was a bonus unimagined.

So, at the end of that session, I went up to him and greeted him. This was my first meeting. And it seems my last as well. Jack looked deep into my eyes and said in his loud, patronizing, and gregarious voice, “That was orgasmic Harish”!

I was not and am not pompous to think that he meant my theory. He was kicked by the word I had used in my theory to say that customers are getting more and more demanding. In the beginning they want ‘customer service’. And then ‘customer satisfaction’. And then ‘customer delight’. And then ‘customer ecstasy’. And here was my final word on it: ‘customer orgasm’. Jack was tickled.

And I was tickled. I kept speaking to him. He said he loved India and China equally as business opportunity hubs. We kept chatting a bit about China, and his favorite ideas on brand perceptions, competitive contexts, specialization, simplicity approaches, leadership, and the reality bites versus wishful thinking of corporations. All this on the sidelines of the seminar, over hot croissants and not-so-hot coffee.

If I think Jack Trout, there is just one word that comes to mind. And that surely is ‘positioning’. The one word Jack gave to the world as exclusively his. The one word that redefined the very thinking in the world of strategy which had been laid out flat and clear by the father of business consulting, Peter F Drucker.

Drucker put it succinctly when he way-pointed that the purpose of business is to create a customer. Jack took that one step further, with a very clear articulation of the concept and theory of positioning. Something he wrote first in an article as early as 1969. And something that found shape in his co-authored book with Al Ries in 1980, Positioning: A battle for your mind.

To me, if Peter Drucker is the grandfather of the world of business consulting, Jack Trout is the father of positioning, the one word that has sustained itself amidst the tumult of a changing world business order. If there is one theory that has survived without challenge to date, it is indeed this word called ‘positioning’, and the entire sets of businesses that have built themselves around this one seminal word.

Yes, Jack Trout himself went on to write ‘re-positioning’, but I do really believe it did not re-position positioning itself. This seminal word in the world of business is totally insulated from everything that happens in the world. Jack’s positioning is as relevant today in a completely cluttered world of brands, as it was in an era of relatively less clutter. In a world that is as cluttered with brands as today, the one thing every brand aspires to achieve is a clear position in the mind of the consumer.

And so, my favorite definition of the word ‘positioning’ is a very convoluted one. It is something I can wake up and recite as a mantra that is perennial. “Positioning is defined as the exact pinpointed position a brand occupies in a consumer’s mind, at a given point of time in relationship to all other brands in that consumer’s mind.” Convoluted and long, yes. But true to the core.

So what else did Jack Trout do? The gregarious Jack, the son of a salesman, actually began his life in the advertising department of General Electric before he went on to join Al Ries in a partnership that lasted a quarter of a century. Many, many books, but the theory was all rooted to the one big thought Jack Trout had hit upon in his Edison moment, positioning.

When you think of Volvo you think of safety, and when you think of any brand, with a one-word proposition, clearer is its positioning. Jack Trout added clarity to the concepts of USP and added allure to the terrains of ‘high-ground’ and more. All this driven by the pole-star theory of positioning, as articulated by him so very clearly for the world of business to use, abuse, and even misuse in some cases.

Jack believed strongly in the fact that the United States is a marketing laboratory. A place where all the action starts. He felt firmly there was plenty of learning to take out from the US markets to overseas. Learn from the mistakes made here, and equally from the successes. His Big brands, Big Trouble take you through many such examples.

Jack Trout believed in standing out and apart from the clutter. He said there are 180 brands of dog food in the US and 2000 brands of bottled water, and that only seven will really stand out. How do they manage that? Clear positioning for sure. To that extent, Jack was and will be the messiah of the unique, the different, and the ‘reason to buy’ quest. If you as a manager really follow all this, you need to thank Jack Trout. He said it first. He evangelized it into a theory, and he traveled all over the world to University towns and business houses alike, popularizing the concept of positioning.

As a strategic consulting mind, Jack Trout told his clients that all he needed was 15 minutes to arrive at a clear positing for a business he touched. And that was his USP. And that was his positioning as well. The world has lost a brilliant mind in the world of business and marketing.

A new star has joined the constellation of stars out there. And out here, what that star taught us all is still being learnt and practiced. And that is the ultimate tribute to Jack Trout.

The ‘Father of Positioning’ is dead. Long live Positioning.