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By Henry DeVries

If you haven’t already, read Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind and Marketing Warfare by Al Ries and Jack Trout. For a good summation of positioning, we refer you to the classic text Contemporary Advertising by Courtland Bovee and William Arens.

Positioning will always be a buzzword in marketing and advertising circles. The authors demonstrate the concept by asking a few simple questions. Who was the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic? Charles Lindbergh, of course. But who was the second? Not so easy? Who was the first person to walk on the moon? Neil Armstrong made that one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind. But who was the second man to walk on the moon? The first person to occupy a position in the prospect’s mind is going to be hard to dislodge.

Ries and Trout compare the mind to a memory bank, with slots and positions for every bit of information to retain. But unlike a computer, which has to retain information fed to it, the mind does not. As a defense mechanism, the mind screens and rejects the flood of information. The mind keeps what agrees with its prior experience and filters out the rest.

To store the information, the mind ranks products and brands. Visualize a series of ladders. Say computers, and people think of IBM on the top rung. For electronics, it’s Sony; for automobiles, it’s Mercedes.

For professional service marketing, it is critical that you earn enough recognition to make it onto the ladder for your category. The mind does not have the room for things new and different, so you must relate them to the old. This is where nichemanship comes in. As an architect, you will be put on the architectural ladder. Frank Lloyd Wright is probably on the top rung. But you can be known as the architect who specializes in designing 2000s versions of Victorian homes.

Let’s take law as an example. For years the top rung probably belonged to Melvin Belli, the attorney known as the “King of Torts.” In her book Expose Yourself, former journalist turned public relations consultant Melba Beals describes how she helped create this positioning. But there is lots of room on the ladder. Describing yourself as the Melvin Belli of sexual harassment cases is not a bad strategy.

A good example of this is Dr. Joyce Rebhun, a former IRS tax attorney who calls herself a tax therapist. “I knew from studying marketing in college you have to differentiate yourself,” says Rebhun. “There is already a glut on the market of tax attorneys.” Rebhun decided her target market would be those who have emergency tax problems with the IRS. Because she only handles crisis cases, she has been featured in numerous newspapers and magazine articles, as well as on TV news shows. She runs ads in newspapers with her photo and headlines that read “You Don’t Need to Lose Your Job—Family—Sanity Because of the IRS.” He phone number is 1-800-SOS-4TAX. She may be on the crowded lawyer ladder, but she definitely has clearly defined her own rung. Even in her promotion, she never forgets positioning. She is starting a syndicated newspaper column called “Ask Dr. Joyce,” which she describes as the “Dear Abby of the tax world.”

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