_____ Keep your
_____ focus

 "Invention is the mother of necessity". 
-  Thorstein Veblen

"Sometimes one has to say difficult things, but one has to say them as simply as possible." 
- G P Hardy

he ultimate battleground for control of any market is the mind. Successful marketing implants in the mind of the consumer a clear, specific identity for a certain product or service. For example, when you thing of Steers, what immediately comes to bind? The answer: a juicy well-prepared steak. Likewise, when you think of I&J, fresh frozen fish immediately springs to mind. And Kodak to most of us means photography.

Xerox is linked to photocopiers to such an extent that the brand name has become a verb as in: "Will you xerox that for me, please".

The  mind, like a parachute,
only functions when it is open.
All of these companies have successfully positioned themselves in the mind of the consumer.

But what happens if consumers change their minds? For example, what happens if technology or consumer habits render your products obsolete or out of style? Consider the situation that IBM found itself in. It dominated the international market for mainframe computers. Then PCs (personal computers) came along. Suddenly IBM's positioning in the mainframe market meant nothing.

There is an answer to the problem. It's a lot easier to say or write than it is to do.

If the market changes your company must change.

Reposition yourself

In other words, you must position yourself in a new way, with a new product or idea.

Repositioning was never easy. And the dawn of the information age has does nothing to make it easier. Today's consumers suffer from information overload. More information is being thrown at them now than at any other point in history. Whether you're attempting to position your business or reposition it, the battleground remains in the consumer's mind.

It always has been.

But now it's more crowded than ever.

The age of information saturation

People can only absorb a certain amount of data. By constantly bombarding them with it, we're rapidly reaching the stage of overkill. Just how bad has the info babble situation become? Here are some facts to consider:

  • More information has been produced in the last 30 years than in the previous 5 000 years.
  • One weekday edition of the New York Times contains more information than the average person was likely to come across in a lifetime in 17th century England.
  • More than 4 000 books are published around the world every day.
  • In 1975, there were 300 on-line data bases. Today there are 7 900 databases with literally billions of bits of information.

There's simply too much information for the consumer to ingest.

Let's take another look at the New York Times. One obese Sunday edition of the newspaper contained more than 1 600 pages, tipped the scales at more than 26 kilograms and contained more than 10-million words. Nobody, of course, will ever attempt to read everything in the New York Times Sunday edition. Instead, readers leaf through its pages to pick and choose what interests them. As Lord Northcliffe, a former Fleet Street press baron once said: "Journalism is a profession whose business it is to explain to others what it personally does not understand.

Consumers also pick and choose what they want of need from the flood of information that is flung at them and tune the rest out.

The latest method of transmitting even greater volumes of information yet faster and cheaper: e-mail.

Forget it!

One of the pioneers in the use of email was Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). Stan Olsen, brother of ex-chief executive officer Ken and one of the founders of DEC, says that gets so much email that it's useless.

"A lot of people send me messages," Olsen told Jack Trout. "At the end of the day, when I print out my messages, I get a 30-foot roll of paper. There's no way I'll read that. The way to get to me is on the phone."

The simple, the bold and the brief

If you don't want your audience to listen with rapt inattention, one of the first rules to bear in mind when trying to get your message across is: keep it simple. Complexity, which comes with built-in yawn appeal, leads to confusion, then to rejection. People will simply turn off your message.

One example of an over-complex message: the ill-fated healthcare reform efforts of United States President Bill Clinton. Although a majority of Americans agreed that some healthcare reform was necessary, opponents easily convinced people to reject Clinton's 1 342-page Health Security Act.

Had Clinton kept the message simple, he might have successfully have implemented. For a lesson I simplicity and boldness, we stay in the American political arena.

Some years ago, when Sheriff Ralph S Marshall, of Allen Country in Ohio, fought re-election campaigns, he made no speeches, unlike his verbose opponents. Instead, he took his wife to public meetings, placed her 10- paces away and used his Colt .45 revolver to blast cigarettes out of her mouth. He was invariably re-elected.

Then there's the question of brevity.

Gordon Hewart, a former Chief Justice of England, best known for his observation that justice should not only be done but be seen to be done, is credited with making the shortest after-dinner speech. Called on to reply to a toast to His Majesty's Judges, he said: " When I accepted the invitation to respond to this toast, I was not certain at what stage of the evening I should be required to speak. So I prepared two speeches: a short one and a longer one."

Hewart looked at the clock before continuing.

"As the night is young," he went on, "I propose to deliver them both. I will give you first the shorter speech  - 'Thank you.' Now I will deliver the longer speech  - 'Thank you very much.' " And then he sat down.

So keep you messages simple. Keep them bold. And keep them brief.

Complex products

Because the human mind is suspicious of confusion and rejects it, consumers will more readily respond to simple products. Marketers and product development people, on the other hand, enjoy creating wondrous new products that are over-burdened with difficult-to-use features. Here's a current sampling:

  • AT&T's EO Personal Communicator is a cellular phone, fax, electronic mailbox, personal organiser and pen-based computer.
  • Okidata's Doc-it is a desktop printer that also serves as a fax, scanner and copier.
  • Apple's Newton is a fax, beeper, calendar-keeper and pen-based computer.
  • Sony's multimedia player has a display screen and interactive keyboard.

Will any of these multi-function products make it?

I don't think so.

They're too confusing and to complex for mere mortals. Many of us, perhaps most of us, haven't yet learnt how to drive our VCRs properly.

Confusing concepts

Consumers, being simple souls for the most part, reject complicated products as well as complex concepts that don't make simple sense. For example, Mennen introduced a Vitamin E deodorant. While vitamins and deodorants are certainly popular, if you put the two together you get confusion  - and rejection.

The two-in-one product's demise was swift.

If you understand how to work it, it's obsolete.
Maalox had a similar problem when it created Whip Antacid. Putting cream whip on a spoon for heartburn was, to say the least, confusing. So the product died. If you want to avoid the same fate befalling your product, follow four strategies that will help you ...

Break the circle of consumer confusion

  1. Keep it simple.
  2. Get back to basics.
  3. Say it with words.
  4. Clarify what you're selling.

Keep it simple

The best way to enter the human mind is not just to simplify, but to over-simplify. Some of the most powerful advertising and promotional programmes are those that focus on a single word. Think of Crest and cavities, Volvo and safety, Prego (spaghetti sauce) and thick.

When you try to communicate your message, don't tell the whole story. Rather focus on only one attribute and drive it into the mind. If you can achieve this, you've successfully positioned your company or your product or service.

Liquifruit is fruit juice. Kellogg's is breakfast cereal. Xerox is copiers. Kodak is photography. Microsoft is computer software. Unfortunately, companies are straying from the focus that is the key to positioning.. Today, more and more businesses are losing their once solid market positions for one of two reasons.

  • They've chosen to stray from their positions in their market.
  • New technology, new competitors or shifting consumer attitudes have forced changes in the market, leaving companies wallowing in the stern.

When a company strays from its core market, the results are often negative.


Because consumers aren't convinced that about the company's expertise in new business areas that are unrelated to its traditional products. Sales of the new product don't take off. Perhaps even more important: the new products weaken the company's image in the consumers' minds  - they no longer readily equate the company to a successful product or business area. For example, Xerox's foray into computers was a disaster because customers equated Xerox with copiers, not computers.

Muddled brands

Expansion into new, unrelated products is one way to blur the image of your business in consumers' minds. There is another way: creating products that try to be all things to all people. Chevrolet, once America's favourite family car, provided good, solid value. Even in South Africa it was associated with drive-ins, blue skies, sun and braaivleis. Today, the name projects a muddled image. Chevrolet is a big, small, cheap, expensive sports car, sedan and truck.

To break out of the widening circle of confusion ...

Get back to basics

Pounded by setbacks, companies have learnt the best way to anchor an image in consumers' minds: get back to basics by returning to the business areas in which they originally made their names. Harking back to Xerox, it pulled out of the computer field and is now repositioning itself as "The Document Company". It has returned to the central idea that defines Xerox in the minds of consumers: photocopying. But what happens when the market and not the company changes? How should a company react if technology renders what you manufacture obsolete, or if consumer preferences prompt a switch to another product?

The answer is obvious.

If the market changes beneath your feet, your business must change as well.

If your product continues to be viable in the marketplace, sticking to basics is important. But if the market changes, sticking to an old product is the fastest way to bury your future. Whatever way the marketplace wind blows, it is vital you company maintains a clear, focused identity in the consumer's mind.

What this all boils down to is that the challenge of successful repositioning is to get consumers to follow your company into its new position.

Say it with words

More than 2 500 years ago, Confucius said: "One picture is worth a thousand words."

He was wrong. And he proved it himself. The continuing power and influence of Confucius two-and-a-half millenniums after his death is based words, not pictures.

Little, if anything, is exclusively visual as John Trout discovered after analysing hundreds of corporate positioning programmes. Words, in fact, are worth a thousand pictures. This is particularly true in marketing. You don't need pictures to get your message across. On the other hand, pictures without words don't work.

Want to prove it? Pick up a magazine. Ignore the next; just look at the pictures. Or watch TV with the sound turned off. How much information did you get from the ads?

The ad power of words

The fact that words are better at transmitting information goes against the common wisdom that prevails in today's world of advertising, in which the visual rather than the verbal is emphasised. This doesn't mean that you should ignore or abandon visual elements in your advertising. They have important roles to play. Use words as the driver, with pictures to reinforce their inherent strength.

Say your sales message straight out. Don't try using pictures to show it, no matter how exciting or pretty your visuals may be. And don't try to imply what you want your sales message to say through cute or confusing words that carry no information.

Print or electronic media commercials for pain relievers, for example, seldom try to be cute. And their visuals aren't very stimulating. After all, few people get turned on by watching someone suffering from the effects of acid indigestion, But these commercials work because they get a clear, unambiguous message across: "This medicine will relieve your pain."

If you do use pictures, choose them carefully to add variety to your ad and reinforce the sales message. But be sure to use terse captions that quickly explain the significance of the visuals. Unexplained pictures are simply distractions. In your TV commercials, for example, insist that the visual elements, including movement, don't overwhelm the spoken sales message. If you don't take this precaution, viewers will stop listening and little communication will take place.

Sight vs. sound

A television commercial without words is less effective than one with words. Says Robert Bly, a much sought-after freelance advertising copywriter in New York: "Dramatic stories, fast-paced action, surreal fantasy landscapes, animation, computer graphics, the 'new wave' look and other technique are used to give commercials distinct graphic appeal  - often, in my opinion, at the expense of the sales pitch. These commercials do stand out, but they don't sell because they tend to ignore the product and its appeal to the consumer."

Bly, author of the authoritative The Copywriter's Handbook (Dodd, Mead & Company), believes that simple commercials that present the product and its benefits simply and in a straightforward manner "are what convince consumers to write cheques and open wallets".

He says the serious prospects actively seek valid information. They want to be well-informed before they spend their hard-earned money.

As in the United States, many South African advertisers attempt to emulate the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, hoping that the razzmatazz will entice people  - many of them unlikely to buy the advertised products  - to watch their commercials. They seem to forget that the objective is not to get people to watch, it's to get to buy. And words are the best way to get the sales message across.

There are two methods of incorporating words in a television commercial. You can have them spoken by a narrator or actors. Or you can have them superimposed over the visuals on the screen.

Does it make a difference?


The spoken word uses the ear; the printed word uses the eye. And contrary to popular misconception, the human mind prefers the ear to the eye.

In one experiment, researchers used a tape recorder to present a list of words to people auditorily and slides to present the word list visually. People correctly recalled more of the words that they heard than the words that they saw.

Retention of sound

Why does the mind prefer sound to sight? Researchers believe that it has to do with retention.

The mind retains something it sees for about one second unless it has a compelling reason to file it away for future reference  - like perhaps a horse pulling a bus or some other extra-ordinary image. . However, when it hears something it retains it for up to five seconds.

Check this next time you're out driving. If you look out of the window and another car drives past, your mind will retain the image for one second before the image fades away. But if you're near a window and hear a car drive by, that sound will stay with your for four or five seconds before it fades away.

A rose is a rose is a rose  - or is it?

Shakespeare was wrong about roses when he wrote: "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

That ain't necessarily so, to quote the lyrics of a yesteryear hit song. Because of the importance of sound in our thought processes, the sound of a name can alter how we think of things. A classic experiment proves this point.

Researchers first identified two women whom a group of people had rated as being equal in beauty. Next, the researchers went to a second group and added the dimension of sound. They gave the two women names. They called one "Jennifer and the other "Gertrude".

What happened when the second group was asked to vote on which of the women was prettier?

Jennifer won hands down for no other reason than her name sounded better. At this point I apologise to all Gertrudes. That reminds be of a little story about two cowboys who met at a rodeo. "My name's Tex," said the one, introducing himself. "You from Texas, buddy?" asked the other. "Nope. I hail from Louisiana. But what rough-rider wants to be called Louise?"

Names that sound beautiful

Choosing the right name is vitally important to your marketing and repositioning efforts. As Samuel Butler pointed out: "The Ancient Mariner would not have taken so well if it had been called Old Sailor."

Names should be memorable and communicate the message. DieHard batteries are a good example. But just as important, they should be pleasing to the ear. For example, Caress sounds as silky soft as the bath soap itself. But Hog Island in the Caribbean was going nowhere as a resort until it changed its name to Paradise Island.

Clarify what you're selling

Many companies often have difficulty in describing their products, especially if they form a new category and are in the high-tech field.

Before you can correctly position your product in the marketplace, you have clearly know what your product is and into which category it falls. To take the first step in the right direction, state clearly in writing exactly what your product is.

Do it now.

The reason for this that we sort and store information by category. If you present consumers with information that they can't quickly pigeonhole in a specific category, you confuse them. And if they're confused, your message has only a slim chance of making an impression on their minds.

What's a PDA?

Apple Computer invented a PDA  - a personal digital assistant. And they called it the Newton Message Pad. The problem: most people don't know what a personal digital assistant is. And the abbreviation PDA only adds to the confusion.

Let's face it, no company can force the name of a product category on to consumers. So it didn't matter how many times that Apple talked about personal digital assistants in their advertising, the name never caught on, forcing Apple back to the drawing board for a major rethink.

How would you position the Newton?

Simple terms

In selling, you have to explain what you have in terms so simple that the prospect or user understands them and can repeat them. The problem faced by Apple is that the Newton Message Pad performs three functions. It's a computer, a communicator and an electronic organiser. When Apple described the products in terms of all three functions, it led to confusion and, consequently, disinterest.

For the sake of simplicity, you have to choose only one of the three functions to market. In this case, the best function to position the Newton is the organiser.


The computer function has a disadvantage. It's pen-based rather than keyboard-based. Users, especially the younger ones, are used to keyboard operation.

The communication function is limited. The fax, for example, needs additional infrastructure before it can become truly operational.

But the organiser is very competitive. And it builds on a category that already exists. In 1994, more than 10-million organisers were sold compared to 120 000 personal digital assistants.

Summing up, Apple should position the Newton as "the ultimate organiser". Consumers will then know exactly what they're getting.

This is how Jack Trout and his colleague Al Ries see the situation: "Today, positioning is used in a broader sense to mean what the advertising does for the product in the prospect's mind. In other words, a successful advertiser today uses advertising to position his product, not to communicate its advantages or features. The men cite the following as advertising used to position a product:

  • Avis, which positions itself as a hardworking underdog: "We're number two so we try harder".
  • Tide makes the laundry "white". Cheer makes them "whiter than white". Bold makes them "bright".

And Bly suggests that if your product fills a special niche, you position it against a well-known brand as a quick and effective way of establish the product's identity in the consumer's mind.

And so to public relations

Most public relations efforts are name-in-the-media programmes. Success is measured by weight: how many clippings they generate. The weight-based assessment, however, doesn't take into account content. It doesn't measure whether or not the PR job is consolidating the chosen positioning of the company or product.

So forget name-in-the-media PR in terms of positioning.

However, there's a good chance that positioning will come to play a greater role in public relations than its already important role in advertising. The reason: positioning is, as Bly suggested, an "against" strategy. Your position your company or brand against another company or brand.

"Against" strategies, as opposed to strategies based on what you stand for, make goods news copy. And that what PR professionals seek.

Public relations and marketing

Public relations is the art of winning friends and getting people under the influence
Public relations programmes don't always make good marketing sense. For a start, you have little or no control over the content of press releases.

If you change the focus of your PR efforts from getting your name in the paper to positioning your product, you will assume much more control over what appears in print. Remember that too much publicity, the premature publication of stories and misdirected television placements  - all generated by clippings-at-all-costs PR efforts  - can lead to public relations problems for your company.

To position a new product, initiate a positive launch PR campaign before you break with the advertising campaign. However, this is rarely done. Instead, advertising campaigns and public relations programmes are launched simultaneously, usually by different companies competing for the client's advertising rands.

In the industry, they call this the "quick bang" approach. It usually involves a public relations, advertising and sales promotion extravaganza to launch the product. Unfortunately this type of "big bang" approach to positioning is ephemeral and evaporates after the initial excitement.

Successful positioning needs consistency. Don't throw a new product at consumers and then quickly move on to your next offering. Instead, slowly build up a long-term interest in your products.

If Lotus, the computer software provider, did it, so can you. The Lotus programme was successful because a carefully planned PR programme led to a slow build up of press exposure of Groupware in which Lotus Notes were often mentioned.

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  Authors Note
1. Keep your customer base healthy
2. Introduce fresh makeover ideas for better business
3. Power drive motivation
4. Control your business workout regime
5. Meet the challenge of corporate change
6. Keep your focus
7. Update your circuit
8. Come out fighting
9. Cultivate sparring partners
10. Avoid Regressing
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