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Congressman Gerard Fox walked into his office looking like Ichabod Crane in pin stripes. His secretary, Elizabeth Miller, who had been wearing the same beehive style hairdo for four decades, followed him into his office, placed a stack of pink messages neatly on his desk and then waddled down the hall and out the North door of the Rayburn House office building to sneak a smoke.

Positioning is a technique that is most commonly associated with marketing, advertising and public relations. But as you can see, it also works in literature.

It lets you paint a Kodak moment in the recipient’s mind. It does this by using what is already in there.

Positioning is a way to communicate that which is unfamiliar to the recipient by tying it to something that is already in his mind.

While not everyone is familiar with beehive hairdos or knows the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, for those that do, the images are instant.

Whether it was called that or not, positioning has been used for millennia. In ancient Rome, senators would eloquently position their opponents with the known evils of the day. As Gods and Goddesses were believed to oversee much of Roman life, it is no surprise that Faus, the Goddess of fraud and deception, would be a go-to positioning favorite – just as ACORN will inherit that mantle today.

Some of this has become tired and hackneyed. Democrats are big government, tax-and-spend liberals. Republicans favor the rich and privileged. Yawn.

But it has never stopped being an effective political tool. Positioning won the election for Barack Obama. Yes, he can deliver a speech like Martin Luther King, but it was positioning that did it. George Bush was one of the most unpopular presidents in American history. All the Obama campaign had to do was to position John McCain with George Bush.

McCain is Bush II.

And “Change” was change from Bush.

That slogan gushed from the Obama campaign like a broken water main and the McCain campaign drowned in it despite being thrown a last minute life preserver adorned with the sexiest smile in the history of American politics.

Advertising agencies often take the easy route – they position their client’s products with celebrities. Everyone from Robert De Niro to Ellen Degeneres will not leave home without their American Express card while Angelina Jolie, Elton John, and Martha Stewart all “Got Milk.”

But not everyone can afford to have Tiger Woods wear a cap with their logo on it. (Tiger’s latest endorsement deal with Nike is a reputed $100 million for 5 years. Dude.)

However, the more creative marketing pros step outside of the world of celebrity endorsements. And the good ones use positioning. Here’s a couple of examples.

All you can see is one arm of Spiderman which is limp on the floor and protruding through the open door of the adjoining room. Spiderman is down, perhaps dead. You can’t see all of him, but it is Spiderman for sure. In the lower right hand corner of the ad is a picture of a can of Raid.

The positioning of course is instant. Everybody knows Spidey. The three films have grossed $2,496,346,518 worldwide. Still, there is a judgment call here because Raid has positioned itself with killing one of the most popular Superheroes on the planet.

My view? While the creative guys might have come up with some other iconic bug, this ad communicates. I like it.

Here’s another one: the shot is the interior of a Burger King. You can see the back of a man ordering from the clerk behind the counter. But it isn’t just any man. It is Ronald McDonald in an overcoat trying unsuccessfully to disguise himself while he orders from his chief competitor.

The ad communicates instantly. It positions Burger King above Mc Donald’s at a glance

Both of these ads get the message across without a word of copy. Positioning.

If you are selling a product or service into a market that has competitors – few or many – you have a positioning problem. How do you get your product to stand out so that when your prospective customers think about buying a widget, they instantly think of yours?

It’s fascinating to position a new product. Done right, the clouds part, angels sing and sales soar.

A friend of mine contacted me. He wanted to sell pay phone systems to the correctional industry – pay phones for inmate use. (Regrettably) it’s a multi-billion dollar industry.

He had been selling for another company and now wanted to start his own firm. Several of the major telecom companies were players in this market – competitors with Godzilla-sized marketing budgets. What to do?

First, we conducted surveys of the actual buyers of inmate phone systems, the people who signed the purchase orders – the sheriffs and wardens. We found that the attribute they most wanted of a pay phone system was that it be indestructible.

Makes sense from the warden’s point of view. When the phone systems go down, tension spreads, fights break out, the media wallows in the violence and the warden starts having nightmares about losing his pension. So, yeah, indestructible inmate phone systems.

One could end right here, but we wouldn’t have the instant communication that positioning brings.

So we took the next step and conducted a second survey to position the phone system. What, we asked this public, symbolized indestructible?

The answer was “A tank.”

Now we can position.

This information went to the marketing department who created the graphics for all of the promotional material and also coordinated the public relations message. Our client then rolled out the campaign for the inmate TANK PHONE. Articles ran in the correctional industry magazines singing the praises of the new Tank Phone that was virtually indestructible. Ads in these magazines and marketing brochures all pushed the position with pictures of the phone system next to a rugged World War II tank.

The result?

From a dead start, this company went from $0 to $30 million a year in three years and became the largest independent provider of inmate phone systems in the United States.

Cool, eh?

What did they have to say about the positioning strategy?

“From a financial analysis of our company, we discovered that On Target Research saved our firm over $300,000…. To say that we are ‘happy clients’ is an understatement.”

RC, President.

The commercial is short: On Target Research has been helping clients with their positioning and branding strategies for more than twenty years. If you think a positioning program, or even a consultation about your marketing might help your business, call us directly – 818-397-1401.