Positioning, Misunderstanding Of

Back in college I read a fantastic book called Positioning, which is now considered a marketing classic. The basic idea behind Positioning is that brands occupy a sort of ladder in the mind, and the goal is to be on the top step. If I ask you what the number-one fast food chain is, chances are you will say McDonalds. If I ask you about cola, you’ll probably think of Coke. Those brands occupy the lead position in your mind.

So when I went to work for a company that uses Scientology’s “Administrative Technology,” I was pleased to see that Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard was also a fan of Positioning; in fact, The Positioning Era, an article which preceded the book, is reprinted in the current Admin Tech volumes as HCO PL 13 September 1988R. (For those who have this PDF, it’s in MS3 under Marketing Series.)

The realization that Scientology embraced Positioning was like running into an old friend in a foreign country. I was hugely relieved. Finally, I thought, some proven marketing methodolody that actually makes sense!

But my joy was short-lived when I turned the page and came to a Hubbard policy called HCO PL 30 January 1979, POSITIONING, PHILOSOPHIC THEORY. The beginning is classic Hubbard:

“Although Madison Avenue has used ‘POSITIONING’ for some years, it has not fully understood the actual philosophical background that makes ‘POSITIONING’ work.

“There is an excellent booklet called The Positioning Era put out by Ries Capiello Colwell… It is an excellent booklet. It does not, however, give the philosophical background which, probably, is not generally known. Probably it was never discovered. I had to work it out myself.” — LRH

Did you get that? Jack Trout and Al Ries, the marketing geniuses (and I don’t say that lightly) who came up with Positioning, did not understand the philosophic theory behind it. It took L. Ron Hubbard to straighten them out.

Here’s the true tragicomedy: Once you read the entire policy letter, it becomes clear that Hubbard has no idea what Trout and Ries’ Positioning is all about. The subject appears to have gone entirely over his head.

Hubbard’s idea of positioning is that one can influence someone’s opinion by comparing the unfamiliar to the familiar. Which, by the way, is true. You may have no idea what frog legs taste like, but if I tell you they taste like chicken, you’ll understand.

Hubbard writes:

Positioning takes advantage of a fact that one can compare the thing he is trying to get the other person to understand with desirable or undesirable objects… one can position above a familiar object, with a familiar object, below a familiar object, at, to, against and away from a familiar object. This opens the door to an opportunity to establish an opinion of the thing one is seeking to communicate. You might call it an ‘instant’ opinion.

“For example, we know that an astronaut is a familiar, highly regarded being. Thus, we position a product above, with, below, at, to, against or away from an astronaut.” — LRH

Of course, Hubbard can’t resist taking a swipe at his old friends, the “psychs” and the IRS:

“We know people loathe psychiatry, so we communicate something as being loathsome as saying it is below (worse than) psychiatry. We could also make people think something was good by saying it was against psychiatry, bad because it would bring them to psychiatry, or awful because it used psychiatrists (like the tax people).” — LRH

(This, by the way, is one reason Scientologists come up with such ridiculous opinions. Society at large does not loathe psychiatry, but Scns believe this because Hubbard said so.)

Again, this is sound marketing. But original to Hubbard? Not by a long shot. Advertisers have been using it for years — beer ads showing people having a good time, watch ads showing people getting off private jets, etc. Nothing new. And yet in a different policy (HCO PL 27 Septemper 1979, ADS AND COPYWRITING), Hubbard says this that doing it this way is wrong:

“Here’s an example of an ad that doesn’t communicate… It’s actually supposed to be a cigarette ad but it shows somebody getting dragged on a sled through the snow. It’s obvious what they’re selling – they’re selling snow!” — LRH

As someone with a fair bit of experience in advertising, stuff like this makes me wonder if there isn’t a higher-than-normal suicide rate among “wog” marketing professionals forced to use the Admin Tech.

Anyway, let’s get back to POSITIONING, PHILOSOPHIC THEORY. Hubbard goes on to say how the pros on Madison Avenue are doing it all wrong:

“A common use of positioning in advertising is to take a product which… is regarded by [the public] as the leader in the field and then positioning a new, untried, unfamiliar product above it, with it, or just below it…

“Apparently, from talking to ad guys, they thought that by putting their products in the pecking order against the top product they made their product higher or just with or just below the top hen. That’s what the advertising people get for associating with such ‘experts’ as psychologists.” — LRH

This last bit proves that Hubbard doesn’t understand what Positioning is all about. In fact, Trout and Reis came right out and differentiated their concept of brand positioning from the sort of product positioning LRH is talking about:

“Yesterday, positioning was used in a narrow sense to mean what the advertiser did to his product. Today, positioning is used in a broader sense to mean what the advertising does for the product in the prospects mind.” — Trout/Reis

How did Hubbard miss this?

Trout and Ries are very clear: If a brand owns the top rung on a ladder, like McDonalds does on the fast food ladder, it is very difficult to unseat them. That’s the whole concept of Positioning – it’s better, they say, to try to create a new ladder – for example, fresh-made fast food or “The Un-Cola”.

Now, if Hubbard really understood Positioning, he’d be talking about trying creating a new ladder in the mind by making Scientology synonymous with some concept – say, freedom or charity. The idea would be that when people think of freedom, they think of Scientology.

Instead, he goes off on a tangent about finding a concept that people can relate to, and then writing copy and generating illustrations that will give people an instant favorable opinion. To be fair, this does have some validity. And one could argue that “positioning” is the correct word to use, in the sense that one is positioning a product with something people find favorable. But to say that this is the previously-undiscovered philosophic theory behind Trout and Reis’ thesis just shows that Hubbard had no idea what these guys were talking about. The two concepts simply don’t connect.

Fortunately, at the companies I worked for, my fellow marketers (mostly Scientologists) did have a good understanding of Positioning and we were able to put it to use with excellent success. From what I see of Church ads, the Co$ doesn’t — and I suppose that’s a good thing.

This is why it irks me when people defend Hubbard by saying that, for all his lousy personality traits, his “tech” was basically good. Here we see Hubbard claiming to have discovered the philosophy behind Positioning, and yet it’s clear to anyone with a two-year degree in marketing that he doesn’t understand the basic concept.

Much of Hubbard’s marketing “tech” is good and usable, but very little of it is original – it’s a collection of good ideas that were already in widespread use in the real world. Where Hubbard does claim to have some original insight, he comes across as naïve and oblivious. As we discussed recently in The Art Series, the same is true of his artistic “tech” – and we have the awful music and movies to prove it. I’ve read anecdotes about ship captains who were appalled by his seamanship. It seems that any time an expert in any field weighs in, they find Hubbard’s “philosophies” to be baseless and ineffectual.

And yet Hubbard’s followers are convinced that he has uncovered the true secrets of life, the universe and everything.

Perhaps there’s one thing at which Hubbard did have some true expertise: He was one hell of a con man.



6 responses to “Positioning, Misunderstanding Of

  1. “Perhaps there’s one thing at which Hubbard did have some true expertise: He was one hell of a con man.”

    ‘Nuff said…

  2. It looks like he’s confusing Positioning with a slightly muddled interpretation of the association techniques of Leni Riefenstahl, who was also a big influence on advertising. But he’s not quite getting either of them right.

  3. Here’s an example of an ad that doesn’t communicate… It’s actually supposed to be a cigarette ad but it shows somebody getting dragged on a sled through the snow. It’s obvious what they’re selling – they’re selling snow!

    Sounds like Newport ad.

    FWIW, I think the latest ad campaign is pretty good, the tightly-cut montage of exquisitely photographed shots (it’s like browsing a stock video catalog) with a seductive voice-over listing mildly provocative signifiers and the Scientology title reveal at the very end. It works because it cleverly tackles most peoples’ negative associations with Scientology by flashing a host of familiar, positive words and imagery (meaning for meaning’s sake) before revealing Scientology as addressing it all. See? Scientology is not the monster you thought it was. The problem for Scientology is that too many people, most likely, can’t be swayed from their cemented opinion that it is.

    To address the ladder metaphor further, Scientology is so deeply unpopular that it has no real choice but to position itself as a lower rung on the greater religious ladder, in order to piggyback on the trust and good will of more popular and trusted religions by directly associating itself with a generally trusted brand (religion). Perhaps if they forewent the religion path and created their own ladder in the mind, they’d be more trusted. But it might not have survived this long, if the organization had to pay taxes like everyone else.

  4. Hi Caliwog,

    Care to do another Marty translation post? I’m sorting of thinking his latest one has to do with auditing projections (in a psychological sense) rather than traumatic memories but I’m not quite sure.


  5. This blog is funny. In this entry, a liar is denouncing another liar in the name of yet another liar. I love it.

    If all marketing monkeys disappeared tomorrow, the world wouldn’t be in one bit of trouble. Of course, we can say the same about some other professions too…

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