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Self-Help Articles on Psychological Marketing

by Gary Witt, Ph.D.

You've developed a new widget. What do you do? If you're like most Arizona businesses, you tell customers about the remarkable features of your widget. When the features of your product or service are enough by themselves to bring customers in the door, such a "look what I've got" strategy makes sense. But when you are fighting for market share, especially against a dominant company or product, a different strategy may lead to better results. That strategy is "perceptual positioning."

Ask the average person what kind of personal computer is the best, and most will respond "IBM." Ask about the best luxury car, most will say Mercedes or BMW. Ask about the best hospital, many will say Mayo. These companies have worked hard to create a perception in the minds of consumers that their product is the best.

We all apply some sort of rough ranking to products. Think of that ranking a "ladder" in your mind, with one brand per rung. For example, in your mind, the ladder labeled "Coffee" may have on its top rungs Maxwell House, then Folgers, then Tasters Choice. Ranking will differ according to each consumer's motivations -- their needs / wants / fears / and desires. Those who can't tolerate acid will have Kava on a top rung, while those wanting an instant decaf will give Sanka or Tasters Choice a top spot.

Most consumers will only rank two or three products, with all the others grouped together as also-rans (not a place you want to be!). Notice that people's perception of the best brands may have little to do with which are actually the best, or which sell the best. Any brand which occupies one of the top two spots on its ladder has a tremendous advantage, because people naturally want to buy the best they can afford. The marketing strategy to move your product up the ladder is called "perceptual positioning."

To gain the advantage of high rank, you must first climb the ladder -- and probably knock off the brands above you to do it. How? Let's look at a few examples of perceptual positioning strategies that worked..

Listerine dominated the mouthwash market when Scope was first introduced. Scope marketers could have simply used a "me, too" approach by advertising that "Scope stops bad breath," a claim already used by Listerine. Instead, Scope focused not on the consumer problem which its product cured, but on the consumer problem its competitor caused. Listerine's one vulnerable spot was the antiseptic smell it left on the user's breath. Scope skewered Listerine with the slogan "medicine breath." Scope took millions of dollars away from Listerine with those two words, and positioned itself in the minds of consumers as the "sweet breath" mouthwash. Lesson: Look for a problem, no matter how small, which your competitor's product or service causes as it solves the buyer's primary problem. Attack and exploit that weakness.

Tylenol used the same "perceptual positioning" strategy when it was an unknown pain killer in a marketplace dominated by Bayer aspirin. Tylenol didn't claim to "stop headache pain," thus going head-to-head with Bayer. Instead it found a small weakness -- the problem aspirin caused while it was curing a headache. Tylenol discovered a small but significant number of users said aspirin caused stomach irritation. Doctors said it sometimes caused "hidden stomach bleeding" (magic words to a marketers' ears!)

Think of your dominant competitor as a large castle. Rather than a frontal attack (the "me, too" approach), look for the small door around back that's been left unguarded. That is what unknown Tylenol did. Its ads slammed aspirin with one constant message: "Did you know aspirin is proven to cause stomach irritation and even hidden stomach bleeding!?" After creating the "fear" of hidden stomach bleeding and irritation, its ads offered a good substitute that relieved pain and didn't upset the stomach -- new Tylenol!. Through this perceptual positioning strategy, Tylenol positioned itself ahead of Bayer in the minds of all those consumers worried about their stomachs, and thereby took a sizable share of Bayer's market.

Here are some basic steps to take in developing a perceptual positioning strategy:

1) Analyze your chief competitor's product for some "back door" vulnerability which your product doesn't have. It can be almost anything. A pizza maker attacked "store-bought" pizzas with an ad stating they contained "casein -- an ingredient in glue!" Stolichnaya Russian vodka ads emphasized its competitors' vodkas were manufactured in Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Connecticut. By emphasizing its competitors' U.S. origins, Stoli made many consumers feel they were getting an inferior product -- just because it wasn't real Russian vodka -- like Stoli! Remember that perceptual positioning requires an attack on the competitor you want to knock off the ladder. Don't just compare -- Attack! Most attacks simply point out a fact consumers may have overlooked. ("Did you know that....?") Most take a concerned, matter-of-fact approach. Some of the most successful deliver the knock-out punch with humor.

2) List all the potential problems of your competitor's product from the viewpoint of the consumer. For each one, ask yourself, could this problem create a "fear" in consumers which they would seek to reduce by buying an alternate brand, like mine? Remember, you're trying to take your competitor's place on the ladder INSIDE the consumer's mind. You can't be "just as acceptable." You've got to be "more acceptable."

3) Create advertising messages which first emphasize the problem which your competitor's product causes. The problem may be physical, social, psychological, etc. Because people always care what others think about them, a social approach is often effective. For example, Scope ads began with people talking about a Listerine user as "old medicine breath" behind his back. Your ads should make readers or viewers FEEL uncomfortable every time they use that product or service. You can create this uncomfortable feeling in consumers even if they never thought about the problem before, especially with a social problem. Many people never gave a thought to "medicine breath," or "ring around the collar," or smelly feet until repeated viewings of TV ads made them aware of it as a problem!

4) After creating a "fear" in the consumer's mind, then reveal your product, which does everything its competitor does -- but without the problems. Your product becomes the 7th Cavalry riding over the hill to save the wagon train. The end of every Scope ad basically said, "We've got a mouthwash that stops bad breath -- and makes your breath smell Fresh! And look how fresh breath attracts romantic partners!" [Coupling a "fear" appeal and a "desire" appeal is often a tremendously powerful approach.] Scope neatly positioned itself in the minds of consumers as the Fresh Breath mouthwash -- and who wouldn't want fresh breath over medicine breath?

5) Try to create your own ladder in the consumer's mind. Scope and Tylenol focused on one particular problem that made their competitor vulnerable in the minds of SOME consumers -- those who were worried about the problem of stomach irritation or medicine breath. They took market share by creating their own related ladder in consumers' minds, and put their product on the top rung. Tylenol became the first choice of that subset of headache sufferers who worried about stomach irritation. Scope was the choice of those who wanted "fresh, minty breath." Another good example is Nyquil, which created a related ladder in the cough syrup market which it called "night time cough syrups," and then claimed the top spot.

6) Keep at it. A fundamental requirement for effective perceptual positioning is to pick a weakness and keep hammering at it. In today's world, no commercial message is easily pounded into the minds of consumers -- they are exposed to over 3,000 of them every day. It takes constant repetition over time. Emphasize the same message over and over, month after month, until your sales figures show you've moved up the ladder. Use research to reassure yourself that you have focused on the right vulnerable point, then give your strategy time to work. Remember, you are creating an image of your product, as well as your competitor's, that will be around for a long time.

7) Look at your own product. Where are you vulnerable to attack? Could a competitor position you out of a big chunk of your sales? Believe me, you are vulnerable somewhere. Find the open door in your castle walls and lock it, or you'll end up loosing market share like Bayer and Listerine. By the way, your weakness could also be an assumption. Hershey, king of chocolates, thought they were so well known they didn't need to advertise. By the time they noticed that Mars was beating them to death with M&Ms, they had lost millions, and their top spot.

While this is a very brief look at the complex strategy of perceptual positioning, used properly it can be a powerful technique for grabbing market share from your competitors, and keeping it.

If you would like to read a good book on Positioning, try "Positioning" by Al Ries and Jack Trout, 1981.


(c) Gary Witt, 1999

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