Remembering Jack Trout: The Pioneer of Positioning


Of all of the marketing wizards who have risen to national prominence in the last 40 years, few have made such an indelible mark as Jack Trout. Together with his business partner of 30 years, Al Ries, Trout helped create marketing campaigns centered around the belief that manipulating what is “already up their in the mind”—rather than creating something new and different—would yield the strongest ROI for a brand.

Trout died Sunday in Greenwich, Conn., of intestinal cancer at the age of 82. Without the work of Trout, and Ries, the marketing and positioning of AM and FM radio stations seen since the early 1980s may have taken a much different path. 




Every radio station seems to have some sort of positioning statement. Some may be generic, with empty words. Others may have a deep connection to the community, and to the listener.

The concept of positioning was championed by Jack Trout, who with Al Reis co-authored the seminal 1981 book “Positioning: The Battle For Your Mind.”

As noted in an obituary appearing today in The New York Times, Trout espoused the theory that “the basic approach of positioning is not to create something new and different, but to manipulate what’s already up there in the mind, to retie the connections that already exist.”

Flashback to 1983: If you were IBM, or Kodak, or Xerox, your brand was ubiquitous and strong. Today, they’re faded and former market leaders. Perhaps Trout & Reis had a hand in their slide from the top. That’s because their core belief is that a smaller competitor could embed their brand in a consumer’s brain and “worm” their way into a bigger rival’s territory.

Think of the marketplace in 1983: KIIS-FM was just starting a meteoric rise to the top of the CHR/Pop world in Los Angeles, while a veteran programmer known for some sort of “morning zoo” in Tampa was busily putting together a new radio station in New York that would redefine youth-targeted formats for a generation.

Each of these stations, KIIS and WHTZ (Z100), took positions against leaders by defining themselves in listeners’ minds. KIIS was “hot hits” and Rick Dees in the Morning. Z100 was all about the Morning Zoo and being “The Amazing FM.” While KIIS did not directly attack its competitors, and competitor KPWR-FM “Power 106” was gentle in its arrival on the scene, Z100 took an aggressive approach in its quest to keep listeners from tuning to WPLJ-FM “Power 95.” Scott Shannon repeatedly referred to the station as “W-I-M-P” and teased longtime GM Larry Berger by calling him “Larry Booger” on the air.

By positioning WPLJ as the “wimpy” choice, Z100 dominated New York radio for nearly six years.

In an email comment to The New York Times from Ries, he summarized their key marketing principle as follows: Find an open hole in the mind, and become the first brand to fill it. Every brand has a slogan, but few brands have a position.”

Today, the concept is still ingenious, and can still assist radio and TV stations.

How many Channel 12 news slogans use “The 1-2 Turn To”?

What about that long-used “traffic and weather together” branding?

It’s all about positioning.

After a stint as a division advertising manager at Uniroyal tires, Trout in 1967 joined Ries’ New York-based advertising agency. He eventually became its president and a partner. Trout went out on his own in 1994.

He has consulted such brands as AT&T, Apple, General Mills and Procter & Gamble Co.

Flame broiled. Not fried.

That Burger King tagline was reportedly inspired by Trout, even though the QSR was signed with J. Walter Thompson.

In memory of the founder of Trout & Partners LLC, the agency posted a memorial statement on its website. It features a quote from Trout, which reads, “The key to the success of a business is to be different in the mind of the prospect, which is what positioning is all about.”

Be different, radio.

And thank you, Mr. Trout. Rest in peace.

Adam R Jacobson is the editor-in-chief of the Radio + Television Business Report. Before joining RBR+TVBR, Jacobson served as a multicultural marketing and advertising industry strategic consultant. He is the publisher of the “Hispanic Market Overview” annual White Paper, and from 2011-2012 was a multicultural analyst for Mintel.

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