The Positioning Paradigm: Leaders and Followers

Von six

You remember: positioning is a technique for burning a brand into your memory (in the marketing language, it is called “branding”). Whether or not you succeeded can be found out by shooting questions at the consumer. For instance, give a quick answer to the following questions: What comes to mind when you hear the word car? What comes to mind when you hear the word cigarette? What… computers? The spontaneous answer is called “recall”. Millions, even billions of dollars are spent on advertising in order to produce the right kind of “recall”.

Apart from money, it is very helpful in this million-dollar-game to be the first. First Cola, first search engine, first computer. Mind you, being physically the first is totally irrelevant (IBM were not the first to come up with computers; that was Sperry-Rand). All that matters is being the first in terms of communication. In order to become the first to communicate it, you have to get on stage with a great topic and a great gesture. If you need proof of the fact how important it is to have been the first, answer the following questions: Who was the first man on the moon? Hm? Yes! And who was the second? – There you see! Or: Who was the first to fly over the Atlantic Ocean? And who was the second?

So it is clear who the leaders were. And all the others are the followers.

Followers come in all disguises. Some enjoy being followers and are quite content to get the crumbs from the table of the great ones. Some want more, and some want all, that is: replace the leader. Because it pays to be the leader. On the billion-dollar-markets, they (often along with a strong second) have the really big share, whereas the many followers only get homeopathic dosages. Of course, the “principle of leaders and followers” is not limited to the big markets. It is true for all markets, also those that are too small and too special for the big players. Big enterprises often help smaller ones in the foundation process, because they feel nowhere near hampered by them. On the contrary: the small enterprise often is a useful complement, for instance in the car supplier industry. Some markets are not compatible with the huge enterprise system (for instance craftsmanship), but there, too, we find a division between leader and followers:

It is all about being the first, along with having a great theme and a great gesture (to be sure, sometimes a small gesture might suffice; after all, we all know that being modest is the worst form of arrogance) versus having a small(er) theme (in case of the normal follower) or making a small gesture (occasionally, you find a great gesture from a small follower, but only experts get away with it without looking stupid).

The following examples show some great themes (also among the followers who decided to attack, all of them are highly ambitious). I will hint at the great gesture (in the form of the respective advertising). I will only discuss enterprises with an advertising budget in the range of two digits. Nevertheless, the principle of positioning can also be applied to small and very small enterprises. That is something I will demonstrate in later articles of this series.

Here are my examples:

Coca Cola versus Pepsi Cola (in the USA)

Coca Cola’s theme is: The real thing.

Pepsi started its competition against Coca Cola with the promise “Choice of a new Generation”. A typical TV spot looked like this: a professor of archaeology with his students in the year 2050 is doing a dig. They are all standing around an excavation site and drinking Pepsi when the only student who has been doing any work finds something. It is the typical Cocal Cola bottle. Holding it high over his head, the student asks his professor what it is. The professor contemplates it, scrapes his head, and replies: “I have no idea.”

The battle of advertisements of Pepsi Cola against Coca Cola was one of the most expensive in advertising history. One of the fighters on the Pepsi side was no other than the young Michael Jackson himself, whose new pop music style made the old style (which had also been used by Coca Cola) seem rather old-fashioned.

As a result, Pepsi Cola was number one on the market in the USA for some time. The huge effort, however, for a world-wide campaign, would simply have been too much.

Nike versus Adidas and Reebok (in the USA)

Nike did not focus on shoes or sports shirts. Instead, the entire “theme: sports” was made the subject of advertisements. The range was not a small one. We are talking really big time themes. Emotions such as defeat, victory, loneliness of the long-distance runner, even the fight of good against bad was made the subject of advertising.

Adidas and Reebok, on the other hand, fought heads on. They, too, made the “theme: sports” their subject of advertisements, but they failed. In the process, Reebok lost so much money and market shares that it had to sell out to Adidas, who was the slightly less weakened rival in the fight for the leading position.

Marlboro against Lucky Strike (in Germany)

Marlboro was the first cigarette brand to set all stores on the male humans. In doing so, they created the myth of the prototypical man in an archaic environment.

Lucky Strike, on the other hand, relied on a young, unisexual, urban life-style. They did not succeed in steeling lots of market shares from the super brand Marlboro. Instead, they offered all the other followers who had not succeeded themselves an attractive alternative.

What do we learn from this?

A frontal attack against the leader, as Adidas and Reebok tried, is doomed to failure. Not so, another strategy: that to make the leader look “old”, as did Pepsi Cola and Lucky Strike.
A leader is great and powerful, but not almighty. Some things are just beyond the scope of imagination for a leader’s behaviour:

Him being young (he was young a long time ago).    
Him being small and flexible (how should he?).    
Him being exclusive (well, look at that size!).    
Him listening attentively (apropos service).     
And several more which leaders simply cannot deliver.

These are all areas the followers can occupy, thus letting the leader appear under a new light. He will look older, less flexible, more banal, and harder of hearing. The followers change the leader without the leader himself having changed.

This principle is called re-positioning. It reshuffles the entire market situation and can be practiced a lot further than shown in the examples of Pepsi Cola and Lucky Strike.

But I will write about that in a later article of the series.

In the next article, I will write about communication cartels and attack brands.

(Translated by EG)

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