Summary of Positioning by Al Ries and Jack Trout

  • Post category:Summaries
  • Post last modified:September 18, 2023

Summary: 5 min

Book reading time: 2h15

Score: 9/10

Book published in: 1980

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  • The battle between products happens in the minds of the customers.
  • Advertising has become over-saturated.
  • The only way to get heard is to tell what the customer already knows.
  • Good marketing researches what the customer thinks about a product and repeats it in the ad.

Table of Contents

What Positioning Talks About

Positioning was written by ad executives Al Ries and Jack Trout. It explains that the best way to do marketing is to look inside the head of the customers to see what they already believe about a product, then formulate these beliefs in an ad so that the customers listen and pay attention to the message.

Positioning is one of the best marketing books I have ever read.

However, I don’t recommend it.

Authors Al Ries and Jack Trout wrote a better marketing book called The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, after they wrote Positioning.

This book is great if you want to understand positioning and marketing in general.

But The 22 Laws is better.

This summary should be enough for you unless you want more practical examples (there are a ton of them in the book).


Get the book on Amazon.

Summary of Positioning written by Al Ries and Jack Trout

All good marketing plans begin with Research.

Research shows customers have different needs. They must therefore be classed into Segments.

Companies must focus on one specific segment. This is called Targeting.

Finally, they must position themselves.

Positioning informs the four Ps.

  • Product
  • Price
  • Place
  • Promotion
image 81

Positioning starts with a product and positions it in the mind of your prospect. Positioning is the first opportunity you get to solve the difficult problem of getting heard in our overcommunicated society.

While in the past, brands were fighting for “the number 1” position, or “the best x“, or “the best y“, positioning meant that they positioned themselves in a place they are alone to occupy.

Being unique > being the best.

Chapter 1: What Positioning Is All About

Creating a good or a service that does not yet exist in customers’ minds is getting harder.

To win, you must echo what already exists in the minds – and say it.

This is what positioning is: reinforcing the links that already exist in the customers’ minds.

But why?

Because there are too many brands and companies, too much noise. Assaulted by ads, the mind now filters and rejects everything it doesn’t already know.

It’s become almost impossible to create new ideas.

So your only chance to have an impact is to focus on your target and repeat what the customer already knows.

Why? Because people don’t like being told that what they think is wrong.

While they believe what they don’t know yet (hence the success of the news), it’s very difficult to change their ideas.

As a result, ads like “don’t buy from them, buy from us” don’t work.

Changing minds is the road to disaster in advertising.

Since the mind is already assaulted, you need a very simple message.

Your job as an advertiser is not to communicate, but to select what to communicate.

You do so by looking into the mind of your customers, and by repeating what they already believe.

Chapter 2: The Assault on the Mind

There is too much communication and too many products.

In this noise, the only possible way to get heard is through positioning.

Chapter 3: Getting Into the Mind

In our over-communicative society, nothing is more important than…communication. Without it, nothing works.

The best way to get into someone’s mind is to be there first.

Eg: Everyone knows who was the first man to walk on the moon. No one knows who was the second one.

So find something you can be first in. It’s better to be a big fish in a small pond than the other way around.

Furthermore, merely inventing something first isn’t enough.

You need to get into your customers’ heads first.

Eg: Colombus was the first one to discover America, but America was named after Amerigo Vespucci who put America on the map, and hence, in the mind of people.

Chapter 4: Those Little Ladders in Your Head

The mind only accepts information it already agrees with.

People see what they expect to see. Hear what they expect to hear. And taste what they expect to taste.

The world is so complex nowadays that it is impossible to deal with all of it.

So, people oversimplify and look at the world through rankings.

In the world of advertising, we need to imagine rankings as ladders.

Each ladder is a category and each step is a product.

Some ladders have many steps, others have only a few of them.

Brands that want to go up whether need to dislodge the brand above them (likely impossible), or associate their brand with that company’s position.

If you’re selling a new product that does not exist yet, you must create a new ladder. It’s sometimes better to say what your product isn’t than what it is.

Eg: The first car was called a “horseless” carriage, for example.

This proves that the position of your competition is as important as your own position.

If you’re number three on the ladder, you can’t pretend you’re number one. People won’t believe you.

Just say you’re number three since this is what people believe.

image 83
Positioning starts with questioning what place you occupy in the minds of people. The next step is to find that out. Then you can run ads expressing what people think about you. People will read this ad, agree, and you will sell more.

Eg: Avis’ slogan “we are second in the market, so why go with us? We try harder”.

They positioned themselves in comparison to number one Hertz, and won. They positioned themselves as “the first company in the second place” and owned their second position.

7UP positioned itself against Coca-Cola with “the uncola”.

Once you find what works, don’t ever let it go. Use it for at least the upcoming decade.

Too many brands became arrogant and ditched their working slogan to take another position in their prospects’ minds.

It failed.

Minds don’t change that easily.

Chapter 5: You Can’t Get There From Here

We live in a “can-do” world.

Unfortunately, many things in advertising won’t work, no matter how much money you have, how hard you try, or how patient you are.

Chapter 6: Positioning of a Leader

How do you become leader of your category?

You have to be the first, with “the most” of x.

As we have seen, it’s nearly impossible to become number one if the spot is already taken.

Unless you can come up with a 10X improvement, there is no reason for people to switch to your product over the one they have been buying forever.

On top of that, leaders enjoy many more advantages than do the second or third, which helps them keep on dominating.

Leaders of number one brands are not worried about next year, or in two years. They should worry about five to ten years when things could really change for them.

So, what should they do?

They should run ads that enhance their products. No need to say they are number 1, everyone knows that already.

Leading companies should be extra wary of new products. If the competition comes with something they didn’t think of, they should copy it and sell it too.

As far as we’re concerned, any new products may end up being THE product of the future. They don’t want to take the risk of not jumping on the bandwagon, which is what most CEOs get wrong.

CEOs often think that products derive their power from the organization. That’s because they live in the organization.

Their customers don’t.

As a result, the truth is that organizations get their power from their products (because it’s the product that occupies the prospects’ minds, not the organization.)

This is why companies should never ever practice line extension.

New product means new position and new brand (Eg: Procter and Gamble).

This so-called multi-brand strategy is in fact, a single position strategy – because each of these brands occupies a unique position, instead of having one established brand stuck in a new position that doesn’t fit in the customers’ minds.

Furthermore, businesses should not be afraid to move into a new category of products even if that product is killing their current products (the innovator’s dilemma).

If they don’t kill their own product, someone else will.

Chapter 7: Positioning of a Follower

While leaders can copy followers, followers cannot copy leaders.

Followers usually have failing products because their products are better – instead of being faster.

The key is to be the first one to establish a position in the mind of customers – being the best one is not as effective.

To be the first one in something, you need to find what doesn’t exist yet.

Here are a few ways to do so.

  1. The size: if everyone sells big, sell small.
  2. The price: if everyone is selling cheap, sell premium, expensive. And the other way around.
  3. Sex: Marlboro transformed cigarettes into sexy, masculine accessories.
  4. Age: focus on older/younger people.
  5. Distribution channel

Finally, don’t try to appeal to everybody.

Find a segment, and focus on them.

Chapter 8: Repositioning the Competition

Sometimes, you can’t find any creneau in the market.

So you’re going to have to create your own.

In order to move your product to a new position, move the old products and reframe them in the minds of customers.

It’s called repositioning your competition’s product. For this to work, you must say something about your competitors’ products.

Tylenol did so with the slogan: “for all of the people that cannot take aspirin”.

image 84

Most brands make the mistake to show comparative ads. Comparative ads fail because they don’t reposition the competitor. They merely tell the consumer something he expects to hear from a company – that their products are better than the competition.

Chapter 9: The Power of the Name

Name is extremely important, and it should be the first step of the positioning process.

The idea is that roses wouldn’t smell that good if they weren’t called roses.

Customers see and hear what they think they will see and hear.

Which is why your name is SO important.

Choosing a name is like driving a racing car.

If once in a while you go off track, that’s ok.

To win, you have to take risks. You have to select names that are almost generic, but not too much.

A good name is the best insurance for long-term success.

Eg: Gossip magazine People, communication software Discord, office communication software Slack, etc.

When you sell a brand new product that didn’t exist before (eg: Coca-Cola), don’t hesitate to choose new names that mean nothing.

Your name shouldn’t be too long, and it shouldn’t be possible to shorten it to initials (GE, GM) or you will be forgotten.

Companies whose name stays intact fair better than companies whose name got shortened.

Chapter 11: The Free-Ride Trap

Another mistake companies often make is to hop on a name they already use and ride it to introduce a new product, slightly tweaking it.

This is also called line extension.

This is a bad idea, as it will eat the market of the original product with the original name, and it will confuse customers.

This is why Procter and Gamble create new brands for new products every single time.

Chapter 12: The Line Extension Trap

Line extension happens when a company with a strong brand in a strong category decides to go for other products with the same brand.

Eg: that time Xeros tried to sell computers under the brand Xerox.

The reason it doesn’t work is that customers don’t think in terms of brands, but products. The product does not go into the customers’ minds – the name of the product/brand does. And customers associate attributes with the brand name.

Eg: Duracell is batteries. It can’t be anything else because when we think Duracell, we think batteries. A brand selling Duracell food would be super weird.

What could work is reverse line extension.

It’s when you are using the same product, the same package, and the same label for an additional application.

Eg: shampoo for kids can also be shampoo for adults.

image 85
A company can never extend a line with its already-existing brand name.

Chapter 13: When Line Extension Can Work

Line extensions work in the short term because people know the brand and buy the product.

In the beginning, sales numbers look good. But in the long-term, this will be confusing and sales will slump.

Line extension can work if:

  • your competitors are foolish
  • your volume is small
  • you have no competitors
  • you don’t expect to build a position in the prospect’s mind
  • you don’t do any advertising

When should you use the name of the company as a brand, and when not to?

  1. Companies selling big volumes or headed for number one should split brand and company name.
  2. Competition: In a vacuum, the brand should not bear the company name. In a crowded field, it should.
  3. Advertising support: Big-budget brands should not bear the house name. Small-budget brands should.
  4. Significance: Breakthrough products should not bear the house name. Commodity products such as chemicals, should.
  5. Distribution: Off-the-shelf items should not bear the house name. Items sold by sales reps should.

The authors subsequently give several case studies of companies, countries, and institutions they helped position. They don’t have much value for this summary so I have skipped them off, except for one.


Chapter 23: Positioning Yourself

  1. Define yourself
  2. Make mistakes: people will like you more and if you try a lot and make a lot of mistakes and succeed sometimes, than if you don’t.
  3. Make sure your name is right. Ever heard of Issur Danielovitch? Me neither. How about Kirk Douglas? They are the same person.
  4. Avoid the no-name trap: don’t reduce it to initials.
  5. Don’t name your children after you.
  6. Find a horse to ride. Success in life isn’t much what you can do for yourself, but more what other people can do for you. Ride your way to success on a horse. There are five types.
    1. Your company: work for the best companies, the ones that are building the future.
    2. Work for the most ambitious boss within the company.
    3. Friends
    4. Ideas: If you wait until an idea is ready to be accepted, it’s too late. Someone else will have preempted it. To ride the “idea” horse, you must be willing to expose yourself to ridicule and controversy. You must be willing to go against the tide. You can’t be first with a new idea or concept unless you are willing to stick your neck out. And take a lot of abuse. And bide your time until your time comes.
    5. Faith
    6. Yourself

Chapter 25: Playing the Positioning Game

  1. You must understand the role of words. Words have no meaning. People assign meaning to the words.
  2. You must know how words affect people. Words trigger the meanings associated with them. People don’t look at the world to use it as a base for reality. They use the reality in their heads that they project onto the world.
  3. You must be careful of change: change has become ubiquitous and it is faster pace than before. However, companies that tried to change too much and too fast fail.
  4. You need vision: make your decisions based on where you want the company to be in 5-10 years, not tomorrow.
  5. You need courage
  6. You need objectivity: kill the ego
  7. You need simplicity: only obvious ideas work today – but they’re not always obvious.
  8. You need subtlety: in politics, the winners are the ones that carve out a place for themselves around the center. It’s easy to go to the extreme. But you won’t win. You need restraint, and subtlety.
  9. You must be willing to sacrifice: you need to give up something to establish your unique position.
  10. You need patience.
  11. You need a global outlook.

Finally, you don’t need a reputation as a marketing genius.

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