Is Positioning Professional Services Different Than Products? Al Ries Explains.

The term “positioning” was coined in 1972 by Al Ries and Jack Trout, and big product brands have used positioning to gain competitive advantage ever since then. I interviewed Al Ries (the co-author of Positioning: The Battle for Your MindThe 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, and many other gold standard marketing books) about how the concept of positioning applies to professional services businesses.

Q: Is a modified approach to positioning required in light of today’s communication landscape, most notably the Internet?

As time goes on, every concept needs some modification. There are two things that have affected the positioning concept.

  1. Visuals have become more important. Positioning was a totally verbal strategy, yet there is a lot of evidence that the best way into a mind is not with words. It’s with visuals. My daughter Laura Ries has written a book on this subject called “Visual Hammer.
  2. The Internet is used primarily as a tactic, not a strategy. Yet there is one difference between Internet brands and retail brands sold in physical stores.

For brands sold in retail stores, there’s always room for a second brand. Coke and Pepsi. Red Bull and Monster. Retailers always want at least two brands in every category so they can play one against the other.

Not so on the Internet. That’s where you will find brands like Facebook, Twitter and Google which completely dominate their categories leaving little room for a strong second brand.

 

Q: What is fundamentally different or noteworthy about positioning professional services compared to positioning a product?

Nothing.

The problem is that owners of professional services think their services are so important that they can’t focus on one feature. They need to be experts in everything.

Take marketing consulting. Do you know of any marketing consulting firm that owns a word in the mind?

We do. We call ourselves “focusing consultants.” But few of our competitors focus on anything specific.

 

Q: How do you recommend professional service providers get greater clarity on their positioning? Are there some specific key steps that a firm’s leadership must go through to develop an effective positioning?

That’s too broad a question for any specific answer. Let’s just say that most companies focus their attention on such issues as, What they are, What they are good at, What experiences they have had, etc. In other words, it’s all about the organization and its people.

Positioning is different. You start by looking in the minds of your prospects to see if you can find an “open” hole. Then you make changes inside your organization to fill that open hole.

As a general rule, advertising is about communicating something to customers and prospects. Marketing is about making changes inside your organization in order to be successful on the outside.

 

Q: A professional services firm–particularly a smaller one–cannot simply invent a position that matches its core competencies for the reasons you have outlined in your books: the position must align with existing market perceptions. How then does a professional services firm find a viable position that also matches its core competencies?

That’s the essential problem of marketing. Most marketers spend all their time trying to “verbalize” the core competencies of their companies. As a result, the “positions” that come up with are too broad to penetrate the minds of prospects.

Think of a position as a knife. It’s hard to cut into a mind with a dull knife. In other words, a position that encompasses almost everything.

It’s much easier to cut into a mind with a sharp knife. A narrow position.

How does a professional services firm find a viable position in prospects’ minds? Narrow its focus so it stands for something unique and different.

Emery Air Freight was the leading air-cargo carrier. What services did Emery Air Freight offer? All services. Overnight, two-day and three-day deliveries.

So Federal Express narrowed its focus to “overnight” service. When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.

Was overnight service a core competency of Federal Express? Probably not. But it was a great position to own in the mind.

 

Q: A very new professional services firm may not be faced with any existing market perceptions. What should they keep in mind as they attempt to influence market perceptions for the first time?

Start with strategy. What can the new service offer that its competitors do not? Then try to pick a name that reflects the strategy.

White Wave wanted to get into the soy milk business. Instead of using the White Wave name, the company took the words “soy milk” and telescoped them into “silk.”

Now when consumers want soy milk, the first brand they think of is Silk.

 

Q: In selling professional services, human factors like trust and personality are very important. Do these factors play a role in an effective position for a services firm, or should they be secondary to some other factor?

Remember when Richard Nixon said, “I am not a crook?”

Did the American public think to themselves, I always thought he was a crook but now I know that he is not.

Marketing is filled with abstract words like trust, honesty, loyalty, premium-quality, consumer-oriented services, world-class products. Very, very few of these words register with consumers.

If you want your marketing messages to be believed, they need to be brought down to earth. You need to use specific words that generate visual images rather than abstract words that are meaningless to most prospects.

 

Q: Do you recommend professional services firms anchor their positioning around a particular expertise, customer service, or some other kind of attribute?

Only if that attribute is unique to the professional services firm.

A better direction might be to narrow the focus of the firm’s market. Instead of being a generalist that can handle every aspect of a business, a company might focus on one aspect.

A marketing consulting firm, for example, might focus on “start-up” companies only.

 

Q: In general, a consultant can grow revenues by scaling fees, volume, or both. Firms that attempt to add additional lines of services may face the line extension problems you describe in your book on positioning. Are these problems as dangerous for a services firm as a major product brand? If a firm is determined to diversify, is there a way to do that without harming their position?

What is the strongest position any brand can own? It’s leadership.

Heinz in ketchup. Hertz in rent-a-cars. Hellmann’s in mayonnaise.

Before a company even considers a line extension, it should try to dominate its existing market. That’s the best protection an existing company can own.

Look at the advertising business I grew up with. Back in the Mad Men days, the leading advertising agencies were Doyle Dane Bernbach, McCann Erickson, Ogilvy & Mather and many others.

Today, those leading agencies are still in business. It’s the smaller agencies that are gone. Nothing protects the future like leadership.

 

Q: Are there common mistakes a professional services firm should be aware of as they develop their positioning?

Positioning is not about you. Positioning is about the minds of your prospects.

Every company should start a strategy session by asking themselves, What do we own in the minds of our prospects? And what do our competitors own?

Then decide what position the professional services firm can own in the mind? And typically this requires changes in the firm itself.

Years ago, Jack Trout and I wrote a series of “positioning” articles for Advertising Age, the leading marketing publication. As a result, we received many letters from advertising agencies around the world, complimenting us.

At the time, there thousands of advertising agencies in America, but very few of them had global offices.

So rather than try to compete against American agencies, I wanted to use our positioning contacts to build a global chain of agencies. In other words, franchise the “positioning” concept.

 

Q: Are there any patterns that you see successful services firms following in their positioning?

The most successful firms tend to be the ones that can generate favorable publicity. What you say about yourself is mostly a waste of time. What others say about you, however, is usually believed by most prospects.

Look at the advertising used by producers of motion pictures and Broadway plays. They are devoid of traditional “marketing” copy. All the quotes are taken from media reviews of the movies and plays.

A professional services firm should do the same. Generate favorable publicity in the media and then use media quotes in their marketing material.


You can learn more about Al Ries at http://ries.com

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