Jack Trout: ‘From Brand Differentiation to Entertainment and Emotion’

Jack Trout, president of Trout & Partners, offered his perspective on repositioning strategies in the current era of heightened global competition, change, and crisis during an event hosted by the New York chapter of the American Marketing Association on Wednesday.

Trout co-authored the 1980 book, Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, and he gave a quick recap of his earlier work. According to Trout, “Minds are limited, they hate confusion, they’re insecure, they don’t change easily, and often lose their focus.” His latest book is about repositioning, and he highlighted areas that have changed since then and the impact on brands.

Companies should learn from lessons of the past when it comes to crises. In the early 1980s, Tylenol was the model for effectively handling a crisis. As Trout said, “Back then during their first scare, they took charge and pulled the product off the shelves.” However, during Tylenol’s product crisis last year, “They did not handle it the same way. This time they did ‘zippo’ and no one stepped up.”

The latest economic crisis caused widespread changes in brand strategy to reflect the times. Trout observed that even luxury brands were touting the value of their products. He also said that bankruptcy ended up benefitting General Motors, which was forced to eliminate some of their undifferentiated brands.

“Creeping commoditization” is a danger in the current marketing environment. Trout reported that marketers are moving from brand building to product promotion. He cautioned that repositioning is not about ‘sloganeering,’ and it’s important to tell a good story. He has noticed a lot of “meaningless slogans” across categories, especially among banks. Without naming names, he cited ‘Where money lives’ and ‘Here today, here tomorrow’ as examples.

Increased global competition has led to brand battles in every category. Trout referred to “an explosion of choice, with categories subdividing into multiple segments.” For example, there are over 2,000 brands of bottled water on the market. One of his recommended strategies is to “hang negative perceptions on competitors,” mentioning Apple’s effective Mac vs. PC ad campaign that featured “the cool guy vs. the nerdy guy.”

On repositioning political candidates: Trout has also been a strategy advisor to the current administration. When asked to comment on Obama’s repositioning, he replied, “The President should focus on how he has made progress on major problems.” After all, as Trout noted, “Obama inherited the in-basket from hell.”