Q&A: Who Am I?

By David Ball Photography by Lori Sax June 30, 2012

The easiest way to define marketing might be with a picture of Jack Trout next to a quote that reads, “Differentiate or die.” One of the world’s foremost marketing gurus, Trout shot to fame in 1969 with his pioneering concept of “positioning,” and he’s since written a half-dozen marketing books and become a boardroom adviser to the world’s largest corporations. His Connecticut-based firm, Trout & Partners, has offices in 22 countries, but Trout spends his winters in Sarasota. We asked him about his strategies and how they can be applied to local businesses. It turns out that whether a business is big or small, the brand is everything.

“SARASOTA IS A SLEEPER.” - International marketing guru Jack Trout

Q. Explain your concept of “positioning.”

Positioning plays off the fact that perceptions are reality—what people perceive is real; don’t confuse them with the facts. What you have to do is establish a point of difference in the mind about why people should buy you instead of buying your competitors. It really crosses psychology with marketing.

Q. How has that concept evolved within the business world in the last 40 years? Is it still as important?

It’s actually more important today. I wrote that article in 1969, which was the beginning of when things started to get competitive. By today’s standards, it was a tea party in 1969. The level of competition has increased dramatically, which is why positioning is so popular around the world.

Q. Is there a difference in how companies position themselves in a regional economy like Southwest Florida, vs. the global economy?

No, not really. Every time you sit down to develop a positioning strategy, you start with your competition. Who are you competing with? It can be at a local level, a regional level or a global level. But it all starts with competition and cuts across all your basic types of business: big, small and medium.

Q. Many consumers today just find the lowest price on or eBay. How do companies differentiate themselves when they can only offer a picture of a product and a price online?

If that’s your situation, you’d better have a low price. To avoid the price battle, you have to develop that point of difference. It’s like Titleist golf balls, the No. 1 ball in golf. That’s what they’ve established brilliantly. Do I want to get what the big boys play with, or do I want a Mickey Mouse ball?

Obviously, branding becomes more important when you’re dealing with expensive products, but it’s important even down at the commodity level, like salt. I was working with Morton salt a few weeks back, and there is a lot of science in salt that people aren’t aware of. That was my point to them, that you are the world leader of the science of salt and that’s what you should be talking about.

Q. Do many business owners not recognize what makes their product or business unique?

Absolutely. One of my pet peeves is that top management should be more involved in this type of strategy development. If your top manager isn’t involved, then good luck. What they’ll end up being driven by is Wall Street and how to get bigger and push their numbers instead of how to differentiate. Once you establish that point of difference, that’s what you’ve got to be. BMW has been using “The Ultimate Driving Machine” for 25 of 30 years. A lot of times top managers will change and lose focus of who they are.

Q. You’ve recently published Ten Commandments of Marketing. What commandments are most important for the small and medium-sized businesses in our area?

It’s the first one, “Thou shalt realize that perception is reality.” Businesses have to understand how they build that perception and point of difference, whether it’s a small store on Main Street or a regional player. We’re beginning to see some of that with the use of heritage, or the power of how long you’ve been in business. You see a lot of “established since 1943,” and talk about how long they’ve been around. Family-owned is also a very good point of difference; people always love that.

Q. What about a company that is new and doesn’t have heritage?

They’d better bring a new idea to the table. If you’re not old, you damn well better be new. And, the new has to surround something that doesn’t exist in the marketplace. You don’t want to show up as a “me, too.” That just doesn’t work.

Q. How should small and medium-sized companies think globally as they market themselves?

No. 1, they have to set up a global system of distribution, or at least develop a presence. It has to go beyond just wishful thinking. Secondly, you have to find a way to establish very quickly your credentials. When you show up in a brand-new place, people ask, “Who are you?” You better have your story together, and it has to be an impressive story.

Q. America’s biggest modern branding success has been Apple. What does that company teach us about branding?

Peter Drucker, the most famous business management consultant of all time, said the two most important functions in business are marketing and innovation. These are the only functions that generate new customers. If you look at Apple, what do they do brilliantly? Marketing and innovation. Steve Jobs was probably the best marketing CEO of all time. He combined those two things more successfully than anyone. More companies should aspire to operate like he did, knowing you probably aren’t going to do it as well or as successfully.

Q. What about social media and the Internet’s impact in branding and attracting customers?

These are all new tools and ways to reach people. But whatever you do, you still have to start with: What’s your story? What’s your point of difference? Who am I? And then you have to define that story and use these new tools to get that story out.

Q. You spend four months in Sarasota each year. What is your sense of the business market here?

I don’t spend a lot of time studying the business world down here. I’m here to get away from the winter. Sarasota has a lot of possibilities. Sarasota is a sleeper. Now, you don’t want to become too popular or you’ll become like Miami. But my sense is there’s a nice balance—good mixed population of old and young, and the Gulf is always a draw.

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