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How To Position A Product Like Don Draper

The marketing team for Viagra doesn’t use email newsletters. You can probably guess why – but I have often thought for some time that anyone who can figure out a good marketing strategy for a product like that could probably promote anything. If that person existed in real life, he or she would probably resemble the character of Don Draper from the popular AMC show Mad Men about the wildly creative, alcoholic and chauvinistic advertising industry in the 1960s. In the pilot episode for the entire show, Draper is confronted with the challenge of building an advertising strategy for the Viagra of his time … big tobacco. At the time, the tobacco industry faced growing evidence from medical studies that their product was actually dangerous and deadly.

In response, the FDA took the relatively minor step of banning tobacco companies from promoting healthy messages under threat of big fines. Claiming that more doctors smoked a certain brand cigarette was (thankfully) no longer acceptable. So Draper is faced with the impossible task of repositioning cigarettes. His solution, in a moment of inspiration, is to change the message to focus on a small part of the drying and curing process involved in making cigarettes; toasting the tobacco leaves. His two word tagline: “It’s Toasted.”

The client shares that all their competitor’s cigarettes are toasted as well – to which Draper replies, “no, yours are toasted. Theirs are poisonous.” That’s the power of positioning.

The best recent modern example of the same principle in action is the growth of Coors Light in contrast with their biggest competitors. Struggling in what MillerCoors CMO Andrew England called a “relatively nondifferentiated segment,”  the beer took over the #2 spot in the US behind Bud Light – the first time in two decades that anyone other than Bud and Bud Light were #1 and #2.

How did they do it? For the past six years, the entire strategy for positioning the beer has been a single word: cold. The beer features images of snow capped mountains on the packaging and uses advertising filled with images of mountain climbers and people surrounded by ice. The reality, as a recent Fast Company piece uncovered, is that a Coors Light is only as cold as the fridge you put it in … and usually sits next to other equally cold beers from other producers.

Yet logic falls behind emotion when it comes to how men choose their beers (and many other things), and the cold “frost brewed” messaging of Coors has been working. Clearly the art of positioning (as opposed to actually changing your product) can work for tobacco on a TV show and for “nondifferentiated” beer in real life.

So the real question is, how can you put the principle into action for your own brand? Here are three tips:

1. Own something first.

In the classic marketing book Positioning: The Battle For Your Mind by Al Ries and Jack Trout, the authors share that the easiest way to get into someone’s mind is to be first. What Don Draper would probably tell you about this advice is sometimes it doesn’t actually matter WHAT you own first. Being a cigarette that is toasted, for example, may work perfectly well for positioning – because ultimately the first important goal of positioning is to separate yourself from your competitors.

2. Tell a better story.

Just being first, though, won’t be enough to succeed in the longer term if it isn’t something that people care about. The way to take being first and turn it into a true advantage is by wrapping it in a powerful story. When Coors decided to own the idea of being a colder beer, it wasn’t enough to run a few 30 second spots about it. They actually consulted with “experts” on cold technology and even developed their own special brand of fridge that bars or even homeowners could use to store their beer at an optimal cold temperature more chilled than the typical fridge.

3. Reposition the competition instead.

In one of the most powerful chapters of Ries and Trout’s book, they talk about the power of repositioning your competition. When Stolichnaya Vodka needed to promote its Russian heritage, they did it by exposing Smirnoff and their other competitors as being made in America and not in Russia. Scope did the same thing by repositioning Listerine’s heritage as a powerful mouthwash as giving you “medicine breath.” Both were examples of brands that succeeding in positioning their products as desirable simply by repositioning their competition as less desirable.

There is a good reason that Positioning is considered the book that “sparked a marketing revolution.” The idea of positioning has done that for the past several decades in real life AND on television. There are no shortage of ideas for who might add that last P to the traditional 4 P’s description of marketing (product, price, place, and promotion). I even added my own fifth P with my first book on why brands need to have a personality.

Despite my belief in the power of personality, I have to admit that positioning is a more likely choice to be the true “fifth P” of marketing.  And Don Draper would probably agree.


5 thoughts on “How To Position A Product Like Don Draper”

  1. What fasinates me is that Trout & Ries, espeically Reis, rail against the line extension over and over in multiple books and writings. Where is the parent brand of Coors Light now? I haven’t see that off-yellow topped can in several decades.


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#1 WSJ & USA Today Bestselling Author

Rohit is the author of 10 books on trends, the future of business, building a more human brand with storytelling and how to create a more diverse and inclusive world.


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