• Dr. Gary Witt

Positioning: How to Take Market Share by Creating Fear and Doubt

Dr. Gary Witt

Marketing Psychology


Up against a dominant company or product? You can take market share using Perceptual Positioning. “Positioning” is where your product or service ranks in comparison to competitors in the minds of your buyers (NOT yours!)


Ask the average person what kind of personal computer is the best, and most will respond "Apple" or “Dell.” Ask about the best luxury car, most will say Mercedes or BMW. Ask about the best hospital, many will say Mayo or Johns Hopkins. These companies have created an image of high quality in the minds of consumers – even consumers who have never used these products or services! Some images are so strong that even the use of the name with other products connotes quality, such as "The Cadillac of razors."


We all apply some sort of rough mental ranking to products. Most consumers will only rank two or three products, grouping all the others together at the bottom as “all the rest” (not a place you want to be!) People's perception of the best brands may have little to do with which are actually the best, or which sell the best.


Any brand which is ranked by buyers in the top few spots has a huge advantage, because people and business customers naturally want to buy the best they can afford. To rank higher, one effective type of Perceptual Positioning strategy uses an aggressive approach to dominant brands by creating fear and doubt about a competitor’s product. For example, tea ads could attack coffee's higher caffeine content and the problems it may cause.

To gain the advantage of high rank, you must first climb up the buyer's mental ladder of favorites -- replacing brands above you to do it. How? Here is a great example of this type of perceptual positioning.


Listerine dominated the mouthwash market when Scope was introduced. The ads could have said, "Scope stops bad breath," a claim already used by Listerine. Instead, Scope focused not on the consumer problem which it cured (bad breath), but on the problem Listerine created while curing bad breath – that antiseptic smelling breath. Smell was the one vulnerable spot Listerine had -- and the company ignored that weakness until it was too late! People were convinced by Scope’s advertising that “medicine breath” was offensive to others. Scope wisely positioned itself in the minds of consumers as the "kissably fresh" mouthwash. It made Scope a powerhouse, and took huge market share from Listerine!

Lesson: Look for a meaningful problem which your competitor's product or service causes the buyer, and attack it with a better alternative.


Here are some basic steps to develop a perceptual positioning strategy:


(1) Look at these potential vulnerabilities of your competitor's product from the viewpoint of your target consumer. Analyze your chief competitor's product for some overlooked vulnerability which your product doesn't have. It can be almost anything. A pizza maker attacked "store-bought" pizzas with an ad stating they contained "casein -- an ingredient in glue!"


Stolichnaya Russian vodka ads emphasized its competitors' vodkas were manufactured in the U.S. By revealing its competitors' U.S. origins, Stoli made many consumers feel they were getting an inferior product -- just because it wasn't real Russian vodka -- like Stoli! Market share soared!


(2) Most attack ads simply point out a fact consumers may have overlooked. ("Did you know that....?") Most take a concerned, matter-of-fact approach. But to knock a competing brand off the rung above you, don't just compare -- Take the Offensive. You're trying to take a competing brand's place on the ladder INSIDE the consumer's mind. You can't be "just as good." You've must find a way to seem "better" in the buyer's mind.


(3) Create marketing messages which begin by emphasizing the problem your competitor's product causes (“research has found aspirin causes hidden stomach bleeding!”). The problem may be physical, social, psychological, etc. People always care what others think about them, so a social approach is often effective. For example, Scope ads began with people talking about a Listerine user as "old medicine breath" behind his back.


Your ads should make readers or viewers FEEL uncomfortable for using that product or service. You can create this feeling in consumers even if they never thought about the problem before, especially with a social problem. Stories are a great approach.


(4) Only after creating "fear and doubt" in the buyer's mind, show them your product, which solves the initial problem without creating new problems (“New Tylenol relieves headaches without the danger of stomach bleeding or irritation.”)


(5) Another alternative is to create your own niche in the consumer's mind. Nyquil became a leading brand in the big cough syrup market by creating their own related niche called "night time cough syrups," then claiming the top spot. They're still on top. Brilliant!


(6) Keep at it. Emphasize the same message over and over, month after month, until your sales figures show you've moved up the ladder. For the best results, find a meaningful weakness and keep hammering at it. Give your strategy time to work. Remember, you are creating a long-term image of your brand, as well as your competitor's.


This was a brief look one of the many uses of a strong Perceptual Positioning strategy to create a lasting image and increase sales.



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(c) Gary Witt, 1998

©2019 by Gary Witt.