Under the Influence·influence

Summer Series: Achilles Heel Advertising: Repositioning the Competition

*Our Summer Series airs every Saturday at 1:30pm on CBC Radio One* This week, we explore when a smaller advertiser attacks the weak spot in a bigger advertiser’s marketing. It’s a strategy of brinksmanship, because it means a smaller company not only chooses to attack a larger company, but it attacks the weakness in a bigger company’s strength. It takes surgical precision, but when done well, the smaller advertiser gains market share, while diminishing the bigger company’s reputation at the same time.

*Our Summer Series airs every Saturday at 1:30pm on CBC Radio One*

This Week's Must-Listen Moment:

Achilles Heel Advertising: Repositioning The Competition 0:58

This week, we explore when a smaller advertiser attacks the weak spot in a bigger advertiser's marketing. It's a strategy of brinksmanship, because it means a smaller company not only chooses to attack a larger company, but it attacks the weakness in a bigger company's strength. It takes surgical precision, but when done well, the smaller advertiser gains market share, while diminishing the bigger company's reputation at the same time.

Every great athlete believes, deep in their heart, that they could excel in another sport.

Which would explain why Michael Jordan left basketball and played baseball for an entire season in 1994.

Michael Jordan swung both ways back in '94. (sportsonearth.com)

It might also explain why basketball great Wilt Chamberlain almost fought Muhammad Ali back in 1971.

Wilt Chamberlain harboured a secret dream to fight for the heavyweight championship. (ringtalk.com)

At the time, Ali was coming off his 3-year boxing exile for refusing to serve in Vietnam.

In other words, he needed money. He was almost broke.

Secretly, Wilt Chamberlain had always dreamed of fighting for the heavyweight championship.

He had boxed as an amateur briefly, and believed he could hold his own against Ali. Even though boxing wasn't his sport, Chamberlain felt his size, speed and hand-eye coordination would give him an advantage.

Wilt the Stilt had boxed in his youth. (reddit.com)

It may seem like a bizarre idea, but remember this:

Wilt Chamberlain had a reach of 92 inches, compared to Ali's 78. That was a 14-inch difference - unheard of in a boxing match. Chamberlain also weighed 275 pounds - 60-pounds heavier than Ali. But more than anything, it was his height advantage – Wilt was 7 foot 2. Almost a foot taller than Ali.

When sportscaster Howard Cosell interviewed them both on the Wide World of Sports, he had them stand side-by-side. Ali looked like Wilt Chamberlain's little brother.


As Chamberlain said, he truly believed there was a chance to throw one punch and take Ali out. His height gave him the upper hand.

While sportswriters were dubious about the match up, there was one thing they all agreed on:

The bout would generate a lot of money.

In preparation, Wilt Chamberlain worked with Cus D'Amato, who had trained heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson, and who would one day launch the career of Mike Tyson.

D'Amato had an insight.

Chamberlain started preparing with famous boxing trainer Cus D'Amato. (bronxbanterblog)

He said: We know everything about Ali, but he knows nothing about you as a fighter. He'll be coming into the bout blind.

So a 10-round fight was set for July 26th, 1971, at the Houston Astrodome, and both Ali and Chamberlain were promised outrageous sums of money.

But at the press conference, Ali did what he did best. He got inside Wilt's head.

As Chamberlain and his entourage sat down at the press table, Ali just kept quietly saying, "Timberrrrrrrr."

A reporter would ask a question, and Ali would say "Timberrrr." Another reporter would ask another question, and Ali just said "Timberrrr."

When asked what his fight strategy would be against a 7 foot 2 opponent, Ali just motioned with his forearm and said, "Timber! The tree will fall."

Wilt started to look nervous, then Wilt started to wilt. He and his lawyers got up and left the room for a few minutes, and when they came back, they announced the fight was off.

Ali got inside Wilt's mind - and ended up losing money. (lenxiholnovi.blogspot)

Ali had completely intimidated Wilt Chamberlain.

And he did it with the most interesting strategy.

He attacked Chamberlain's greatest strength:

His height.

In the world of marketing, attacking the weakness in a large competitor's greatest strength is a gutsy strategy.

Call it David versus Goliath. Call it Achilles Heel advertising.

But when it's done carefully with surgical precision, attacking a larger rival's strength can completely turn the tables.

#2 brands suddenly become #1, fortunes change, and history is rewritten.

All you need is a polished stone, a slingshot and a plan…

There are many selling strategies in marketing.

Some are seasonal. Like selling Christmas ideas in December.

Christmas is the one time of the year when all advertisers find themselves selling the same thing - gift ideas. (rekkerd.org)

Some are price-based. Like weekend sales.

Retailers use weekends as a big shopping strategy. (saverscene.com.au)

Some are based in luxury. Like Louis Vuitton luggage.

Luxury items are a category unto themselves. (londnr.com)

But what all companies try to do is position themselves in your mind.

See, the mind is like a camera. It takes a quick photo of a brand, then files it. And each file only has so much room.

So the file that holds tire brands in your mind may just have Goodyear and Michelin tucked into it, for example. And not Firestone, Bridgestone, Goodrich, Yokohama, Continental, Pirelli, Motomaster or Uniroyal.

The art of positioning a product in your mind is probably the most important act in marketing.

It is all about standing out from the competition.

Back in the 70s, a seminal book was written on the subject, called Positioning: The Battle For Your Mind.

This book revolutionized the advertising business. (amazon.com)

In that book, authors Al Ries and Jack Trout put forth that in order for a brand to get into someone's mind, it had to link itself to something that already existed there.

And by doing that, it helps people remember the product.

Here's a classic example: When 7Up wanted to position itself in people's minds, it called itself the "Uncola."

7Up did some of the most famous repositioning advertising of all time. (earthwormjimfan)

Let's analyze that. First, 7Up used the word "cola" to link itself to the cola leaders – Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola. That information already existed in people's minds.

But 7Up was different than Coke or Pepsi. It was clear, not brown, and it had a lighter, citrus taste.

So 7Up called itself the "Un-cola" – saying it was like cola, only different. Creating a new brain file it could own.

That's the concept of positioning. Carve out a new space in people's minds by linking it to something they already know.

When pork suppliers wanted to encourage people to buy it with the same frequency as chicken, they positioned pork as the other white meat.  It linked pork with chicken, which was a frequent purchase and suggested it was a viable option.

Put some pork on your fork. (porkinspired.com)

But there is another kind of strategy that is even more interesting than positioning.

And that is re-positioning the competition.

Explained simply, that's when a brand positions itself in your mind by disabling the competition.

It adjusts the perception you have about a rival brand, and takes advantage of that change. It's a very powerful strategy…because it's a bit like Kung Fu.

In Kung Fu, you use an attacker's momentum against himself.

In Kung Fu, you never block a forceful blow, you divert it and ride its energy. (thesnowtiger.com)

For example, if someone grabs your wrist, and you want to break free by moving your arm up, the Kung Fu way is to first pull your arm down.

Now, why would you do that?

Because your opponent will want to go in the opposite direction in order to control you, so he'll pull your wrist up – which is the way you really want to go - so as he pulls your wrist up, you suddenly change direction and ride his force, combine it with yours, and break free.

Follow me, grasshopper?

Good. In marketing, the concept is the same. You find a weakness in the leader's strength and ride that momentum.

Here's a classic example of repositioning:

As we've mentioned before, Hertz was the number one car rental company in the 1960s.

Hertz has driven the car rental category for decades. (visitlaramie.org)

But Avis wanted to steal market share from Hertz. So Avis said:

Avis convinced people that they tried harder than Hertz. (avistour.ekb)

That was a radical statement in the 1960s. No one had ever boasted about being #2 in a category. But more importantly, it repositioned Hertz as a company that wasn't trying that hard anymore.

Another Avis ad said:

Every Avis ad was an arrow aimed at Hertz's achilles heel. (officialsamuel.com)

Classic repositioning. It leveraged the weakness in Hertz's strength.

Avis was saying you would get faster service at their counter, because they weren't as busy, and because they were #2, they would try harder to keep your business.

By repositioning Hertz as too big and too busy, Avis increased its market share by 35% in just a few years.

It's always fascinating to watch a smaller marketing company try to reposition a larger rival.

It's David eyeballing Goliath.

Hertz versus Avis was a heated battle of big and small. (slate.com)

For more than 70 years, the pain reliever category had been dominated by Bayer Aspirin.

Aspirin sat on the top shelf of the pain relief category for decades. (amazon.com)

Then, along came Tylenol.

Back in the 1980s, Tylenol was a relatively new upstart. (harmanlaw.com)

The makers of Tylenol had an interesting strategy. First, they marketed to physicians and health care professionals. Once doctors started to suggest Tylenol to patients, Tylenol positioned itself as "The pain reliever professionals use and recommend."

Then, in the 1980s, Tylenol wanted to increase its market share, and decided to achieve that by repositioning Aspirin.

It did that by saying Tylenol was the pain reliever that was easy on stomachs. Aspirin irritated the stomach lining in some patients, and created a small amount of bleeding in a few others.

By saying Tylenol didn't irritate stomachs, it repositioned Aspirin as the pain reliever that did.

Tylenol effectively adjusted people's perceptions of Aspirin. It acknowledged Aspirin's leading pain relieving abilities, but questioned the strong ingredients it used to relieve that pain. So, if you had stomach issues, you would stay away from aspirin. And if you didn't have stomach problems, why tempt them with Aspirin?

Tylenol gave Aspirin a stomach ache. (adweek.com)

That repositioning was so powerful, it eventually made Tylenol the number one brand.

There is one irrefutable fact in marketing:

If you want to grow your business, that business has to come from somewhere.

Namely, from your competitors.

Doulton China opened its doors back in 1815.

Doulton China has been setting tables since 1815. (antiquehelper)

Founded by John Doulton, the company began making fine china in Stoke-On-Trent, England, where there happened to be an abundance of coal and clay.

In 1901, King Edward VII conferred the double honour of a royal warrant, and granted the company the right to use the title "royal" in their name.

Soon, Royal Doulton became world renowned for its fine bone china.

Because over 50% of Royal Doulton's china is exported, foreign markets are very important.

In the U.S., there was a rival company called Lenox Fine China.

Lenox Fine China is the china of choice in the White House. (liveauctioneers)

When Royal Doulton found itself competing with Lenox for sales, it decided to reposition its rival.

So it ran a famous ad that said:

Royal Doulton repositioned Lenox in the minds of shoppers with this clever ad. (amazon.com)

While Lenox made fine china, too, it did manufacture it in New Jersey. And the instant picture New Jersey conjures up is not exactly an idyllic little village in the countryside.

As a result of that one ad, Royal Doulton increased its revenues by 6%. A big uptick in the North American market.

Again, Royal Doulton adhered to the strict rules of repositioning. It recognized Lenox as a leading china maker, but adjusted the public's perception of the company by aiming an arrow at its Achilles heel.

There is one irony, however. Any British person will tell you that Stoke-On-Trent is just as industrial as New Jersey.

It just sounds nicer.

Mouthwash has been around a long time.

Even the Romans gargled. (reflectivesmiles.com)

The Romans used to import bottled Portuguese urine as mouthwash. As a matter of fact, it got so popular that Nero put a tax on it.

But the first commercial mouthwash in North America was Listerine.

Created in 1879, it was originally sold as surgical antiseptic, then floor polish.

Listerine couldn't decide whether it was a floor polish or a mouthwash. (wikipedia.org)

Listerine dominated the mouthwash category for decades.

Listerine was king. (listerine.ca)

Then along came Scope in 1966. It was a pleasant tasting, minty mouthwash.

Scope attacked Listerine with good taste. (reddit.com)

In order to take customers away from Listerine, Scope chose to reposition its huge rival.

It simply asked: Why settle for medicine breath?"

As all effective repositioning strategies do, it attacked the leader's strength. Everyone knew Listerine tasted terrible. Everyone knew that terrible taste killed germs. Scope didn't challenge that belief.

But what Scope did was alter a perception, suggesting that clean, medicine breath could be just as unpleasant as bad breath.

As a result, Scope was able to steal a healthy mouthful of market share away from Listerine.

When BMW first came to North America, it was ranked #11 in the European car category.

Many originally thought BMW stood for British Motor Works. (logok.com)

It had the weakest image of all imports, and many thought BMW stood for British Motor Works.

The leading brand, of course, was Mercedes.

Mercedes was the undisputed heavyweight champion of luxury vehicles. (vectorlogo)

So BMW set its sights on younger professionals with big paycheques. This upwardly mobile group also rejected the luxury symbols of the post-war generation.

BMW was an underdog, so it hired an underdog ad agency called Ammirati & Puris, who coined the slogan:

The strategy was to emphasize performance rather than force BMW into the luxury category dominated by Mercedes.

To do that, BMW chose to reposition Mercedes.

So it created ads that said:

BMW. The Ultimate Driving Machine versus Mercedes, the ultimate sitting machine.

That immediately repositioned Mercedes as a living room on wheels, and BMW as a sleek, high performance automobile.

BMW positioned itself as the high performance luxury vehicle. (carthrottle.com)

In essence, BMW Kung Fu'd Mercedes – attacking the weak spot in their strength. No one doubted Mercedes luxury, they just now doubted the power and handling.

With that, BMW sales soared.

The "Ultimate Driving Machine" slogan has been in use now for over 40 years, making it one of the longest-lasting and most effective of all time.

And BMW has outsold Mercedes for the last 10 years straight.

BMW has used its slogan for over 40 years now. (bmwmag)

In each of the cases we talked about today, one brand was repositioning another brand. But sometimes, a brand can try to reposition an entire category.

In the late 1800s, Ivory Soap began saying it was, "99 44/100% pure." That was its way of repositioning all other soaps as impure.

Ivory Soap repositioned all other soaps as impure. (nationalhomegrocer)

When I was writing ads for fashion retailer Bretton's, it wanted to attract shoppers away from department stores.

Because Bretton's specialized in fashion, I saw an opportunity. So I wrote the line:

I won't buy my fashion where I buy my appliances.

Just putting the image of a stylish dress beside a washer in people's minds was all I needed to do to adjust the perception of department stores as fashion destinations.

Now that you understand repositioning, you realize you've seen it at work many times.

Remember this campaign:

It was a humorous but vicious repositioning campaign, altering the perception of PCs as the computer of choice for nerds.

Apple personified Microsoft as the choice for nerds. (adweek.com)

Pepsi tried to reposition the mighty Coke by saying it was the "Choice of a New Generation," re-casting Coke as the soft drink for older folks.

Pepsi tried to reframe Coke as the soft drink for old people. (YouTube)

Prego spaghetti sauce repositioned Ragu by saying it was the "thick sauce," leaving market leader Ragu to be perceived as thin.

Prego repositioned Ragu as the thin spaghetti sauce. (YouTube)

In 12th century Germany, you risked beatings, exile and even death if you brewed a bad beer.

That's a lot of pressure.

Which is probably why Germany is so renowned for its beer today.

When Lowenbrau was the leading German import beer in North America, another German beer called Beck's wanted to steal its market share.

Once upon a time, Lowenbrau was the best selling German beer in North America. (jamesbondlifestyle.com)

So it took a leaf from Royal Doulton's playbook and said:

"You've tasted the German beer that's the most popular in America. Now taste the German beer that's the most popular in Germany."

Ouch. A well-placed knee to Lowenbrau's market share.

It acknowledged Lowenbrau was #1 here, but zeroed in on its weakness – it wasn't number one in the home country.

It didn't take long for Beck's to overtake Lowenbrau.

Beck's aimed a perfect arrow at Lowenbrau's soft spot and overtook the #1 spot. (dudes-and-chicks)

Back in 1921, a grocer named Earl Wise Sr. realized he had too many potatoes one day, so he cut them up into thin slices, fried them, and sold them in small bags.

Earl Wise Sr wizened up and turned his potato surplus into money. (YouTube)

The chips became so popular, Wise opened a production plant four years later.

That was the beginning of Wise potato chips.


Skip ahead to 1968.

A man named Alexander Liepa creates a potato chip that doesn't have to be peeled or cut, but instead is made from potato flakes and flour, and is then reconstituted into the shape of a chip.

Liepa presents the idea to the U.S. Army as a snack that could be made at remote army bases without the expense of having to ship American-grown potatoes.

But the Army isn't interested.

So Liepa sells his patent to Proctor & Gamble instead, and P&G creates Pringles New Fangled Potato Chips.

There's only one problem.

Unlike regular chips, Pringles break apart easily in bags. So P&G requested its food storage specialist, Frederic Baur, to design a new container.

Baur comes back with a tall, cylindrical metal can that looks like a tennis ball canister.

The Pringles can became the brand's most visible advertising. (findagrave.com)

The Pringles stack nicely in the tall can, and the metal tube protects them from breaking.

And because necessity is the mother of invention, this red Pringles can was an utterly unique package in the chip aisle.

With that, Pringles launched in 1976, backed with a $15 million dollar advertising campaign, and instantly captured 18% of the chip market.

Meanwhile, Wise potato chips is the number one chip in the New York area, and they're scared to death that Pringles is going to roll into town and steal all its customers.

So Wise turned to its advertising agency for help. They asked to see a can of these new fangled Pringles. Then an idea hit them.

The ad agency creates a television commercial where they simply read the ingredients right off the Pringles can, versus the ingredients on a Wise chip bag:

The fact that Pringles seemed to contain so many chemicals had an immediate impact on Pringles sales.

People started saying Pringles tasted like cardboard, probably because they had seen the commercial.

It was brilliant repositioning – the big new fangled Pringles brand was stopped in its tracks by its own ingredients list.

Wise lost no market share. And P&G pulled Pringles to reformulate the product.

What made Pringles unique was also its weak spot, and Wise wisely aimed its arrow at the Pringles can.

What made Pringles unique was also its weak spot. (wordpress.com)

One last footnote:

The inventor of the can, Frederic Baur, died in 2008.

And his family honoured his last request.

His ashes were buried in a Pringles Can.

Frederic Baur gave birth to the Pringles can - and was buried in one. (bytesdaily)

Someone once said that great brands impose a view on you.

That really is the crux of all marketing – to stand out in a marketplace with a unique identity, and attach a sticky note in your brain.

Every smart company positions its product or service, but only a few companies dare to reposition a competitor at the same time.

It's a fascinating aspect of marketing, because it means looking for a weakness in a competitor's strength.

That is high-level Kung Fu.

Hertz is #1, but maybe that means it's too busy.

Aspirin is a powerful pain reliever, but maybe that power irritates stomachs.

Mercedes is definitely luxurious, but maybe that makes it slow and soft.

It's powerful stuff in the selling game because it influences which brands you buy. And marketers reap the rewards.

It just requires a shrewd marketing eye, a razor-sharp plan, and perfect aim.

Then all that's left to do is yell Timberrrrrr…

…when you're under the influence.