What are you looking for?

Can We Learn Anything from 1981?

Posted by on August 21st, 2013
Posted in Blog, Nonprofit Branding, Nonprofit Communications, Nonprofit Messaging   

Every once in a while, you find yourself pulling a book you haven’t read in a while off the shelf. As your fingertips smudge the dust on the cover, you think to yourself, maybe there’s a nugget in here that’s worth considering.

Such is the case with Al Reis’s and Jack Trout’s classic Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind.

Before you rush out and buy a copy (probably at your favorite indie book store), let me remind you that the book was first published in 1981. The examples can be, at times, laughably anachronistic. At one point the authors cite a new product being developed by Western Union. For only a small fee, this product will enable a person to send an electronic telegram around the world in a matter of minutes.

That’s right. The book predates email.

Yet what’s fascinating about reading such a dated classic is that, despite enormous advances in marketing, especially in the digital arena, the fundamentals of branding remain true.

Positioning is about owning an idea in the mind of your customer. Since most of you reading this are in the nonprofit space, that “customer” may be a donor, volunteer, ticket buyer, or board member. But no matter who your audience is, the goal of positioning remains the same: to cement an idea in the mind of those who can support your work.

Many nonprofits fail to meet this challenge. They either:

  1. Fall into the trap of trying to distinguish themselves by their features rather than their benefits
  2. Try to build a brand around multiple services that aren’t connected by a single idea
  3. Are a “me too” copycat of their competitors

Successful positioning means that you must carve out unique mental territory for your brand. You must claim a space you can call your own. That space is your reason for being—the thing that you claim louder, bigger, and better than any other organization can.

Reis and Trout refer to this by quoting a French expression:

Cherchez le creneau

The expression translates to “Look for the hole.”

You must find an idea that makes you different from everyone else—an idea that only your organization can claim.

As Ries and Trout write, “To find a creneau, you must have the ability to think in reverse, to go against the grain. If everyone else is going east, see if you can find your creneau by going west.”

Here’s an example of effective brand positioning:

Nike’s brand is built upon the idea of authentic athletic performance. Along comes the shoe company Brooks. How does Brooks differentiate itself in the marketplace? How does it find its creneau?

If it follows the “me too” strategy, it will end up like Reebok, second fiddle to the number one athletic brand. Instead, Brooks carves out a unique position for itself.

Brooks Run Happy

With the tagline “Run Happy,” Brooks distinguishes itself in the marketplace. Instead of trying to be like Nike—a shoe for elite athletes—Brooks claims to be the shoe for those who simply want to find enjoyment in running. It is an everyman positioning that invites more runners to the table.


What’s your organization’s creneau?


Zach Hochstadt is a Mission Minded Founding Partner and runs Mission Minded’s Denver office, leading the company’s creative teams in the areas of message development, writing, graphic design, and web design and development.

See all posts by