The Most Expensive Marketing Mistake You Can Make

Quick, what’s the first word that comes to mind when I say “Mercury cars.”

Drawing a blank?

How about using more than one word. Can you describe a Mercury? If you’re like me you can’t.

I have probably seen hundreds, if not thousands of Mercury cars and ads during my lifetime and I can’t tell you what makes Mercury unique. That’s pretty crazy when you consider that Mercury spent close to a hundred million dollars a year on advertising just to tell you and me what a Mercury is.

Not surprisingly, the executives at Ford (which owned Mercury) shut down the division in 2011. Mercury failed to occupy a position in the minds of car consumers. The Mercury team made the most expensive mistake marketers can make – bad positioning.

Now, quickly name a luxury electric car.

Tesla, right?

Unlike Mercury, Tesla spends almost no money on advertising and has quickly emerged as one of the hottest brands in the automotive industry. Obviously that has a lot to do with the quality of the product. But its also has a lot to do with positioning. Tesla makes luxury electric cars that are fast and beautiful. It owns that unique position in our minds. Tesla's positioning is solid.

Positioning is how your audience associates and categorizes your company or product in their minds.  I think it’s the single most important thing marketing teams do.



The human mind gathers information through the body’s five senses and instantly filters and categorizes that information subconsciously. That’s why we don’t even notice a brown rock but pay very close attention to a similarly shaped brown bear.

Our mind does this with marketing messages as well. We are so overloaded with messages that our minds filter and reject most messages to save processing power for things that matter. Messages that are easy for our minds to categorize and position are the ones that are most likely to stick.

You can see a more contemporaneous example of this mental phenomenon at work in any Silicon Valley coffee shop. Listen to an entrepreneur describe his or her startup and you’ll likely see a befuddled look on the other person’s face until the entrepreneur says “we are basically like Uber for prescription drugs.” Then the lightbulb turns on. The person couldn’t process the new concept until it was properly categorized against an existing mental framework.

Positioning matters because it anchors your product in the mind of your audience.

Here are some examples of companies with strong positioning:

Volvo = Safety
BMW = Performance
Tesla = Luxury electric
Virgin = Cool
WalMart = Low-cost
Nordstroms = Great service

Positioning is all about your audience’s perceptions.

Volvo can spend millions of dollars touting its performance, but those dollars will be wasted since the audience has already associated Volvo as safe. Safe cars (in the mind of the audience) are not high-performance cars.


The most expensive mistake marketing teams can make is poorly positioning their products. As we saw in the Mercury example, you can’t spend your way out of bad positioning.

Here are a few common ways marketers screw up their positioning:

1. They don’t pick a single position
Picking multiple positions means you aren’t picking a position at all. If you say you are high quality, low cost, cutting edge, safe, and reliable, you’re also utterly forgettable.

2. They pick the wrong position
At Highfive, had we positioned ourselves as a video conferencing app instead of video hardware for the conference room we would have competed for mindshare with widely known (and free) services such as Skype, Google Hangouts and Apple FaceTime. Not only would it be difficult (or nearly impossible) to occupy that position in consumers minds - we would have a hard time justifying payment for a service people think should be free.

3. They can’t communicate their positioning
Many companies never develop a concise messaging platform. And many who do forget that you need to reinforce your positioning in every customer experience. That means your website, creative, messaging, sales interactions, customer support interactions, email correspondence, packaging, etc. Every touch point with a customer should reinforce your positioning.

4. They try to copy other people’s positioning
By definition, your positioning should be unique. I see a lot of  startups copying Steve Jobs' famous “10,000 songs in your pocket” positioning that he introduced with the iPod. Today I’ve seen “a parking spot in your pocket”, a “handyman in your pocket”, and all kinds of weird things you would never want in your pocket. Don’t copy other people’s positioning. Do the hard work of developing your own. The goal isn’t to be clever - it’s to be effective.


After talking to customers, I like to create several perceptual maps with opposing attributes such as: economical vs. expensive, boring vs. cool, consumer vs. enterprise, daily use vs. special occasion. These maps help you identify unoccupied positions in the market. Then, develop your messaging platform.

The best way to test your positioning is to simply ask people how they would describe your product to other people. If they consistently cite the same thing that’s on your messaging platform - you’re doing a good job of reinforcing your positioning.

Here are a few other ways to test your positioning:

  • Customer surveys - how would you describe us to a friend?
  • In-person focus groups (Craigslist can be a great source)
  • 10-second Starbucks test (show your homepage to someone in line at Starbucks and ask them to tell you what the company does)
  • Email prospecting tests
  • Google and Facebook Ad tests

So before you spend a bunch of money on awareness and lead generation, make sure you’ve nailed your positioning. Your product (and budget) depends on it.

What else? How are you developing and testing your positioning?