Positioning is an essential concept in communication management, public relations, and marketing communication. The process of positioning includes identifying, defining, and managing the perception relevant audiences have of a particular organization, product, person, or idea. Three lines of thought relevant to communication theory have emerged during the last decades: strategic positioning, positioning strategies, and discursive positioning.
In line with the coalition and stakeholder theory of the firm (Freeman 1984), companies can be conceptualized as a “negotiated enactment of stakeholder interests” (Heath 1994, 147). Resulting from this ongoing process is the strategic position of a company in the market and in society. Theories of corporate communication (van Riel & Fombrun 2007; Zerfass 2007) argue that this position has to serve as the starting point for developing communication programs. Strategic positioning thus constructs a frame of reference for public relations and marketing. For example, the website of Merrill Lynch & Co, Inc., states: “Merrill Lynch has positioned itself to be the preeminent global investment bank, wealth management and advisory partner, an essential partner to its client.” This gives a clear orientation for the company’s communication management, which has to identify and facilitate different facets of this position in the minds of customers, prospects, employees, financial journalists, and other relevant stakeholders.
There is also a reverse relation between strategic positioning and communication. Professional communication helps to (re)position the company by gathering information and cultivating relationships (Steyn 2007), which might foster business routines (motivating employees, influencing customers’ preferences, securing the license to operate) and build immaterial capital (reputation, brands, trust, legitimacy). The need for integrating communication programs and positioning goals stimulates the development of management tools like corporate communication scorecards, which try to map those interdependencies.
The second area of discussion is positioning strategies. Within marketing theory, the term “positioning” was coined by Jack Trout (1969) in a journal article. He expanded and deepened the concept together with Al Ries. Their popular book Positioning: The battle for your mind (Ries & Trout 1981) defines positioning as the ownership of a concept or word in the (potential) customer’s mind, relative to the position of the company’s competitors. In this narrow sense, positioning is part of the management process that plans, implements, and evaluates public relations and marketing strategies. Positioning begins with identifying the cognitive structures stakeholders use to define a product or service.
For example, automobiles are conceptualized as sportive, luxurious, reliable, powerful, safe, stylish, or comfortable. In a second step, companies have to concentrate on an auspicious segment and make people think that its own products or services are the best within this area. By doing so, Mercedes has succeeded in occupying the position “luxury and reliability” for decades. Volvo was the first to claim the category “safe car” with great success, but partly lost this position to Renault at the beginning of the twenty-first century. In a third step, communication measures have to be oriented toward the positioning goal. For example, Mercedes concentrates the majority of its advertisements and press campaigns on attributes that sustain its traditional perception. Renault, in contrast, implemented its new positioning strategy by visualizing the safety of its automobiles in a series of commercials and referring extensively to the high level of quality standards reached by its automobiles in media relations.
Finally, a quite distinctive, but nevertheless fruitful, understanding of positioning has been developed within speech philosophy and social psychology: discursive positioning. Positioning theory as conceptualized by Rom Harré (Harré & van Langenhove 1999) is an interactionist concept influenced by Wittgenstein, Vygotsky, and Goffman. It studies the nature and change of rights and duties in small-scale relationships. Harré criticizes role theory and theatrical metaphors of enactment for being too static and ontological.
Discursive positioning argues that social structure is rather immanent than real and arises from fluid patterns of positioning. In social interactions, people use communication to explain their own positions, defend them, and alter them. Often, they also try to position others as misinformed, wrong, or immoral. As a consequence, positions are dynamic and always linked to specific relationships where they are tested and legitimized. The concept of discursive positioning is instructive for a variety of fields within communication studies, e.g. for studying interpersonal communication and organizational communication. It might also be used as a basic theory for communication management and marketing communication.
According to the rhetorical and interpretive paradigm of corporate communication (Heath 2001), companies strive to persuade others as well as themselves by positioning their self-concepts, cultures, brands, products, and services. This takes places within a wide variety of communicative settings, ranging from personal interactions to corporate media, online channels, and the mass media. As a consequence, the dynamic concept of discursive positioning has to take into account the rules and resources imposed by society and its particular communication system.
- Freeman, R. E. (1984). Strategic management: A stakeholder approach. Boston: Pitman.
- Harré, R., & van Langenhove, L. (eds.) (1999). Positioning theory: Moral contexts of intentional action. Oxford: Blackwell.
- Heath, R. L. (1994). Management of corporate communication. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Heath, R. L. (2001). A rhetorical enactment rationale for public relations. In R. L. Heath (ed.), Handbook of public relations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 31–50.
- Ries, A., & Trout, J. (1981). Positioning: The battle for your mind. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Steyn, B. (2007). Contribution of public relations to organizational strategy formulation. In E. Toth (ed.), The future of excellence in public relations and communication management. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 137–172.
- Trout, J. (1969). “Positioning” is a game people play in today’s me-too market place. Industrial Marketing, 54(6), 51–55.
- van Riel, C. B. M., & Fombrun, C. (2007). Essentials of corporate communication. New York: Routledge.
- Zerfass, A. (2007). Unternehmenskommunikation und Kommunikationsmanagement. In M. Piwinger & A. Zerfass (eds.), Handbuch Unternehmenskommunikation. Wiesbaden: Gabler, pp. 21–70.