Grumpy Old Man: Jack Trout’s “In Search of the Obvious”


Does anyone like to listen to grumpy old men?

Jack Trout, who co-authored together with Al Ries the original “Positioning”, is obviously suffering from the “Innovator’s Dilemma”. He keeps repeating his same old story in a voice that gets whinier and whinier. I have just listened through the audio version of his most recent rendering In Search of the Obvious: The Antidote for Today’s Marketing Mess (link goes to Amazon).

And although he is right in many points, it is almost physically painful to see how little a once smart guy can move ahead in more than thirty years. Particularly if, like me, you’ve had more than one filling from his canteen of wisdom: the 1981 Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, the wildly popular The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, the New Positioning, Differentiate or Die, or the Power of Simplicity (more Amazon links).

Yes, marketing is a mess! I couldn’t agree more. But how do we get out of that mess?According to Trout, we only need to position our brands properly, with a simple (“obvious”) and differentiating promise, and all our problems will go away: mass media advertising will trigger mass sales again; blurred edges between brands and commodities will become sharp again; the “internet” will emerge as what it really is: a secondary distribution channel for still mostly one-way brand messaging because “nobody wants to have a ‘dialogue’ with a brand of toilet paper or water.”

How can an idea or insight that had quite some virtue initially and could still have it today get deflated in such an embarrassing way? Because its originator refuses to adapt it to changes that really happen. Mass media aren’t less ‘mass’ today just because the advertising is so creative and irrelevant. Sharply pointed one-trick brands are something that the global FMCG giants like Unilever, Nestlé and Procter & Gamble are even less willing and able to maintain today. And the web has changed the relationship between customer and brand in a more fundamental way than adding another media.

No wonder that Jack Trout sounds like a disappointed old school teacher when he addresses an audience like the breakfast crowd of an advertising agency in this video:


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