A stack of pancakes.

People seem to naturally rank things. They list things in order. They tend to remember things at the tops of the various lists.

On nearly any list, most people can remember the top three with little effort. It’s generally accepted that seven is the maximum simultaneous number of items that the average person will remember.

In 1980 consultants Al Ries and Jack Trout suggested that as astute marketers we take advantage of this human characteristic, and “position” our products against whomever tops the list.

This creates a new list, with us at the top. That makes it easier to remember.

One of their examples was 7-Up

As a soft drink it was way down the list. As the “Uncola” it was number one, beating out Coke.

As a soft drink, 7-Up needs you to remember Coke, Pepsi, Royal Crown, Dr. Pepper, Mountain Dew, before you’re likely to remember 7-Up.

As the Uncola, 7-Up needs you only to remember 7-Up.

The Uncola is a marketing position. It’s a mental shortcut. It let’s you get your message across in just a few seconds. A marketing position reminds your customers “Here’s why we’re worth recommending. Here’s why your friends and colleagues will be glad you told them about us.”

Let’s apply this concept to an industry familiar to all of us.

Hamburger Restaurants

How many hamburger restaurants can you remember? Four? Six? Most people can remember seven. Did anyone do nine (without peeking)?

Suppose you have a hankerin’ for a double cheeseburger. Does any particular restaurant come to mind?

Here are the rankings of hamburger restaurants in the U.S:

  1. McDonald’s
  2. Wendy’s
  3. Burger King
  4. Sonic
  5. Jack In The Box
  6. Dairy Queen
  7. Hardees
  8. Roy Rogers
  9. Carl’s Jr.
  10. Rax
  11. WhatABurger
  12. White Castle
  13. Krystal
  14. Fudrucker’s
  15. A&W
  16. Ralley’s

How many of these names did you remember?

Our question was, “Does any particular restaurant come to mind?”

Did anyone say “IHOP?”

Silly question?

Perhaps. After all, you can get a double cheeseburger at IHOP.

Even though they don’t mention cheeseburgers in their ads, IHOP has them on the menu.

So, why does IHOP not mention cheseburgers in their ads?

Two reasons: the cost of advertising; and the number of names down the list IHOP would find themselves.

Share of mind roughly equates to share of market.

In order to to create a space in your memory and help you to remember that IHOP has burgers, they’d have to beat out all of the hamburger chains listed.

They’d have to help you to remember at least seventeen down on this list. That’s a formidible undertaking. And, since we can predict minimal success, it’s likely to be very expensive when costs are compared to results.

No matter how much they spend, IHOP will never have more than a tiny fraction of the hamburger market.

How many pancake restaurants can you name?


So, instead of hoping that you’ll remember at least sixteen other restaurants and still have mental space (and frankly, the willingness) to remember IHOP, they don’t mention burgers at all in their ads.

Instead, they make it easier for you to remember IHOP by becoming the top of a completely different list.

Instead of getting the crumbs of the hamburger market, they get the biggest share of the breakfast market. And in the minds of the public, IHOP pretty much owns the pancake position.

Marketing position = “specialization”

Frequently when I recommend specialization, people think I’m talking about refusing business.

I’m not.

Our objective is to capture a larger share of market. The actual competition for a greater share of awareness happens within shoppers’ minds.

By specializing we create a position at the top of some small list (market) rather than attempt to compete for awareness from way down a much bigger list (market).

Specialists do not refuse customer’s money * at the cash register. Their ads just don’t talk about things that are not likely to be remembered.

Let’s take a test

  1. IHOP is famous for _______?
  2. Waffle House is famous for _______?
  3. Tony Roma’s is famous for ______?
  4. Marie Calender’s is famous for _______?
  5. Spaghetti Warehouse is famous for _______?
  6. Black Angus is famous for ______?
  7. Olive Garden is famous for ______?
  8. Lotus Garden is famous for _______?
  9. Panda Express is famous for _______?
  10. Pizza Hut is famous for ______?
  11. Taco Bell is famous for _______?
  12. Kentucky Fried Chicken is famous for ______?
  13. McDonalds is famous for _______?
  14. Red Lobster is famous for _______?
  15. Hometown Buffet / Old Country Buffet is famous for _______?
  16. Benihana is famous for _______?

Humm. Same number as the list of hamburger restaurants. And yet, you do remember most of these.

Each has created a unique marketing position, and that position places each of them the top of a completely different mental list. Each has stopped trying to get a smaller share of the “dining out” market, and is instead competing for dominance within their speciality.

Your business is not likely to be a restaurant. Regardless, to compete in the minds of shoppers, it needs a position. That position will be a specialty.

What is your business’ position? Owning one is almost a requirement when you’re fishing for customers.

Your Guide,
Chuck McKay

Your Fishing for Customers guide, Chuck McKay, gets people to buy more of what you sell.

What’s your company known for? Need help narrowing the choices? Call Chuck at 317-207-0028 to discuss helping her to tell the story well. Or, you can reach him by email at ChuckMcKay@ChuckMcK

* Ok. I lied. Specialists do turn away some potential business.

A Chinese restaurant will not maintain its position in the minds of customers by adding Mexican dishes to the menu.

If you found a menu that contained Chinese dishes, and Mexican delicacies, and Italian cooking, as well as burgers, would you believe the food was likely to be good? Or would you assume that these people can’t possibly excell at all different styles of cooking?