Think Small: How to Find the Most Powerful Position Inside Your Customer’s Mind

Think Small.jpeg

Think small.

These two words headlined the iconic 1959 VW Beetle ad that would eventually be named by Ad Age as the top advertising campaign of the 20th century.

And this ad offers valuable insight into a timeless marketing principle for how entrepreneurs can strengthen their position within their customer’s mind: Find a hole and fill it.

The VW Challenge

Consider the headwinds Volkswagen faced when introducing the Beetle to the U.S. market in 1959.

  • It was only 14 years since the end of World War II, and here was this German automaker audacious enough to think that any American would want to buy a car that had been one of Hitler’s pet projects.

  • And at the time, Americans appeared to be in love with big, fast, beautiful cars as a status symbol—and that’s what U.S. automakers were delivering.

  • So, here comes the Beetle. It's everything the American cars weren't: small, ugly, and slow.

If you’re VW, how do you break through? What’s your path to success in the U.S. market?

You find a hole—a unique position in the customer’s mind—and fill it. In other words, instead of thinking big, like the crowd is doing, you “Think small.”

And that’s precisely what VW did with great success, as sales took off. The ad didn’t try to position the Beetle to outdo the competition on their turf—you know, to be bigger, faster, or more prestigious. Instead, the automaker staked claim to its own territory in the U.S. market—one where it could stand out—with an ad campaign that gave voice to an emerging group of customers who wanted to go against the grain and own a car that encapsulated their counter-cultural ideals.

As Ad Age put it, “The car that presented itself as the antidote to conspicuous consumption was itself the badge product for those who fancied themselves a cut above, or at least invulnerable to, the tacky blandishments of the hidden persuaders. ‘Think small’ was thinking quite big, actually. The rounded fenders were, in effect, the biggest tail fins of all, for what Volkswagen sold with its seductive, disarming candor was nothing more lofty than conspicuously inconspicuous consumption. Beetle ownership allowed you to show off that you didn't need to show off.”

What’s the lesson here for positioning our products and services?

Find the Hole: The Open Position in the Prospect’s Mind

In their classic book, “Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind,” Al Ries and Jack Trout put it like this: “How do you find an open position in the prospect’s mind? The French have a marketing expression that sums up this strategy rather neatly. Cherchez le créneau. 'Look for the hole.' Cherchez le créneau and then fill it. … To find a créneau, 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 créneau by going west.”

Here are a few examples of créneaus (or holes in the market) that your product or service could fill:

  • Size—big vs. small

  • Price—low cost vs. premium

  • Category—demographics (gender, age group, industry segment, job title) vs. mass market

  • Business model—hourly rate vs. flat fee, retainer vs. pay-for-performance, free (ad supported) vs. subscription

  • Usability—simplicity vs. complexity (think Apple vs. Microsoft)

The idea here is differentiation. If competitors are moving in one direction, go another. Stake claim to a market position in the prospect's mind that makes you stand out.  Otherwise, if you're like everybody else—merely trying to be "better" than the others—your message will be drowned by the noise.

Defy Conventional Wisdom

As Ries and Trout put it, “With two simple words, this headline [“Think small”] did two things at once. It stated the Volkswagen position, and it challenged the prospect’s assumption that bigger is necessarily better.”

So, what long-held assumptions are you seeking to challenge with your product or service? Or, put another way, how are you defying conventional wisdom—the beliefs many people take for granted to be true?

Your answer becomes your créneau. Here are a few examples to illustrate this idea:

Freelance writer

  • Créneau: Business model

  • Pitch:Conventional wisdom for freelancers is to charge by the hour. But this can create a lot of uncertainty for the client. That’s why I quote flat fees for each project so that there are no unpleasant surprises for clients. After all, it doesn’t matter how low a writer’s hourly rate is if it takes them too long to get the project right.

Commercial heating and air contractor

  • Créneau: Price

  • Pitch:Conventional wisdom for commercial HVAC contractors is to ‘earn the business' with the lowest price. But the property managers who choose the lowest bid often get frustrated with the lower standard of service they receive. And when the equipment breaks down, and air doesn't blow cold, that makes their customers uncomfortable, directly impacting their business operations. So, while we may not be the lowest price provider upfront, we're usually the lowest cost in the long run by ensuring each job is done right the first time."

Trade publication

  • Créneau: Category

  • Pitch: “Conventional wisdom for trade publications in the fleet management sector is to cover vehicles, equipment, and companies that will appeal to the largest possible audience. After all, that’s what would make it most attractive to advertisers, right? But what we’ve found is that an audience in a highly specialized market, like the utility sector, needs more industry-specific content that addresses their unique needs and challenges. That’s why we’ve dedicated our resources to focus on the utility fleet professional—to bring more value to our readers and our advertisers who want to reach them.”

The Bottom Line

In a world of increasing distraction, there's only a limited amount of "real estate" inside your customer's mind where you can make an impact with your marketing message. So, avoid the crowd and "Think small." Find the hole—the créneau—and fill it.

Sean M. Lyden is CEO of Lyden Communications LLC, an Orlando, Fla.-based consulting firm that helps companies use storytelling to unlock sales growth.