Red Ball Jets: The Promise and Perils of Positioning

When I was a child I saw TV commercials for sneakers called Red Ball Jets. They showed kids leaping over wagons, hurtling tall bushes and outrunning big dogs. I still remember the tagline: “Red Ball Jets. They make you run faster and jump higher.” The shoes possessed supernatural powers. I had to have a pair!

After some polite cajoling, I gained these coveted shoes, tightened the laces, and attempted to vault a sturdy shrub. The plant won that contest. This was my introduction to the hazards of the marketplace. Caveat emptor!

Despite being duped at this early age, I entered the marketing profession. Through this career choice I find myself answering to others who’ve been shortchanged in the marketplace. Consequently, it’s no surprise to me that opinion polls show my profession is consistently held in low regard; the clergy typically hold top honors.

Awhile ago I went to dinner with an old friend and his wife, who is, in fact, a minister. His wife related how one of her seminary professors believed advertising is the one industry with no justification for being. She tended to agree with her professor, but wanted to hear my side of the story. I explained how advertising helps satisfy wants and needs, accelerates innovation, reduces cost, provides jobs, and finances the free press. Some of these ideas were new to her, but the chief issue seemed to be the mental and ecological disruption caused by unfettered commerce — true problems in my view.

Fortunately the marketplace provides some justice. Red Ball Jets are history. Products and services that don’t live up to their claims go away. On Main Street, every day is Election Day.

To garner votes in markets, opportunities must be presented or problems solved; products and services must be conveniently offered at competitive prices and then carefully positioned and promoted. For example, Red Ball Jets claimed to make kids run faster and jump higher. They failed to deliver on their promise. Nike said Just Do It — asking us to keep promises to ourselves — and went on to become number one in the athletic shoe market.

The comparison is illuminating. A position does not have to state a fact, offer a benefit, or be explicit. In fact, the best marketing messages give people room to draw their own conclusions. Crafting these messages requires a deep understanding of customers.

Learning about customers can result in surprising insights. For example, I’ve discovered that hardheaded electrical engineers value good-looking circuit boards, even though circuit boards are hidden inside electronic devices. I’ve learned that people go to upscale restaurants in part to feed their egos. And I found out that numbers-oriented market researchers seek creativity. These simple insights helped shape distinctive positions that became the basis for successful marketing campaigns.

In a perfect world, every product would be well positioned. Toward this end, here are three suggestions for people who market product or services:

1. Uncover the non-obvious motivations of your customers.
2. Differentiate your offering in a way that is meaningful to customers.
3. Communicate a promise you can deliver on.

Free choice and open markets will correct any imbalances. If a product over-promises or fails to deliver what people want, it won’t last long. Every purchase is a vote. In the case of Red Ball Jets, people literally voted with their feet. This is the peril of positioning.

At the same time, the right position can tip the scales in your favor. This is the promise of positioning.

About The Author

Dan Wallace

Dan Wallace is the principal of Idea Food and a co-author of The Physics of Brand. Dan speaks on brand innovation and leads workshops to enhance the customer experience. He also works with leaders and teams to create brand strategies and marketing plans.  www.ideafood.com  @ideafood


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