13 Positioning Principles From Hungry Hungry Hippos
Aug 16, 2021
Positioning is like playing a game of Hungry Hungry Hippos.
An ad from the 80s describes it well:
“If you wanna win the game,
You’ve gotta take good aim,
And get the most marbles!
Hungry Hungry Hippos is the name of the game.
And whoever’s hippo gets the most marbles wins!”
If the marbles are your potential buyers, and if your product/service is the hippo, you’d better position your hippo to gobble up enough marbles so it doesn’t starve.
I know it's a bit wild to compare positioning with a simple game of Hungry Hungry Hippos…
But I wanted to find an analogy that would make this seemingly complex concept much easier to understand.
Here are 13 positioning principles to follow to take good aim and fatten your hippo (aka positioning your business and grow).
Positioning Principle #1: The game is actually controlled by the marbles.
When the marbles (your potential buyers) encounter your hippo (your product/service) for the first time, they will look at clues to help them figure out what the animal is.
If it lives in a swamp, has a barrel-shaped torso, a wide-opening mouth with large tusks, and a hairless body… It must be a hippo!
In positioning, it doesn’t matter what you think your product/service is; people will categorize your product/service based on what they think it is.
Positioning Principle #2: Don’t start munching at marbles straight away.
I know your hippo is hungry, but...
Before you snap its gaping mouth at some marbles, you should aim first.
Your hippo needs time with the marbles… to observe them, talk to them, hang out with the marble experts that know the board very well.
In positioning, you must map the entire board (the market) before taking aim.
Positioning Principle #3: Your hippo can’t expect to gobble all the marbles if it tries to play on multiple boards (markets) at the same time.
Your hippo will exhaust itself running from board to board.
The marbles won’t be as familiar with your hippo as they are with the other hippos on their board.
Your hippo’s FOMO will ultimately lead to missing out on making the most it can from one board.
In positioning, it’s better to stay put and obsess over the market you’ve picked.
Positioning Principle #4: Your hippo might be tempted to pick the biggest board possible; it’s a bad idea.
Who wouldn’t want to play on a board with marbles beyond measure?
That board is probably occupied by much larger, more aggressive semi aquatic mammals who’ve been there for ages.
Marbles tend to be more loyal to those massive beasts.
In positioning, you can’t expect to win if you try to compete head-to-head against much larger competitors.
Positioning Principle #5: If you try to create a brand new board, your hippo will likely starve to death.
Who wouldn’t want to gobble all the marbles on a board with no other hippos?
When you try to create a new board all to yourself, no marbles will show up at first.
Your hippo will starve to death if it doesn’t have enough fat around its belly.
To survive on a board with no marbles, it will need to be very mature and have food administered through an IV (investors with deep pockets) to last long enough to prove to marbles that the board deserves to exist.
In positioning, don’t try to create a new category, unless you have the know-how and resources to execute the move.
Positioning Principle #6: The best way for your hippo to munch enough marbles is to focus on a small corner of the board.
That’s because those big hippos are too big to be able to reach it.
As a result, those marbles might feel underserved and might be actively looking for a change.
Your hippo’s goal should be to find a corner of the board that is big enough to matter, small enough to lead, and a good fit with your strengths.
It can feed off those underserved marbles for a while before it considers expanding its corner.
In positioning, don’t worry about where you’ll be 10 years from now. You just need to focus on a market big enough to sustain you this year, and then you can think about expanding later.
Positioning Principle #7: The game should actually be called Hungry Hungry Hoofed Animals.
That’s because marbles are funny little things.
When faced with a challenge, not only might they look for solutions from other hippos (direct competitors), but they might also consider hippos' closest living relatives like sperm whales or amazon river dolphins (product alternatives).
Or they might go further and look at all hoofed animals which hippos are part of like pigs, antelopes, llamas... (market alternatives).
In positioning, you’re not just competing against your direct competitors; you’re competing against what your customers would use if you didn’t exist.
Positioning Principle #8: The average marble can’t spot the difference between two hippos.
Your hippo might have slightly longer canines than its neighbor. It might even have a scar on its right side. It might weigh 10kg more than the next hippo.
But from the perspective of the marbles… you all look the same.
In positioning, small differences between you and your competitors don’t matter as much as you think.
Positioning Principle #9: The first glance at your hippo matters a lot.
Marbles are more likely to remember things they’ve learned about your hippo the very first time they come across it.
That’s called the primacy effect.
Make sure your hippo shows his best side so marbles quickly understand what it is.
In positioning, first impressions matter.
Positioning Principle #10: There’s a reason why “hippopotamus” comes from “river horse” in ancient Greek.
Marbles compare animals they don’t know with animals they know.
That’s because they try to save as much brain power as possible by using concepts they already know.
It’s much easier to describe a hippo as a river horse than trying to describe it from scratch.
In positioning, lean on concepts your potential customers already know to help your product/service be noticed and understood.
Positioning Principle #11: Your hippo’s sole focus should be to build a moat.
Your hippo needs a fortress with a deep, broad ditch that provides a line of defense from all the other hoofed animals on the board.
The fortress should be something underserved marbles care about, a lot.
Marbles would travel from afar on the board to find it.
Once your hippo has found that one thing, it should focus all its energy to build the fortress even higher and the moat even deeper.
It shouldn’t be distracted by building tiny little tents in 100 locations.
In positioning, focusing on one thing is a matter of survival.
Positioning Principle #12: Beware of the deadly F.W.M.T.S. hippo trap.
Hippos are greedy creatures who obsess over their next feed.
The F.W.M.T.S. (Forget What Made Them Successful) trap, as coined by positioning experts Jack Trout and Al Ries, looks like a paradise with marbles aplenty.
It could be tempting to leave your position to venture toward this paradise, but it’s just an illusion.
To win the game, your hippo must stay put and believe it’s exactly where it’s supposed to be.
In positioning, consistency is underrated. Keep at it month after month, year after year. Your aim will become better and better as time passes.
Positioning Principle #13: Marbles only consider one or two hippos. They never really look at the entire board.
Marbles are pressed for time. They have other worries. They can’t possibly consider all the hippos that are on the board. It’d be too exhausting.
Instead, they tend to go for the hippos they’ve come across before, even if they might not be objectively best.
In positioning, it pays to be known.
Now it's your time to take good aim and get the most marbles.
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