I wonder if back in the 1980s, when Jack Trout and Al Ries were popularizing the concept of brand positioning, they had any idea of how complicated their simple idea would become. Their basic premise was… the barrage of advertising we face every day forces us to put brands into pigeonholes (or positions), and that once we position a brand, it tends to say there.

Today, we often overlook the Ries and Trout Theory: positioning is what consumers do naturally. As marketers, we have complex formulas that articulate how we would like consumers to see our brand, and we develop headlines and graphics to communicate that position; but we can’t complete the process. We can say that “At Avis, we try harder,” but only a consumer can choose to accept that messaging.

I remain passionate about positioning. I’ve learned that often the best thing that I can do is get out of the way, let the brand team talk, and allow the “truth” emerge. It’s a bit like being a midwife – I’m just there to watch the baby arrive and swab it off. I usually interfere only when the process begins go off track, usually because one or more “bad ideas” has taken hold of the process. Here are a few of the most frequent offenders.

Bad idea #1. Positioning based on market research. This is especially foolhardy if you are a sucker for numbers: “38% of doctors liked ‘the only once-a-day treatment for disease X,’ but “31% preferred ‘the first of a new class of blah-blah inhibitors.” Not only are these number unreliable (the 38% who liked your first message may never write your drug anyway); but they also lead to hybrid positions: “The only once-a-day blah-blah inhibitor that treats this and that.”

Bad idea #2. Position based on features. Your brand may stand apart from its competitors on the basis of product features (e.g., a 12-hour half life or a unique MOA); but those facts won’t provide the doctor with a rationale for writing it. If you position based on features, you’re basically saying: “What you see is what you get, position it yourself.”You want to focus solely on product benefits to both doctor and patient

Bad idea #3. Position based on your sales budget. Years ago, my former agency was hired to launch a drug that had been developed specifically to reduce the risk of death in hospitalized patients who had survived a heart attack. It was an add-on; but it contributed a significant reduction in mortality. (I’m being a little cagey here with the specifics because I don’t want to embarrass any parties.)

The problem was that a few senior people at the client decided that the drug should be positioned for lowering blood pressure. Their rationale was that the antihypertensive market was far larger than acute care. Why not shoot for the moon and try to create a billion dollar blockbuster? Never mind the fact that when used to lower blood pressure, the drug had to be dosed BID and even then was only modestly effective.

Everyone on the brand team was appalled. It would have been like entering a Clydesdale in the Kentucky Derby – just to have a shot at a million dollar purse. Testing this horrible idea consumed hundreds of hours of market research. I was told that in research some doctors had to bite their lips to avoid laughing out loud at the profile. Finally, the C-suiters abandoned the idea. The drug was eventually launched with the correct positioning, and continues to achieve steady growth globally within its category.

But enough with the bad ideas: Here’s a good one: Position with your gut.

Deep inside, you and your team already know what your product is all about. You’ve done your homework and absorbed every fact that you can lay your hands on. Equally important, you know your audience. You’ve sold to these doctors – and if you haven’t, you’ve traveled with reps and watched them sell. If you don’t know what real-world needs your product will fill – then who will? If you don’t know the messages that will resonate most, then who else? You just need to be honest with yourself.

Doctors have a toolbox in their head; most of the niches are filled, but some are empty. When you offer them a new product, you had better be able to tell them quickly and accurately the benefits and the ideal patient for the drug.

That’s it. There’s nothing mysterious about the process. And you already have one of the most accurate tools that nature has evolved. It’s visceral – it’s your gut positioning system.