Ries and Trout explain that while positioning begins with a product, the concept really is about positioning that product in the mind of the customer. This approach is needed because consumers are bombarded with a continuous stream of advertising, with advertisers spending several hundred dollars annually per consumer in the U.S. The consumer's mind reacts to this high volume of advertising by accepting only what is consistent with prior knowledge or experience.
Consumers rank brands in their minds. If a brand is not number one, then to be successful it somehow must relate itself to the number one brand. A campaign that pretends that the market leader does not exist is likely to fail. Avis tried unsuccessfully for years to win customers, pretending that the number one Hertz did not exist. Finally, it began using the line,
When there is a clear market leader in the mind of the consumer, it can be nearly impossible to displace the leader, especially in the short term. On the other hand, a firm usually can find a way to position itself in relation to the market leader so that it can increase its market share. It usually is a mistake, however, to challenge the leader head-on and try to displace it.