Dear CMO:
In our recent discussions on “thin ice” and positioning in general, it’s become evident that you can’t be “for” something unless you’ve got something else that you can conveniently be “against.” You can’t take a pro- “take pride in your beer” unless there’s a “beer not worth being proud of” out there potentially distracting your core audience.
You can’t be all in favor of “thinking different” unless there’s a “thinking the same” polar opposite. And how successful would pitchman uber alles Billy Mays be waxing poetic about Oxy-Clean if it weren’t for the poor housefrau disconsolately scubbing away in black and white?
It isn’t enough to position ourselves in isolation. We need to be against something. Even if that “something” doesn’t really exist.
Which is why the Washington Generals play such an important metaphoric role in today’s memo.
To those of you who aren’t familiar with this perennial underdog, the Washington Generals are the hapless basketball team that plays against the Harlem Globetrotters each and every time they play. The Generals, as you can imagine, are a creation of the Globetrotters and serve as a showcase for them. Without the Generals, you’d have a group of very talented basketball players alone on a court displaying trick shots. To empty auditoriums, in all likelihood. The appearance of a contest, no matter how contrived, gives the performance the veneer of tension and puts the Globetrotters’ skills in context.
The Globetrotters need the Generals.
There. You didn’t think I could actually write a quasi-serious piece on the Washington Generals, did you?
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Key Takeaways:
> You can’t be for something unless you’re against something. And that “against something” needs a face, an attitude, and a name. If it doesn’t exist, create it.

> The Washington Generals are a good example of what we refer to as the contrast phenomenon. Ask yourself, “compared to what?” when you’re positioning your brand. More options ‘than what,’ greater focus and domain expertise in back-end financial solutions ‘than what,’ and so on.

> Creating your own mirror image gives you the rare ability not only to frame up the argument to your own liking, it can often give you the opportunity to paint all other potential and existing competitors with the same broad brush. If you stand for “you deserve to know all your options,” you’ve taught your market that competition a) doesn’t provide you with options, b) doesn’t treat you with respect, and c) isn’t honest with you.
> Positioning is one, and usually the first, of several meaningful steps. Set up your positioning here and drive it home with your messaging and social media strategy. Go ahead. Explain how your own Washington Generals doesn’t treat customers with respect, give them options, or act in a truthful way. It’s your soapbox. After all, you made it yourself.
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Fred Smith, founder of Fed Ex, once told us during a talk at Wharton that without Big Brown (UPS), Fed Ex never could have existed. Frankly, in the case of Fed Ex, if UPS didn’t exist they would have had to create it out of thin air and imagination.