By George Foster, President of Foster Marketing Communications

Much has been made of the term “branding” in the past decade. However, decades before branding was a hot marketing topic, the descriptor du jour was“positioning.”

Nearly 30 years ago, Al Ries and Jack Trout penned their seminal bookPositioning: The Battle for Your Mind. In fact, we still have a half-dozen, age-worn copies of the paperback version in our agency library.

The main premise of the book was that the essence to creating a brand and being a brand leader is to be first in the mind, not necessarily first in the market.

This was brought home to me again last week when I saw a TV story on theSnuggie™. For those of you who aren’t familiar with a Snuggie, it’s a body-length blanket with sleeves usually made of fleece material. It is similar in design to a bathrobe and is meant to be worn backward (i.e. with the opening in the back).

As of January 2009, more than 20 million Snuggies had been sold, at anywhere from $15-$20 apiece. That’s nearly $4 billion in sales. In fact, the Snuggie is a staple for our ladies in the Houston office.

The “Snuggie” brand of sleeved blankets became a pop culture phenomenon after a direct response commercial promoting the product was aired, leading to a mocking of the product and its commercial by comedians such as Jay Leno, Ellen DeGeneres, Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, Whoopi Goldberg and Tim Burton. This month, 20,000 Cleveland Cavalier fans wore Snuggies at a game, setting a world record.

However, it wasn’t the first.

What is interesting is that the Snuggie wasn’t the first sleeved blanket in the market. That distinction goes to the Slanket™.

In 1997, Gary Clegg, a freshman at the University of Maine, cut a hole in a blanket and began to market it. Here’s how he described it:

“One subzero night in 1998, during my first semester of college, I could not escape Maine’s winter bite. While watching Late Night with Conan O’Brien, I decided I needed to tear a hole in my sleeping bag so I could keep my upper body warm as I channel-surfed during the commercial breaks. During Christmas vacation I commissioned the first Slanket to be made by my mother … and it was born.”

First, he sold his blankets on chat sites and blogs; he couldn’t afford TV ads. By 2007, he was selling his Slankets on QVC – and on one show sold 17,000 blankets in 11 minutes. Unfortunately, the Slanket wasn’t patentable.

When the economy turned south, the Snuggie snuck in.

“We did have unique timing,” said Scott Boilen, president of Allstar Products Group, a leading direct response and consumer products and the marketer for Snuggie. “The recession and the car companies and financials pulled out of the advertising market so we had a 90-day window during the fall of 2008 and we swooped in and ran every bit of media we could.”

Those forgotten firsts.

To demonstrate the power of first in the mind, not first in the market: does anyone remember Hurley? Hurley built the first washing machine, but the brand never got into the mind.

Duryea built the first automobile in America, but the brand never got into the mind. Ford was the first brand in the mind and is still the leading automobile brand in America today.

Du Mont built the first television set, but the brand never got in the mind.

There are even more applications of this principle. Take the iPod, the brand that turned around Apple Computer.

Apple wasn’t the first MP3 player with a disk drive. More than a year before Apple introduced the iPod in November 2001, Creative Technology Ltd., a Singapore company, was selling the Creative Nomad Jukebox, an MP3 player with a disk drive, in the U.S. market. In addition, the Jukebox had a 6-gigabyte hard drive versus the 5 gigabytes for the initial iPod.

What happened? Ries, in a recent blog, said four things went wrong for Creative Technology:

• Line extension. Creative Technology was already selling two other players with basically the same name and limited memory (only hold about 20 songs).

• Generic name.“Creative” is a generic name, not a brand name.

Long, complicated name. Compare “Creative Nomad Jukebox” (7 syllables) versus iPod (2 syllables).

Lack of focus. Besides an MP3 player, Creative Technology made many other products including digital cameras, graphic accelerator cards, modems, CD and DVD drives, PC speakers, audio chips and electronic musical instruments.

Therefore, even though you might be first in the market (like the Slanket and the Creative Nomad Jukebox), you’re better served if you’re first in the mind (like the Snuggie and the iPod).

For more information on how we can put you first in the mind of your potential customers, call or email us today.