Does your Radio Positioning Suck?


“If you repeat something often enough, folks will believe it.”

That’s one of those old radio maxims that results from years of radio stations repeating positioning messages and years of consumers repeating them back to us.

But do they really believe the messages? Or are they just skilled at repeating them back to us?

And what if the message they’re repeating isn’t credible?

And what if you know it isn’t credible and they know it isn’t credible?

Or, worse, what if they don’t care whether it’s credible or not? In other words, what if your message matters much more to you than to its intended target? Have you really achieved anything? Have you really communicated anything? Have you really “positioned” anything? Or is your messaging one big exercise in rote memorization?

Saying stuff on-air does not make it so. And repeating back a message does not mean consumers believe it or even that it matters to them.

A message has to be credible and it has to matter to the audience its meant for.

Otherwise it doesn’t matter at all.

Here’s an illustration of my point in a 30-second video. Please watch:

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  • Jeff Schmidt

    Totally with you on this one, Mark.

    I think we’ve both been in more than a few research meetings where researchers ask people something like – “who is the live concert station?”and when a plurality of people pick the station that happens to say it the most on-air – the room of Radio execs erupts in high fives and back slapping. No one ever follows up about if it means anything or is even “true”.

    Coincidently, I just published an Audio Blog about this today called “3 EASY STEPS TO THE PERFECT RADIO SLOGAN”

    I wasn’t able to attack the idea with the brevity of your video – but this might be enjoyable for you and your readers.


  • Cool, Jeff, thanks for the tip about your post! Everybody check it out!

  • Interesting reads from you and Jeff. While I agree with you in principle and in practice (I hate people demeaning radio as a repetition-only medium), research proves the opposite.

    Basically messages can be divided into two categories – those we have to process (cognitive) and those we don’t. The first, such as adverts, tend to be longer and benefit from a certain amount of repetition. This then reaches saturation and it’s effectiveness drops off and then goes negative. The messages we don’t have to process, such as short positioning statements – ‘WXYZ the best variety of oldies’ – are subject to an effect called ‘Illusion of Truth’ (IOT). The ‘feeling of familiarity’ give it validation – hence listeners starts to believe that WXYZ has the best variety of oldies!

    I know, I don’t like it either. It’s counter-intuitive but that’s what the numbers show. trust me – I’m a psychologist!


  • But these psychological truths skirt the issues of credibility and meaningfulness.
    Let’s just take credibility….

    The gas station in my video can repeat its quality coffee message as often as it likes and in as many ways as it likes, that will not make it any more credible. I would put that in your category of “messages that don’t need to be processed.” Nevertheless, the feeling of familiarity is not going to make this message any more effective. And I’d bet that by standing outside the building and asking people “Does this gas station have ‘fine gourmet coffee’ or not?” the warmth of familiarity is unlikely to lead them to say “yes.”
    As for meaningfulness, a phrase that sinks into consciousness because it’s repeated may, as you indicate, be repeated back, but that still does not imply that consumers care about it.

  • Ah, now you cut to the chase – credibility (and meaning).

    Validation comes from repeating a message that doesn’t have to be processed. There are many examples, but the one I always refer to is ‘The World’s Favourite Airline’. I don’t know if British Airways was the World’ favourite airline or not – I don’t even know how you would go about measuring such a thing. Is it credible? – Yes. Did they put that strap out repeatedly, everywhere? Yes. When the campaign was effective you only had to ask someone ‘who the World’s favourite airline was?’ to get the ‘right’ answer. It was perceived as credible, it became familiar and validated on recall.

    As for meaningfulness, how about ‘Finger Lickin’ Good’ – KFC. This says to me ‘come to KFC and eat food with your fingers and get messy’. To someone else these three words probably mean ‘the food at KFC is so tasty you’ll be licking your fingers so you don’t miss any’. Meaning, ultimately, rests with the listener, viewer, reader, audience, etc.

    It’s a fascinating topic.

  • It seems to me that what you’re arguing is that we can say literally anything we want as long as it’s repeated often enough. And that will create both credibility and meaning.
    This sure sounds like the kind of conversation we’d be having with Don Draper in 1965, not the conversation we should be having with ad-savvy, info-overloaded post-millennial consumers in 2014.

  • No. What I am saying is this. A very short strap (not ‘literally anything’) can be repeated and as long as it doesn’t require us to ‘think’ then it will have very little ‘burn’ on us. We become familiar with it and we give it validation. Yes it was born out of research originally done in the late 1960’s but repeated constantly every decade since then – most recently 2009. What doesn’t benefit over the longterm from repetition is the more complex strap or positioning stanza (or 30s ad) which we are required to think about. Mastercard were pushing it with ‘There are some things money can’t buy. For everything else, there’s MasterCard’.

    There’s a myriad of other techniques used (by communicators) that radio employ – humour, sound effects, voice, etc. Repetition is just one of them. It’s timeless because it keys into something deep within our cognitive DNA. It’s been around since forever. Think back to radio in the 30s & 40s -‘You’re always right with Autolite’ and ‘Good health to all from Rexall’ – short straps often repeated in their adverts. In a print medium, the April edition of Vogue used visual repetition to great effect (not that I am a Vogue subscriber you understand).

  • We need to separate the repeating of useful messages and the use of a tagline that is neither credible nor meaningful. The latter is what this post is about. This post is not about advertising in general.
    On the tagline issue:

    Maybe it’s just me, but all of these tagline examples you’ve provided – and many others – strike me as exactly what’s wrong with advertising messaging and exactly why brands are challenged and consumers are empowered by the Internet and the cacophony surrounding brands on digital platforms. It’s why word of mouth is more powerful than word of tagline.
    “You’re always right with Autolite?” The benefits are vague, the differentiation, if any, is diffuse, the puffery is turned up to “11,” and there’s a sketchy relationship between the consumer problems solved and the brand message itself. No wonder that Starbucks, for example, does not use the tagline “make your day the Starbucks way.” In fact, Starbucks doesn’t have a tagline at all.
    I think, in other words, this is exactly why consumers value brands which value them irrespective of what their tagline reads, if any. And it’s exactly why advertising is trivialized as manipulation by critics in some circles.
    After all, this post began with a gas station proclaiming the quality of its coffee. They can repeat that message as often as they want. It makes it neither memorable nor useful to the consumer.
    Thanks for your thoughtful and informed comments!

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