The Ladder of Importance

The goal of successful advertising is to be known before you are needed. But if you compete in a crowded business category you must also be recognized as the first choice, the brand name that sits atop the Ladder of Importance in the consumer’s mind.

Once “accepted” information enters our brain, we tend to organize our thoughts in order of preference, putting the things we like most at the top of our list. List-building is a key organizational characteristic of the human brain because of the vast amount of information we are exposed to and our own natural limitations.

In their book, Positioning, the battle for your mind, Jack Trout and Al Ries first introduced the metaphor of a mental ladder to help explain how the brain classifies information. The product or service you like the most within a given product category will be on the top rung of the ladder. Your second preference will be on the second rung, your third preference on rung number three and so on. Imagine a different ladder in your mind for each different product category.

When a consumer places your business name on their ladder, they have placed your name into their memory. But how many rungs can there be on a ladder? How many names can people remember?

Harvard psychologist Dr. George A. Miller is the author of The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two. In this highly respected work, Miller presents his findings on the study of memory performance.  Miller observed that working memory has limitations. We can only keep track of so many things at one time. His work suggests that our memory span is around seven elements at a time. The limits of memory span were by the type of information. Subjects could recall numbers better than letters (six) and letters better than words (five). Memory span was also influenced by the length and familiarity of the elements.

With so many factors influencing working memory, Miller proposed that the memory span in young adults was four to seven items, less with children and older adults.

But some ladders will be longer than others depending on the importance and your interest level of that category.

The value of a position on the Ladder of Importance is significant. History suggests that the company that ranks at the top very often has twice as much market share as the company on the next rung and that company has twice as much market share as the company on the third rung. If your company isn’t in the top few positions, there isn’t much market share left over.

The goal of any advertising plan should be to rank in the top position on the Ladder of Importance within your product category. However, merely flooding the market with your message won’t elevate your business to the top rung of the Ladder of Importance. Without an emotional message that speaks to the heart of the consumer, your business risks advertising into the “Zone of Irritation.”

Remember, it takes all four of the Four Keys to Advertising Success to reach the top of the Ladder. You must have a consistent plan that has the proper balance of both reach and frequency for your budget and your message must be relevant to the consumer’s needs and desires.

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