Book Review

Jack Trout (2008)
In Search of the Obvious: The Antidote for Today's Marketing Mess
John Wiley and Sons Ltd., United States of America
Price: Rs. 1381/- Hardback, Pages: 224
ISBN: 9780470288597
ISBN (Ten digit): 0470288597
Readership: Professional & Vocational

The Review

The modern marketing world is all about cut throat competition. In such challenging times, effective marketing has become very difficult and therefore, a simplification of the whole process is the need of the hour. Many a times marketing is so simple that professional marketers tend to overlook the most obvious, and effective ideas entirely in an attempt to be clever or creative. This cause of concern is the major explanation for the mess that modern marketing is in at present and is probably one of the foremost reasons for the short tenure of average chief marketing officers in their jobs! In other words, this book is a return to the timeless fundamentals of simplicity and common sense.

Marketing genius, Jack Trout, in this book tries to assert the power of simple and obvious marketing strategies and also the nuisance that get in the way. The author’s major emphasis is on positioning (being the father of positioning) and on differentiating of the brands so that mindless commoditisation of product categories can be stopped. According to him, marketers are becoming uselessly concerned about fancy strategies, Wall Street obligations, high-tech gadgets, quantitative research, entertaining advertisements and whimsical consultants. The book is peppered with modern day examples of companies in dire straits (GM, GE, Kodak, Xerox, Wal-Mart, etc.) and Trout has also suggested solutions to their woes. Furthermore, the book is well endorsed with a wide array of insightful experiences of the author.

Test of Obviousness

In his search for simple and obvious solutions to the modern marketing mess, Jack Trout has borrowed five basic tests of obviousness laid down by Robert R. Updegraff, from his book titled, “Obvious Adams. The Story of a Successful Businessman.” The book was written in 1916 and is considered to be the favourite book of the author. The five tests of common sense that should be taken note by any marketer are:

  • “This problem when solved will be simple.”
  • “Does it check with human nature?”
  • “Put it on paper.”
  • “Does it explode in people’s minds?”
  • “Is the time ripe?”


Just when the economy is going down the tubes and the state of marketing seems like it is at an all time high in terms of confusion, idiocy and meaningless jargon, Jack Trout steps to the plate in the bottom of the ninth with two outs and hits a home run. Keeping the above suggestions in mind, and the fact that consumers are irrational, the author further advocates that  common sense should be the guiding light. Marketers should also be vary of another great reality that the world is so irrational that it cannot be put into mathematical formulas!
He offered these guidelines in search of the obviuos:

  • Good judgement should be based on reality and the ego should not come in the way.
  • Wishful thinking should be avoided.
  • Marketers should be better at listening.
  • Cynicism is a virtue of marketers.


Impediments in the way of the Obvious

--On a visit to the Harvard Business School, Ross Perot observed,“ The trouble with you people is that what you call environmental scanning, I call looking out the window. 

The search for the obvious is not easy. The  forces at play (internal as well as external) sometimes even make it impossible. The author believes the CEO to be the most important link in the search. A CEO should be involved and sure of where he is going, as he is the only person who can effectively take the company out of harms’ way. The author also considers the Wall Street to be one of the biggest hindrances as they tend to push the CEO and his marketing guys into a mess.

Modern gadgets have clouded the minds of businesspeople and this has hindered their ability to think. They have become overwhelmed with information and this has left them with no time to think. Research can also obscure the obvious. A deluge of data should never be allowed to carry away the common sense and the feeling for the market. In this direction, it is apt to quote the author himself—“Everybody is aware of GM and nobody is buying their cars.” Researchers may pledge to reveal attitudes, but attitudes are not a steadfast prophecy of human behaviour. Consumers often talk one way, but act another.

The author has also criticised the internet for the information clutter it is. Contemporary marketers are supposed to be experts at decision making and not an information encyclopaedia. An excess of data clamours for attention and it becomes an intellectual effort just to decide what to ignore and this inexorably, leads to deterioration in the quality of work as well as life. He further goes on to talk about the reliance on word-of-mouth or buzz marketing. He believes that instead of creating hype around it, it should be used just as one of the tools of marketing. The major focus still has to be on the creation of the right product, the right strategy, and the right differentiating idea.

Another obvious problem is the obsession of the advertisers and their agencies with the creation of advertisements that are just entertaining and not for the obvious purpose of selling the product. Trout’s own words clarify the whole thing, “Run advertising that people like but don’t know exactly why they should buy a product or run advertising that people don’t find entertaining but know exactly why they should buy your product instead of a competitor’s product.”  He further adds that slogans should not be just a meaningless set of words but should be a position or differentiating idea. To better understand this he gives the example of Nokia’s slogan, “Connecting People”. This slogan is basic to cell phones and can also be easily expressed by Motorola or Ericsson. However, Nokia should consolidate and differentiate itself on the basis of their leadership position and hence, should be running a slogan as, “The world’s No.1 cell phone.”

Marketing people are also not out of the firing line. Their habit of tinkering with existing status quo is also an obvious problem. The road to chaos is paved with improvements. Most of them get utterly entwined in corporate egos and complicated projects. Jack says, “In all my years in the business, I’ve never seen a marketing person come into a new assignment, look around, and say, ‘Things look pretty good. Let’s not touch a thing.’” The author goes on to state that products should be simple and not do too much, i.e. it should not try to be everything for everybody. To quote him, “People want the best of the breed, not a mutt that contains several breeds.” Brand schizophrenia or the quest for endless line extensions can undermine a brand’s competitive positioning.

The Search for the Obvious Simplified

“Because the purpose of business is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two-and only two-basic functions: marketing and innovation. Marketing and innovation produce results; all the rest are costs. Marketing is the distinguishing, unique function of the business.”---Peter F. Drucker, the father of business consulting.

Today’s management is mostly is predominantly concerned with finance, sales, production, management, legal, and HR. Marketing and innovation is not accorded the place that they deserve. Therefore CEO’s need to concentrate on these and not on their balance sheets in order to find success in a market. The search for the obvious should in the main, start with an active evaluation of the competition. The suggestions forwarded by the author are:

  • “Avoid a competitor’s strength and exploit their weakness.”
  • “Always be a little bit paranoid about competition.”
  • “Competitors will usually get better, if pushed.”
  • “When business is threatened, competitors aren’t rational.”
  • “Squash your smaller competitors as quickly as possible.”
  • “If you’ve got a bigger competitor, avoid being squashed.”
  • “If you’re losing the battle, shift the battle field.”
  • “If a bigger competitor is about to attack, you should attack first.”


The author believes that differentiation based on leadership is an obvious strategy as it can unswervingly establish the credentials of a brand. Differentiation can be on the basis of leadership in sales, technology or performance. He further goes on to give some essential ground rules for marketing:

  • Law of the ear
  • Law of division
  • Law of perception
  • Law of Singularity
  • Law of duality
  • Law of resources


Finally, Jack Trout made some observations on a varied mix of companies and suggested solutions to their problems. The companies included GM, Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola, New York Times, Beer industry, etc., and even celebrities. He has also cautioned against mispredicting the future as the search for the obvious is today and not tomorrow.

The book is a real investment for the practitioners of marketing as well as for the students and is highly recommended by the reviewer.
Anubhav Anand Mishra
The ICFAI University Dehradun, Dehradun, India