Tylenol repositions the competition

“For the millions who should not take aspirin”

As anyone in marketing can tell you, unseating category leaders is difficult. That’s why Pepsi has trailed Coca-Cola for decades and why Tide has remained the leading detergent since the 1940s. It’s not impossible though, and one of the best ways to advertise against a category leader is to use their brand presence in your own favor. The best way to do that is to run a repositioning campaign.

In essence, repositioning the competition requires comparative advertising, but it is not simply comparative advertising. Comparative ads evaluate products side-by-side. Repositioning ads try to take an attribute of the competitors product and shift it into a weakness.  Then they show how their own product fills that gap. Most of a repositioning advertisement should be devoted to your competitor’s product, and not even the product as it exists in reality, but as it exists in the mind of consumers. Only once the ad has succeeded in framing their competitors’ products attributes as weaknesses do they introduce their own product. One of the most famous repositioning campaigns was done by Tylenol. In this advertisement Tylenol isn’t even mentioned until the third paragraph!


Let’s take a closer look at the ad. “For the millions who should not take aspirin” is a very interesting line. Many people today are still unaware of the differences between over the counter analgesics, before this ad even fewer were. It’s interesting because it’s alarming enough to draw in the uninformed. Notice, too, that the ad doesn’t say Tylenol is better than aspirin. It doesn’t even directly say that Tylenol is better for the stomach. Right now, it’s only saying some people shouldn’t use aspirin. It’s avoiding those comparative statements because comparative statements can conflict with consumers pre-held notions, and if they do they are likely to get dismissed.¹ Instead, the ad tries to convey new information – the instances in which taking aspirin is detrimental and, as it builds that case, it lets the consumers decide for themselves that Tylenol is better. That’s the essence of repositioning.

Remember, Tylenol was doing more than just creating niches for itself to occupy, which can also be an effective way to gain market share. Instead, it went beyond that strategy, put those holes together, and used them to reposition aspirin as a brand that was harmful to the stomach. In fact, Tylenol was so successful in conveying this information that it gained considerable market share and eventually the product actually displaced the aspirin-based medicines and became the best selling analgesic.

1. This is the result of confirmation bias which causes people to seek information that confirms their opinions and to dismiss information which contradicts them.

Why Kleenex wants you to call it a tissue (kinda)

The names Kleenex, Band-aid, Duct tape, and Aspirin all are somewhat interchangeable with the category of products they represent. In a parallel universe the manufacturers would greet this with unbridled joy. After all, you need to capture a lot of mindshare to have your brand name (Band-aid, for instance) stand in for the product category’s name (adhesive bandage). But unfortunately, after a certain level that success is a bad thing because of our legal system.

In U.S. law, as well as in many other countries, once a brand name has come to represent the category as a whole it loses trademark protection unless the company that owns the trademark takes active steps to counteract the trademark erosion. If they fail, anyone will be able to use their name. In fact, that has already happened to Aspirin.¹ It’s also happened to cellophane, escalator, linoleum, videotape, and trampoline, all of which previously referred to specific brands. It’s also happened to hoover. And jacuzzi… The list could go on for quite a while.

What steps can brands take to prevent this genericide? Two examples stick out. In 2003 Xerox produced an ad that read “When you use ‘Xerox’ the way you use ‘aspirin,’ we get a headache.’” Band-aid also made a subtle change to their jingle from “I am stuck on Band-aids, ‘cause Band-aids stuck on me” to “I’m stuck on Band-aid brand, ‘cause Band-aids stuck on me”. For now those efforts seem to be enough.

Most recently this has been an issue for one of the biggest companies in the world: Google. They must have gotten very nervous when the term google was adopted as a verb. Which explains their efforts to keep it out of the dictionary. Eventually, they were successful in getting the Oxford-English dictionary to restrict the meaning of “google” to using the Google search engine only. In the decade since it seems like their efforts were worthwhile as googling something has acquired a much more specific colloquial meaning.

One does have to wonder just how successful these companies would like their efforts to be though, because they’re discouraging a lot of free advertising.


  1. Because of the split legal system aspirin has become generic in the U.S. but is still protected elsewhere.