Reading time: 7 minutes
Positioning may seem like a simple concept, but don’t be fooled. It looks easy, but few organizations truly understand what it is, how to do it properly, and what to do with it.
What exactly is positioning and why is it hard to do? Positioning is a way to gain customer mindshare by aligning market trends and customer challenges with the way in which your company or product uniquely offers value.
To do this properly isn’t just a matter of filling out a template or formula that has been effective for other companies. These can help, but your positioning should first have solid research behind it. Many companies skip this process, often because it takes a fair amount of time or they don’t have the in-house expertise to do it. Moreover, many companies believe that they intimately know their industry, customers, competitors, and themselves. But what if you’re incorrect and you’re betting the entire company on one-off conversations, gut instinct, and/or investor encouragement?
Positioning is a way to gain customer mindshare by aligning market trends and customer challenges with the way in which your company or product uniquely offers value.
On the other hand, what if you are correct but nobody knows it? How will your knowledge get used by employees, board members, and other strategic stakeholders? A thorough positioning exercise allows you to articulate your position in the market in a way that can be shared so that it becomes embedded in your culture and all outbound messaging. This is a crucial underpinning of all your marketing; you need to get it right.
The other plus of a thorough positioning exercise is it lays the groundwork for your value proposition and your messaging. Its byproducts also will be useful for many other initiatives, such as your elevator pitch, areas of thought leadership, strategic goals, sales decks, collateral, and so on.
Let’s take a look at what the positioning process looks like with some examples. You can decide for yourself if you’ve got it right.
Start with a look at trends and challenges
You can’t position your company, product, or technology in a vacuum. You can’t just say, “We’re the only company that builds X”. You first need to know if X truly meets a customer need. I’ve seen many companies think that their differentiator is a game changer, even when I know from experience and contacts in the industry that their target audience doesn’t really care. Trust me when I say, that is not an easy conversation.
Our approach to positioning starts by listing out both industry trends and subsequent customer challenges. Here’s an example of what a trend and its related challenges might look like for a tier-one or tier-two supplier:
Why it’s useful
You’ll probably find at least a dozen trends and challenges that are relevant to both you and your customer. You will want to take these into account as you start looking at your positioning. After all, if you’re not solving a problem what are you doing? You can also put this foundational work of understanding the market and your customer to other good uses:
- Use it as an intro in a solutions whitepaper to quickly create context
- Incorporate it into brochures to demonstrate your understanding of the market
- Start a product pitch with a slide or two to show your customers you understand and empathize with their problems. (Not too many trend and challenge slides though – most people are well aware of their problems and they don’t want you schooling them.)
Often people overlook the threat of roll-your-own solutions where the customer has built a home-grown replacement for your product, which can sometimes be the biggest competitor of them all.
Then move on to major competitors
Understanding your strengths and weaknesses as well as those of your most significant competitors is an essential step in determining your positioning. You must find something unique (and relevant) on which to plant your positioning claim. The only way to do this is to take a good hard look at your major competitors along with yourself. You’ll want to do a full SWOT, looking at everyone’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as their opportunities and threats. Ideally you want to find at least one way in which your company is strong, and your competitors are weak.
There are typically surprises here. Many companies believe they are unique in a way that can’t be substantiated. Perhaps your technology is implemented differently – but if it gets the same result as your competitor’s, it likely won’t matter. Or perhaps you know that your competitor’s product has a good deal of vaporware. Again, it doesn’t matter so long as it’s real enough for your audience. It will be too hard and look too self-serving trying to convince customers otherwise. Here’s what a competitive comparison might look like for a tier-two supplier:
|Your company||Competitor #1||Competitor #2||Competitor #3|
|Big global company w/ long history in the vertical||Longevity within automotive space as subsidiary||Tier one parent, which lends auto experience and funding||Automotive focused company w/ tier one investment|
Why it’s useful
A deep-dive SWOT by someone who knows the industry and your competitors can produce a goldmine of information. The more you know, the better. Naturally it’s useful for your positioning exercise, but the information gathered during the SWOT process can also be used in a number of other productive ways:
- Turn your strengths and your competitors’ weaknesses into an effective sales pitch
- Subtly use the same info to create whitepapers or blogs – for example, if you’re a realtime OS company and your customers are starting to work with Linux, you might want to create an asset that underscores your carefully curated reliability
- Use it to determine areas to shore up your company, product, or solution
- Identify areas of weakness that require consistent answers whenever your company is asked about them
- Create sales battle cards – cheat sheets for customer engagements where you know the incumbent
- Set strategic goals in areas of opportunity
If there is no one thing about your company that is unique, you can often combine strengths to create a solid position in the market.
Get to the meat – your differentiators
Clearly defining what sets your solution apart from your competitors is an important strategy for carving out part of the market. It’s best to start this portion of the positioning exercise with listing everything you think might be a strategic differentiator (especially those your company has been telling itself for many years). Based on your SWOT, list out your perceived differentiators and the considerations for their selection. Some may be rejected if they are not exclusive to your company. Others may be truly unique.
If there is no one thing about your company that is unique, you can often combine strengths – such as, we’re the only company that does both X and Y – to create a solid position in the market. So long as your audience cares about both X and Y.
Listing out your differentiators however is not quite enough. You need to clearly lay out the benefits of these differentiators and your proof points. An example for a tier-one supplier might look like this:
|On-time and on-cost delivery||
Why it’s useful
Your differentiator(s) will form the basis of your company’s corporate-level positioning and key messages. Outlining the benefits associated with these differentiators will help customers believe you understand their problems and have answers to them. Proof points provide the credibility that what you are claiming is actually true, and you’ve got the facts and figures to back it up.
Write a positioning statement
Your positioning statement refers to the big picture and is a direct output of your work thus far. At this point it should be fairly easy to verbalize. Remember: you want to align market trends and customer challenges with the way in which your company or product uniquely offers value. Be specific about your audience. Ask yourself the question: How are we different from all other companies in ways that matter to our clients?
Why it’s useful
Business intelligence and analytics leader Eckerson considers positioning to be “the most important aspect of B2B software marketing because it is the foundation for everything you do in marketing”. Your positioning should permeate everything you do – your website, event participation, activations, sponsorships – everything.
When I was at the LA Auto Show last November, I was impressed with how clear Subaru’s positioning was in their booth: sporty yet luxurious vehicles for urbanites.
The entire booth was like a national park with lots of trees, gentle rivers, and benches, and of course the requisite comfortable SUV to get you and your kayak there in style.
It was obvious to me that Subaru is positioning themselves as the choice for urbanites looking to explore the great outdoors without giving up luxury. It is outdoorsy – but not too rugged. (Their sponsorship of national parks is also on brand.)
A few months later, I came across this while at a ski hill in New England. Subaru had sponsored the first row of parking spots next to the ski chalet – the most coveted parking in the lot – and anyone with a Subaru was welcome to use it.
How cool is that? This was again consistent and clear with how they are positioning themselves. Sporty yet luxurious – downhill skiing may be an outdoor sport, but skiers are never far away from a roaring fire and a machiato.
End with a set of key messages
Positioning yourself properly is not the end; in many ways it’s only the beginning. You need to take this general concept of how you want to position yourself and aim it at very specific audiences (personas). This creates messaging that is laser focused on the most relevant benefits and points of competitive differentiation that are meaningful to each persona.
For example, if you’re laying claim to being the best cybersecurity expert with the broadest offering and deepest portfolio, you will message that differently to each audience:
|CEO||Director of engineering||Engineer|
|Avoid brand damage and software-based recalls with a cybersecurity solution that prevents security issues from call center to car and is free from patent litigation risk||Meet all your security needs without risk of patent litigation using our broad security offering and extensive patent portfolio||Meet your security needs through a supplier with a broad product portfolio and who can be trusted to advise on all aspects of cybersecurity|
The missing piece
Positioning and its partner messaging are so incredibly important to getting the rest of your marketing right. They provide a solid backbone to your marketing, as opposed to “on-the-fly” marketing that changes direction depending on the immediate challenge. Just like you wouldn’t sit down and start coding a major application without a software design document, block diagrams, or software architecture, you shouldn’t start developing a website (for example) without a good hold on your positioning and a messaging framework. It is in fact, one of the three pillars of the latest approach to marketing, explained in an earlier blog.
Oh, one other thing. You have to get buy-in from important stakeholders – the executives and the employees. If you produce a great positioning statement and key messages but no one knows or cares what they are, the whole exercise will have been wasted effort. I unfortunately made this mistake when I was on the inside. A painful lesson. So make sure you have a plan to roll out these marketing initiatives properly otherwise your marketing will continue along it’s previous trajectory.