What is positioning and why you can’t lose at it (Plus 10 essential resources and the X-ray of my process)
It’s never a good time to think about it.
When business is up, you’re too busy with sales and delivery to examine it. In bad times, you’re too busy putting out fires or lost in invalidation, with no clear idea where to begin.
In either scenario, you are sitting on a foundation that holds or gives way depending on how strong you built it and how grounded you are in it.
It’s your position.
And if you are playing to win, you want to build it in your customers’ mind. If it’s not there, it doesn’t exist.
Read on for more about:
- what it means to have a position or positioning and why it’s essential for your business;
- why you cannot lose at the positioning game and what you need at the absolute minimum;
- what key questions you need to ask about your business and your customer;
- where even the big players can get it wrong and how to probe your way out;
- what a positioning process looks like and what my go-to resources are.
Let’s start with what it means to have a position.
As a business, you make several choices to win. And choice is, in reductionist/lay terms, the definition of strategy.
Yes. The shortest definition of strategy is choice (for more on that, please read Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works by A.G. Lafley and Roger Martin).
The result of that strategy is you are in a certain point in space; where space is the industry you’re in, the market where you serve your customers.
This point in space is measured with KPIs that belong to the outside, material world: revenue, market share, etc. But I would like you to consider that these external things we measure are the manifestations or consequences (less woo-woo!) of a position that exists in the mind of your customers. That is the position you are building.
To be more precise, your position in the market is a reflection of your position in the mind of your customers. Here’s a question for you: where do you live in that realm?
You may have heard this: your brand is what they “gossip” about you when you leave the room. That “gossip” comes from a source: what the customers hold to be true about you in their mind. As much as you want to think your brand is more than that, unless you have proof from your customers, you are stating an aspiration or a goal for your position, not the reality.
If you want to find your place in your customers’ lives, you’re going to have to negotiate your way in. To do that, you’re going to need some solid one-liners for these questions:
Who are you and what do you stand for?
And where do you fit in their world? (adapted from Steve Jobs’s address in 1997 – check out 03:12 and 06:02)
In this cluttered world, you want to be really clear about it.
To answer these questions, you need to be very clear about two things:
1. what the product does and who it’s for
2. why you’re the one doing it
Issue number one is, by the way, what positioning is, in the words of the master himself:
“I define [positioning] as what the product does and who it’s for. I could have positioned Dove as a detergent bar for men with dirty hands, but chose instead to position it as a toilet bar for women with dry skin. This is still working 25 years later” (David Ogilvy, circa 1980s).
So, “positioning is a strategic exercise. It defines where your product or service fits in the marketplace and how you want it to be known long-term. It also defines your key customer segments and buyer persona.” (source: Positioning vs. Messaging | Aha! Blog)
The result of positioning is a document (a positioning kit, if you work with me) that clearly states the unique benefit of your product or service and why it’s better than the competition. It is, otherwise put, the articulation of your differentiation.
Not to make this too academic, but:
“Positioning is, thus, the process of differentiating a product, service or company in the customer’s mind to obtain a strategic competitive advantage” (in other words, you want to stay top of mind for something). “It is the first step in building a brand.” (The Brand Gap, Marty Neumeier, 2006)
Yes, there is a direct correlation between differentiation and positioning. You position to differentiate. You differentiate with positioning. And you both position and differentiate to increase profit margin and avoid commoditization. That is, you do it to stay “you”, true to yourself and uniquely so, and, for lack of a better word, successfully.
The big unsaid is that you will compete where you can win.
And if positioning sounds like a demigod speaking a brand into being (making it exist just because they say so), there is some truth to it. It’s how it starts, especially if you are a business of one. To endure, though, it needs to stand the test of the market.
But first, why did the demigod (aka you) do it? Which brings me to question number two: why you’re the one doing it.
The answer to issue number two is not just your motivation. Please abstain from jumping to that, although your motivation has, probably, a lot to do with it, again, especially if you are a business of one.
The correct answer to issue number two is what Steve Jobs called in August 1997 the hardest thing (watch from the beginning or jump at 01:28).
The hardest thing is to have your products “fit into a cohesive larger vision that’s going to allow you to sell X billion worth of product a year.” (Assuming you have billion dollar aspirations. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to get to 6 figures. Or whatever your aspirations are.)
How do you get that cohesive larger vision?
In the words of Jobs, you:
“start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology. What incredible benefits can you give to the customer? Where can you take the customer?”
If Steve Jobs calls this the hardest thing, please don’t expect it to be easy.
Are you compelled to blurt: why do you need positioning then?
I hear you.
Bluntly, because without positioning, you don’t exist.
Let me pause for dramatic effect.
If you don’t fit into your customer’s life and, again, for lack of a better word, successfully so, you don’t have a business.
So what do you need to win in the positioning game?
The real answer is: a client.
But until you begin to see proof of life from that client, you’re going to put one foot in front of the other and, at the absolute minimum, will need three things: a name, a value proposition, and a tagline.
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.” Said the world’s greatest bard. Shakespeare didn’t seem to have a soft spot for marketing (although he did have it for utility/purpose. What does a rose do for me seems to be his question here.) But then again, the marketplace was not that crowded in Elizabethan England.
To be in business you will need a name, even if, as a professional services consultant, your business name is your actual name.
There is a whole discussion whether to make your name the brand or not. In professional services, for that business of one, it will be hard not to have the two intersect. But if you build to grow and eventually exit, your name need not be on the banner.
Your value proposition
Your value proposition is where it gets tough. To get to it, you will first have to say what business you are in. What is the purpose of your activity other than to make money?
“There is only one valid definition of business purpose: to create a customer,” said Peter Drucker. “The process of creating a customer is a process of communicating your vision and values to the right set of customers in the market. […] Customers never buy just a product, they evaluate its value/utility and buy your vision.” (source: Myk Pono, Strategic Communication: How to Develop Strategic Messaging and Positioning)
So if Nike is in business to help you find your inner athlete, to honour great athletes and great athletics (empower them with the latest innovation etc.), and you are a scaling consultant or a digital agency and create a value prop that says ‘we’re honouring growth,’ forget about it. So do another gazillion businesses out there, who say the same thing.
You need to be specific. What kind of growth? How are you doing that?
Everyone who’s a capitalist is honouring growth. You want to zoom in.
Bottomline, you need a fundamental reason to be in business beyond making money. And you want to state that purpose in 12 words or less (says Marty Neumeier and I definitely agree).
Once you know what your purpose is, you will need to get clear on your vision. Meaning, if you stay true to your purpose and keep acting towards it, what will the future bring? And if you were to travel to that future one specific day to take one snapshot, what would the snapshot show? State it in one sentence and you have your vision.
Here’s a vision: a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s.
Or: a computer in every home.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech is a direct description from that snapshot of the future. It states that vision. And more. It is also a conjuring. That kind of language calls such a future into being (another demigod move, yes), it creates something for everyone to believe in and want to be part of.
Yes, you want that kind of “I have a dream” speech for your organisation to rally the troops, even if it’s just you for now. (If you want one, reach out. I give my clients one with their positioning kit.)
Such words stir, move and convert, and are very, very precious.
Now, when you have a purpose and a vision, you are narrowing in on your UVP, or your trueline, or why your brand matters to customers.
Before you may be tempted to talk about your why, I want to call it: you need to stick to your customers’ why. Why do you matter to them? Why are they letting you into their world?
Your UVP will answer this one big question: what is the main benefit I get from working with/buying from you? (source: copyhackers.com).
It’s “the one thing you can say about your brand, based on your onliness statement. It must be something your competition can’t claim or (won’t) and something that your customers find both credible and valuable.” (Marty Neumeier, Zag, page 88)
Your UVP needs to be many things: accurate, complete, and big enough, to name a few.
A quick note about that big-enough factor…
“What you need is an idea big enough to hold you within and keep you thrilled and working/earning for a few decades.” Again, in the words of David Ogilvy…
“It will help you recognise a big idea if you ask yourself five questions:
1. Did it make me gasp when I first saw it?
2. Do I wish I had thought of it myself?
3. Is it unique?
4. Does it fit the strategy to perfection?
5. Could it be used for 30 years?”
Please don’t get crushed under the big-ness of it. You have it if you have it and you don’t if you don’t. Just make sure your expectations catch up.
So if your mission is “premier intelligence for the tech market,” what you mean is that understanding the impact of technology can change the world. Maybe it can accelerate the future (because people will know how to use that technology, we’ll iterate and upgrade faster etc.). Maybe it means that equipped with the right intelligence, your client’s company can change the world.
You mean that information is power and what’s needed for you to have that power, and not be Dorothy in the land of Oz, is to understand and prepare for what’s coming. What’s assumed is there is a storyteller/explainer/demystifier who will decode to the world what’s happening or going to happen, and that’s you.
Does that mission, stated as such, tick the boxes?
Is it accurate? Perhaps.
Is it complete? Unclear.
Is it big enough? It could be.
At this point, though, it’s vague. It needs what we call an angle.
What you want is one line of “prophecy” that gets your clients thinking about what you could do for them: “premier intelligence for the technology market” asks them to connect a lot of dots. How can you take this further? If you know what it is and who it’s for and it’s still unclear, what’s needed is the how, or the context. How does the tech market use that premier intelligence? What for?
No, it’s not an easy process. But once you have it, your purpose/mission and vision will not change (until fulfilled). Your UVP, however, is likely to evolve in time and geographies.
What is true for a global company may need to adjust in a distinct part of the world (“think global, act local” can actually mean this is our global UVP and this is what main benefits we are offering locally, this is the UVP for Central and Eastern Europe, for instance).
How do you know which is which?
You iterate, test with your customers, and narrow in.
A UVP that stands the test of voice of customer validation is worth gold. Because a better UVP means more conversions, and that means more business, more profit, and accelerated fulfilment of your vision.
How do you get a UVP?
The short answer: you book me.
The long answer starts with the words of another master:
“The correct solution is buried in the problem itself. It has never been written before. It cannot be produced by rote, carbon copy or mutations. But it can be sprung to the surface – automatically – by asking the right questions.” – Eugene M. Schwartz, Breakthrough Advertising
Again, we have a number of questions:
Where are you right now in your customer’s mind?
To figure that out, I:
1) immerse myself into the mind of the owner, creator, keeper of the hollies. “The first step in building a brand is to look inside and see where the raw energy will come from.” Marty Neumeier, Zag
2) dive deep into the mind of the customer: interviews, review mining, or surveys. In the words of the same Marty Neumeier, “the way to energize your company is to put a microscope on the need states of your customers.”
Who are you competing against, in the industry and outside of it? How are they unique?
For that, I:
1) do a light review of the competition’s messaging, and
2) lean on the interviews to reveal how customers solve their pain now.
As we go through these two steps, what insights bubble to the surface? Is something missing or too much of?
These are saplings for your positioning. Treat them with care. As we go through them, I will put forth candidates for your UVP to try on and state dilemmas to cut through. Now we word out your uniqueness.
Yes, but does it work?
That’s exactly why we test and validate. It can be as simple as a one-on-one conversation. Posting on social media, or a website re-write. Is it clear? Is it accurate? Is there traction?
I know all this time we spoke of UVPs (Unique Value Propositions), but I’m going to argue that two products or services can have the same UVP. To nail the uniqueness, you’re going to give that sentence extra power and upgrade to a Unique Selling Proposition (this is a great read for more on USPs).
To do that, we will zoom in on competitive factors. What sets you apart there? This is another point where voice of customer research might just hand your USP on a silver platter.
If you are a leadership coach for low six-figure professionals and your UVP is “Focus (with me) to double your business,” that’s a nice iteration way above professional echelons. It’s still unsubstantial. What does double the business mean? The number of clients? The total revenue? How about profit?
In the same space, The 90 day year is, probably, one of the crispest iterations: do in 90 days what you typically do in a year.
Even more specific would be a USP from a scaling consultant who says: 4x your profit in 12 months. (Full confession: yes, it’s done by yours truly)
“Your customer tagline is translating the trueline or UVP into a more polished form.” And, states the rule book very clearly, you want one proposition per brand, no ands or commas.
The taglines will pop up like daisies if you ask these questions:
Who is the ideal customer? You want to describe them. Bring out that positioning kit. Oh, you don’t have one? Maybe we should work together.
What do they want? Again, the voice of customer research and the brand insights are priceless here. There’s a whole section in the positioning kit for them.
What is the benefit they are actually buying? Here’s where you get very physical. You want to paint the picture of how that benefit looks in the customer’s life.
If I sound like a broken record, it’s because you’ve heard these questions at least x times since you started reading this. There’s no escape from them. Not if you want to do this right.
I have found, to this day, Laura Belgray’s Tackle your tagline Cheat Sheet to be one of the most effective tools for writing taglines. It’s forever on my desk for tagline time. (And have heard quite a few fellow copywriters say the same. The cheat sheet is now a downloadable in The Copy Cure.)
A name. A UVP. A tagline.
Have these, and you’re ready to take the stage Steve Jobs style and disrupt like a demigod on steroids. Or a Tibetan monk on kale smoothies. Or a puppy Tik-Tok post on a Sunday night.
What it actually means is you’ll be ready to meet your client with grace and precision.
You’ll get to make your magic helping your people.
You’ll live your mission.
Do you know of anything better?