Positioning Well And Poorly

Darts Target

In my previous post, I gave a summary of a positioning framework I learned in business school. This post is some more detail on what I’m looking for from a company’s positioning for its products or services, which is different to the overall brand but they are related.

A quick reminder of the framework:

For [target segment] that need [problem you solve] we offer [your product/service] which unlike [next best alternative] our thing provides these benefits [quantified benefits] by doing [how you do it] as demonstrated by [proof].

Target Segment

Who is your product for? How specific can you get? If you have a specific person in mind, that’s excellent, because when I write my article about you, I can address it like I’m talking directly to them. Now I can communicate in one-to-one human terms to anyone who identifies themselves as being in your segment. That’s much more powerful than a broadcast message to all humans.

Problem You Solve

This is a specific problem or set of problems. A note of caution: I’m a practitioner, so I tend to understand what the problem is after you name it, so don’t spend ages explaining the problem to me. That feels like you’re condescending to me, and if your target market understands the problem, then you shouldn’t have to explain it to them either.

Explaining the problem is for investors who are not domain experts, or if you have something that solves a problem people didn’t realise they had. Very rarely the problem needs to be re-framed because you’re doing something truly novel (or the classic “Parker Pens is in the gift business” re-framing, but that’s for internal consumption).

You probably aren’t doing any of this, so don’t spend much time explaining the problem.

And quite frankly, why are you spending a lot of time telling me stuff I probably already know? Or trying to browbeat me into acknowledging that I’ve been wrong all along? Why not tease it out of me by encouraging questions so that I discover the problem for myself? Guess which approach works better?

But I digress.

Your Product/Service

This should be pretty clear, and it’s easier for products than services, but it needs to be a discrete thing. It should have a solid name that makes it easy to understand what it is. If it has a brand (like Easy Off Bam!) that doesn’t tell you what the thing is, then you’ll need to have a short sentence to explain it. The shorter this is, the easier it is for people to understand.

If your service takes too long to describe, then it tends to be confusing. Often it’s a sign that you don’t really understand what you’re selling or to whom.

“We sell hammers” is easy to understand. “We provide disruptive data-awareness enablement for parseltongues” is bollocks and I will laugh at you.

Next Best Alternative

This is the hardest bit. This is where you differentiate, which is about being different, not merely better. I harp on about this, because better is not up to you, it’s up to customers to determine. Better is multi-faceted and depends a lot on who I am and what my needs are.

What you’re really trying to do here is show how you are a closer match to the needs of your target segment than whatever their next best alternative is. This is what the cliched product/market fit is all about. If you do this right, your target segment should perceive you as better than the next best alternative and choose you over them.

Note that this is as much about perception as reality. But that’s marketing, right?

Quantified Benefits

Ah, benefits. The classic marketing failure 101 is to mistake features for benefits. Features is you talking about you and how cool you are. Benefits are you telling me what’s in it for me. Guess which one I care more about?

300,000 IOPS is a feature, not a benefit. The price is a feature, not a benefit. You need to describe what your product or service does for me. And the market fit part is that it needs to be something that I care about. If might be a benefit to me, but I might not care about it, or not as much as something else.

Don’t go on about “lower TCO” or “good ROI” because, for a start, TCO and ROI models in tech are near-universally lies. I have never seen someone go back and verify the claim that purchasing a vendor’s products really did save 43% over five years. It’s the kind of thing that gets a CIO’s name in the paper, but I don’t write those stories unless directly asked to by an editor.

TCO and ROI depends so heavily on the assumptions in the model that it’s worthless to make a broad claim like this for most products. Unless you’re providing a step-change feature, like an order-of-magnitude difference in feature (e.g. flash versus spinning disk), then it all comes down to the specific customer’s situation and the assumptions they have around risks and benefits and cost-of-capital etc. I know how to do this stuff, and this conversation should only happen quite late in the buying cycle anyway.

I could rant for a while on just this topic, but maybe another time.

How You Do It, With Proof

Honestly, this is where I want to spend most of my time with you, talking about the technology. If you’ve got good answers to the other questions, we get to this part quickly and I know which aspects I should be concentrating on.

For example, if your target market is SMB, I won’t worry you with questions about things that only global enterprise companies worry about. If you’re after Windows people, then I won’t ask you Linux questions and vice-versa. Similarly, if your target is manufacturing companies, then I won’t ask about things only finance companies care about.

The story I write is going to be for the same target market as yours, because if your targeting is good, then those are the people who will be interested in reading what I write. There’s no sense in me writing for the wrong audience, so I won’t ask for details they don’t care about.

This is a major reason I want to find out all the other stuff: so I know who I’m writing for.

Blatant Self-Promotion

Of course, this is all a simplification for the sake of brevity. There’s plenty of nuance and work that goes into doing all of this well, which is why marketing as a field exists.

Blatant plug: I do consulting on this stuff for companies, so if you want help with this, contact me! I love helping companies find what makes them special and introducing them to customers who love them.

Also, so I’m absolutely clear, I don’t write specifically about organisations I have a commercial arrangement with without disclosing it very clearly, and mostly avoid doing it at all. I only get to sell out my readership once before they never trust me again, and you can’t afford to pay me that much.

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