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If you think Positioning is a marketing exercise – you’re doing it wrong

Positioning a product today is radically different from what it was when the concept was first introduced. Anyone who has read Ries and Trout’s “Positioning – the Battle for Your Mind”, would be understandably left thinking that Positioning is an exercise completed by the marketing department (or marketing agencies) for the marketing department. The examples we have studied to learn positioning generally involve marketing teams coming up with creative ways to position products in advertising campaigns through the use of slogans or taglines or creative branding. Staking a claim to a market position, is merely a matter of telling the world about it (or so we have been taught).

But things in the real world have dramatically changed. The first change is that Madison Avenue no longer controls the way customers perceive products. Buyers now have the means to research products themselves, and they do. Buyers are not only adept at ignoring (or simply blocking) most of the ads directed at them, they’re heavily skeptical of the few that do manage to break through. It may have once been possible to simply tell people what your product positioning was all about and have prospects believe you, that’s no longer the case. We’ve been lied to and we’re skeptical of what brands have to say about themselves.

Advertising-saturated, noisy markets mean that positioning a product so that customers can understand it quickly is more important than ever. However, expressing that positioning to jaded, attention-deficient, skeptical markets is going to take more than just, well, more advertising. This is particularly true for new companies that don’t have the budget to even attempt to win at the game of buying attention.

Today Positioning needs to be embodied across the entire organization. Positioning is now done through every interaction a prospect has with a company and it’s offerings. Unlike the 70’s, when you could get away with simply saying “We try harder” , brands today now have to prove that positioning to a skeptical audience (like, seriously – have you ever noticed a difference in service between Avis and Hertz? Perhaps not surprisingly, Avis has changed their slogan).

Product – This is the most obvious place where positioning matters. You wouldn’t know it from the way Positioning has been treated in marketing case studies where teams of bright creatives – often with only a superficial understanding of the target buyers or the competitive landscape – would come up with catchy tag lines and successful ad copy (and often “success” was defined as people loving the ads – even if they failed to sell any product). Today we know better. If you tell me your product is the easiest to use, well I’ll be the judge of that when I use it. If you claim your product is the fastest – I better feel that as soon as I log in. Your key features, onboarding, roadmap and UX are all signals to prospects that communicate what you are, what you are good at, who you are for, what your key value is. Product is often your best way to demonstrate your positioning.

Sales – There is the age-old problem of marketing saying one thing and sales saying another but having your positioning reflected in your sales process goes far beyond message consistency. If you are all about customer service then your sales folks better be courteous and calm. Your sales process itself can be a reflection of your positioning – how you treat returns or billing issues for example. The tone and demeanour of your sales people can reflect positioning (informal and fun might reflect your focus on making things easier for independent consultants, formal and stiff could help signal your positioning as a security system for a bank).

Content – Beyond simply saying “Our offering out-performs the competition” or “Our product is easier to use”, there is a new burden of proof on brands that goes far beyond what we have read about in business case studies about positioning. Product managers know the old saying “Your opinion, although interesting, is irrelevant”. Nowhere is this truer than when it comes to claims made by brands. Your claims now need to be backed up by data, 3rd party validation, independent reviews, and customer endorsements. the days of prospects trusting what you have to say without proof to back it up are long gone.

Support – Sometimes support IS your differentiation (as in the case of Zappos for example) in which case the importance of it is obvious, but with any position the company takes, there is likely to be an impact on pricing. For example, a product that sells for $20 a month isn’t likely to have customers complain about a lack of phone support. On the other hand, if your product is positioned as bullet-proof mission-critical enterprise software, your support response times, escalation processes, key account coverage (not to mention the skill level of folks that work for you in support) will need to reflect that seriousness.

Pricing – People often underestimate the influence pricing has on positioning for tech products. In consumer products we intuitively understand that premium products are sold for premium prices. Tech products are no different. High prices come with an expectation of high levels of quality, service, performance. Alternatively, low priced software products will lower a customer’s expectation for service as well as signal who the product is likely appropriate for (small businesses, individuals). I’ve worked in startups where we have had to raise the price in order to be taken seriously by larger enterprise customers.

Channels and Partnerships – positioning is a signal to a group of prospects that a solutions is right for them. The channels you choose to sell through will reflect the customer you wish you reach (obviously) and will also provide a signal to customers who your idea customer is and who your competitors are. If you were selling a new kind of fitness tracker that takes photos – where would I find it in Best Buy? Would it be in the camera department or with the fitness trackers? Your decision will greatly impact how customers position you. Partnerships work in a similar way. If you are partnered with IBM, it signals that you see your solution to complimentary, rather than competitive with their offerings.

This is not an exhaustive list, but you get the idea. People often quote David Packard (yeah, the P in HP Packard) as saying “Marketing is too important to be left to the marketing department”. I’ve always said that that quote is more of a reflection of our confusion around what is a marketing function and what is a business function. Positioning is closely tied to your overall business strategy – implementing it crosses every department in the company, not just marketing.




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