I’ve been in marketing for almost half my life now. Yet, I never completely understood what brand positioning is.
To me, positioning has always seemed like a theoretical exercise with a place in executive boardrooms but little applicability to real life. And out of my informal research among peers, it seems that I’m actually not a minority.
But things are changing thanks to April Dunford. Her book Obviously Awesome finally helped me – and thousands of marketers and business leaders – understand the crucial role positioning can play in your success.
For this and other reasons, it’ll be part of my top books collection – and in order to persuade you to add it to yours, I’ll cover everything it can teach you here.
Why should you care about positioning?
Lousy positioning makes your prospects work harder to figure out if you’re worth paying attention to.April Dunford
Just like me, a lot of brand creators live in a lie. We think that positioning isn’t important because we think we can’t really influence positioning. Once the cat is out of the bag and the product is out in the shops, the thinking goes, it’s up to customers to decide what you are.
Nothing can be further from the truth, according to Dunford.
But what this belief does is make us live with weak positioning. And this hurts your business in quite a few different ways:
- Your current customers love you, but new prospects can’t figure out what you’re selling – weak positioning means customers have the wrong expectations and can’t see your product for what it really is.
- Your company has long sales cycles and low close rates, and you’re losing out to the competition. – effective positioning brings you people who are a great fit and move quickly through your sales funnel.
- You have high customer churn – especially right after purchase – and people ask for features you have no plan to deliver. If people have different expectations they won’t be happy with what you’re actually offering.
- People complain prices are too high – it’s not so much a matter of high prices, it’s about the lack of value these customers are getting off of your product.
In short, positioning changes the frame of reference for your product and that has substantial implications. Your success doesn’t hinge only on the quality of your offering but what customers you attract and what alternatives they compare you against.
April shares a great example to bring that to life. Imagine you’ve been designing cakes. But along the way, you opt-in for a smaller format and you ditch the frosting in favor of some cream coating. You’ve just changed your positioning and with that:
- The target market and where you intend to sell – local snack shops and cafeterias rather than a specialized confectionery shop.
- Competitive alternatives – people might consider a candy bar or a croissant, depending on what they’re looking for.
- Pricing and margin – you’ll need to sell more muffins for the same gross profit.
- Key features and roadmap – adding a nuts and seeds version rather than new coating designs.
This analogy convinced me that positioning is more important than I previously thought.
And since positioning is so crucial, it sucks that a lot of marketers and founders fall into one of two traps:
- Trap 1: you’re stuck with the idea of what you intended to build and you don’t see the product has become something else.
- Trap 2: you carefully designed your product for a market, but that market has changed (you’re still selling a “diet muffin” but the market is now demanding a “gluten-free paleo snack”).
So you need to be specific and deliberate about your positioning. And to do that you need to figure out a few key elements.
The “five plus one” components of effective positioning
Great positioning takes into account:
- The customer’s point of view on the problem you solve and the alternative ways they can use to solve it.
- The ways your solution is uniquely different and why that’s meaningful for customers.
- The characteristics of a potential customer that really values what you can uniquely deliver.
- The best market context for your product that makes your unique value obvious to customers suited to your product.
To understand all that, you need to figure out five separate components – and if you can add one as a bonus.
What would customers do if your solution didn’t exist?
The competitive alternatives are basically the yardstick customers use to define “better”.
Often the answer can be just “suffer along” or “hire an intern to do it”.
When you understand that customers rarely have experience with direct competitors, you understand they rarely care about “state of the art” in your industry. They care about a simple and straightforward way to solve their problem.
These are the features and capabilities that you have and the alternatives lack.
Attributes go beyond classic product features – they can be other things, like your delivery policy, business model (e.g. renting out expensive equipment rather than only selling it), or your expertise in a relevant industry.
For services businesses, the unique attributes are most often a combination of expertise and experience.
Value (and proof)
If the unique attributes are the features, the value is the benefit that those features enable for customers. If unique attributes are your secret sauce, then the value is the reason why someone might care about your secret sauce. You need to translate attributes to values in order to make your customers care.
Target market characteristics
You need to know the characteristics of a group of buyers that lead them to really care a lot about the value you deliver. These are the people who buy quickly, rarely ask for discounts, and tell their friends about your offerings. What sets them apart? How can you understand if a customer will be a good fit and what drives them to be interested in your product?
This is the market you describe yourself as being part of, to help customers understand your value. It’s a frame of reference, a convenient shorthand that customers use to group similar products.
A carefully-chosen market category will help make your unique value more obvious to your target.
Relevant trends (optional)
This is a component that gets your audience excited about your product. It’s a bonus one – there are plenty of brands that work well without it, but it can add some luster to “boring” products.
There are no specific criteria as to what trends can work here. They just need to be new trends that your target customers understand and/or are interested in that can help make your product more relevant right away. And it should be a characteristic that is very new and noteworthy at a given point in time – like blockchain, AI. But it doesn’t need to be all technical – Pantone’s Color of the Year is an example of a relevant trend if you’re selling a new shade of makeup or dresses.
The 10 steps of figuring out your positioning
Positioning is the act of deliberately defining how you are the best at something that a defined market cares a lot about.April Dunford
The first big benefit of Obviously Awesome is that it opened my eyes to why positioning is important. The second one is that it clearly defines the elements of positioning. And the third is that it presents us with a framework for actually figuring out our positioning. It’s all neatly laid out in 10 steps.
Step 1: Understand the customers who love your product
Talk to your best customers and figure out what motivates them. What is the problem they are using your product to solve? What alternatives do they consider using?
It all starts and ends with the customers so make sure you spend enough time on that step.
Step 2: Form a positioning team
Building your positioning only works if you have a full picture. So you need to add representatives of different teams because they hold different points of view and different bits of customer knowledge.
Forming a team that’s wide enough to present all perspectives will also give you some added benefits. It’s proof that you have secured buy-in from the whole company. And the more involved different departments are in creating the positioning the more probable it is they will use the positioning in their work later.
Step 3: Align your positioning vocabulary and let go of your positioning baggage
To create something new you need to let go of the old. Make sure you consciously set aside your old ways of thinking about your product. Pay special attention to historic decisions that you made while developing your product and that you still stick to. This can be your market of reference, product-related terminology, feature names, and more.
It doesn’t necessarily mean everything old is bad. But it means you need to be aware that some of your positioning ideas are old and might not correctly reflect the current market or the most favorable position for you in it.
Step 4: List your true competitive alternatives
What might a customer replace you with? Whatever it is, it will form the point of reference they compare you against. So you need to know your alternatives well.
You can just list the most common options for your best-fit customer segment, not each and every alternative out there. Finally, you can group the alternatives by category – in this way you should end up with 2-5 groups of alternatives.
Step 5: Isolate your unique attributes or features
Start by listing all capabilities that you have and alternatives do not. At this point, you should focus only on the attributes, not the value – this will come later.
It’s easy to get bogged down in platitudes here. Focus only on the things that are provable – “easy to use” isn’t one of them unless you can say how much time your solution saves customers compared to other solutions.
At this point, you need to focus on consideration attributes (ones that get the customer to first buy or try) rather than retention attributes (ones that keep customers coming back.
Step 6: Map the attributes to value “themes”
We have attributes, then we have benefits, then we get to value themes. It all sounds a bit difficult, no?
Let’s go through an example. A camera has a 15-megapixel sensor – that’s the feature. This enables the camera to take sharp photos – the benefit. And this means that images can be zoomed or printed in large format – this is the actual value.
Features enable benefits, which can be translated into value in unique customer terms. After you draft all your attributes and translate them to values, you can group attributes with similar value so you can get down to a more reasonable number. Ideally, you’ll end up with one to four value clusters. According to April, it’s not uncommon to end up with only one value cluster.
Step 7: Determine who cares a lot
Once you have the value you provide figured out, you need to determine which customers really care about it.
The segment you choose must be big enough to meet your business goals and it needs to have important, specific, unmet needs that are common to the segment
Step 8: Find a market frame of reference that puts your strengths at the center and determine how to position it
What market are you in? This “market” needs to be something that already exists in the minds of customers.
By positioning our product we aim to trigger a set of assumptions – about competitors, features, and pricing – that work to our advantage. To find the market you should best position your product in, you can think about the types of products that have similar key features and the adjacent markets to the one you’ve been using so far. You can also talk to customers, although April doesn’t recommend it. Customers will give you biased ideas depending on their own use cases.
Step 9: Layer on a trend
This is an optional but potentially really powerful step. It can help you make your offering look current and relevant, with an extra gloss of interest. But be careful because a trend that doesn’t reinforce your positioning can also muddy the waters.
Step 10: Capture your positioning so it can be shared
Once you have everything figured out, you need to distribute your positioning so that it can be used in all parts of your company. April recommends having a longer version with all the details to really help team members understand it well and a short one-pager for everyday use. For that you can use April’s positioning canvas that looks like this:
As for the detailed version, you can download a full template from April’s website.
Styles of positioning
As part of Step 8 above, you will need to figure out what positioning style you’ll be using. There are three main options:
- Head-to-head: aiming to be the leader in a full market that already exists. This works well in established market categories with no clearly set leader or if you already have a distinct advantage. However, if there is a strong competitor, you’ll need a lot of resources to beat them. At the same time, you’ll have to defend against new entrants interested in the market.
- Big Fish, Smaller Pond: aiming to win a subsegment of the market that’s not served well by the main leader. If you start getting traction in the subsegment, your advantage usually accelerates quickly – word of mouth happens fast in small segments. And you don’t have to compete with the leader head-on. However, they might see the opportunity and quickly copy functionality to provide a good enough solution. You need to convince people enough to lead them away from the safe choice of the market leader.
- Create a New Game: aiming to create an entirely new market category and become the leader. This style is used only when there’s no existing market you can position your offering in. It usually works when an enabling technology, a shift in customer preferences, and a supporting ecosystem manage to come together at once. However, you need to spend a lot of time and resources to persuade customers this category deserves to exist and you deserve to lead it.
The positioning sales narrative
Finally, April gives a great overview of how your positioning serves as a basis for a sales pitch or presentation. Arguably, this seems more valuable in B2B, but I feel it can be a nice exercise for you in any industry. It will help you build a story arc that can serve as the basis of marketing storytelling.
The sales narrative covers the following steps:
- Define the problem – what is the issue your solution is working for?
- Explain how customers are attempting to solve it now. What solutions do they use?
- Demonstrate where these current solutions fall short. You’re setting the stage here.
- Then transport us to the perfect world. What characteristics does a great solution have? Showcase both the customer wants and your point of view – what you think an outstanding solution is.
- Introduce the product and position it in the relevant market category. This gives your audience a frame of reference.
- Talk about each value theme with a bit of detail – explain the features, show proof, add a relevant customer example.
- Handle common objections before the audience voices them out.
- Set the next steps – you end with a call to action relevant to your solution. This might be setting up a demo, starting a trial, or whatever shows true commitment.
I purposefully didn’t go into too much detail here, because you can download a slide deck with detailed instructions from April’s website. But I think this short version demonstrates what the story arc of your sales pitch looks like and how it’s strengthened by your positioning.
Wrapping things up
Even a world-class product, poorly positioned, can fail.April Dunford
I used to be a positioning skeptic. Now I’m a true convert. I’ve already gone through the positioning process as outlined by April on two occasions and I can confidently say having a structured framework does wonders for me.
Obviously Awesome is definitely a book worth reading and a resource worth adding to your permanent library. Check it out and let me know how you’re using the positioning process in your work!