Positioning, strategy, vision: these concepts are essential to your company’s success, yet they are often misunderstood and confused. Your vision is your destination. Your strategy is how you get there. Positioning is what tells your customers why they should choose you, right now. It will inevitably influence your strategy. Written like that, it sounds incredibly simple, yet the work involved in finding your positioning is complex. Here’s how April Dunford, author of Obviously Awesome: How to Nail Product Positioning so Customers Get It, Buy It, Love It, does it.
What is positioning ?
The origins of positioning
April Dunford may be today’s expert on positioning, but the concept is by no means new. It was marketer Jack Trout who introduced it in the late 60s. With his co-author Al Ries, he described positioning as the solution to standing out in a noisy market, filled with too many products and too many marketing messages desperately trying to promote them.
Inevitably, customers make their choices by comparing and ranking solutions. Positioning means giving customers a map of the current market to show them :
- where they can go ;
- why one solution is better than another.
At the time, the market was already considered saturated. Marketers were aware that people had a vast choice of products, and that they were bombarded with advertising messages in the newspaper, on TV and in the street.
Today, whatever your customers do, a marketer is trying to sell them a product. They find ads on their social networks, on TV, in their favorite movies and TV shows, in their Google searches, and even in the bathroom of their favorite restaurant.
In a world where we’re constantly one click away from discovering a new product or service, positioning is a matter of survival. In any case, if you don’t take the time to define your positioning, your customers will do it for you, with the clues they can find and assemble. Except they don’t necessarily know what they’re talking about. Without a clear positioning on your part, your marketing team will use a default market position, guessing with a wet finger.
Under these conditions, you have a 99% chance of failing miserably.
Finding your positioning will require you to :
- know your customers well (thanks to your customer interviews, of course) ;
- understand their job to be done;
- abandon your preconceived ideas about your product/service.
The good news is that with a clear positioning for both you and your target, you reduce your Time to Value. Your customers know what they’re buying, and what they’re buying it for, so they’ll quickly benefit from the value of your product or service.
April Dunford likes to compare positioning to the first five minutes of a film: both serve to set the context. Take Don’t Look Up. In the very first scene, we see Jennifer Lawrence, aka Kate Dibiasky, looking up at the stars through a huge telescope. We understand that she’s an astronomer and has just made an incredible discovery. After an explosion of joy, Leonardo DiCaprio, aka Dr. Randall Mindy, starts calculating the trajectory, completely changes mood and the viewer understands that there’s a problem. In 5 minutes, we know the initial context.
Your positioning is the same thing. It has to help your target understand what you can do for them, in less than five minutes.
The 5 elements of successful positioning
April Dunford has studied positioning throughout her professional career. She states that there are five steps to successful market positioning:
- define competing alternatives ;
- understand its unique characteristics;
- identify the value you bring to your customers;
- identify your target clientele;
- find the right market category.
Each element depends on the others. Understanding your unique characteristics means being able to grasp the real value you bring to your customers. Detecting your target customers means you can choose the right segmentation in the marketplace. By defining the competing alternatives to your product, you identify its unique characteristics, which only it can do as well. And so on.
1 – Competing alternatives
The first question to ask yourself is: if you didn’t exist, what would your customers do? Don’t just think about your direct competitors. Competing alternatives to Netflix aren’t just Disney+ and Amazon Prime. Instead of watching Netflix, users can also sleep or scroll through TikTok.
When it comes to SaaS, April Dunford says that in 25% of cases, the chosen alternative is to do nothing, to continue using the system already in place. Even if it’s an Excel spreadsheet that’s anything but functional.
2 – Unique characteristics
Now that you’ve figured out who your competitors are, you can establish your unique characteristics. What do you do that your competing alternatives don’t?
Going back to Clay Christensen and the job-to-be-done when he was trying to increase McDonald’s milkshake sales, the 8:30 milkshake’s unique characteristic was that it was food in a cup, unlike a donut. Okay, but what’s the advantage? We’re getting there.
3 – Value to your customers
The 8:30 a.m. milkshake had the advantage of keeping drivers’ hands busy on the way to work, staving off hunger without getting their hands dirty. The donut couldn’t do the job so well: it sticks to the fingers.
In short, turn your features into benefits. Without drowning your customer in benefits. You need to find the core value for your customers.
Bonus: you’ll be able to choose your North Star Metric to guide your teams towards a single objective, in the service of your growth. Indeed, Sean Ellis describes the North Star Metric as the metric that best represents the value delivered to your customers.
4 – Target clientele segmentation
No secret: to find the right positioning, you need to find the right customers. This is especially true for SaaS. So, who cares about the problem you’re solving? Who really cares about the value you deliver?
Again, don’t make assumptions. Meet your customers and conduct interviews:
- Who’s most excited about your product?
- What’s their profile?
- What is their main use for your product?
5 – Market category
Thanks to the four elements above, you’ll be able to position yourself in the most obvious market category. The best market to conquer is the one most likely to understand the value you deliver.
The mistake is often to aim for a very broad market, especially in SaaS. Your positioning is not set in stone; it evolves as you grow and as your vision evolves. It’s easier to explain why you’re the best solution for a niche market, and then to expand your minimum viable market as you go along.
For example, when Mailchimp launched its email marketing offering in the early 2000s, it was specifically designed for very small businesses. It was an alternative to the overly large and expensive email software of the time. Little by little, Mailchimp expanded its offering before being sold for $12 billion in 2021 to Intuit.
Finding your positioning is an essential step in your company’s development. It will help you define your differentiation strategy, build your branding, and establish your pricing. Above all, your positioning will let your customers know why they should buy your product. As April Dunford says: You know your product is awesome-but does anybody else?
Midjourney Prompt/market overcrowed pop art –ar 3:2 –s 1000
Photo – I took this at April Dunford’s talk during Inbound Marketing France in Rennes lon June 13, 2023 (a replay is available)