Full-Stack Marketing Series #1: Positioning

Vector Marketing. Broken textYesterday, I spoke with the CEO of an awesome startup whose team I’d love to join one day. During our chat, she shared her concerns on the legitimacy of making a first marketing hire before the product had found its position. Which makes it extremely ironic that I’d set out to write this post about the first full-stack marketing skill on my list today: positioning.

I like to start with a definition (or three).

According to Al Ries and Jack Trout, who co-wrote the reference work on the subject Positioning: The Battle for your Mind, “Positioning is not what you do to a product. Positioning is what you do to the mind of the prospect. That is, you position the product in the mind of the prospect. […] Positioning is also the first body of thought that comes to grips with the problems of getting heard in our over communicated society.”

More recently, Louis E. Boone and David L. Kurtz, in their book Contemporary Marketing, added: “Product positioning refers to consumers’ perceptions of a product’s attributes, uses, quality, and advantages and disadvantages relative to competing brands.”

The Business Dictionary brings it all together in simple terms: “A marketing strategy that aims to make a brand occupy a distinct position, relative to competing brands, in the mind of the customer.” A MARKETING strategy (just sayin’).

To occupy a position in the mind of the consumer. It’s not about getting TO the consumer. It’s about getting INTO his head and sticking there one you’ve got to him. It’s the difference between advertising dollars that yield returns… or go to waste.

If you break it down, positioning comes down to answering these three questions about a product or service and making the answers make sense with one other.

– Who is the target customer?

– What does the product or service do?

– How is the product or service unique and different from competitors’?

Academics (and also dummies) like to tie it all together with a positioning statement, which is really just your three answers lined up: Positioning statement = business or product name + what makes the business unique & different + the target market description.

Let’s try mine: O! Malou is a blog that covers marketing, nutrition, traveling and sometimes random questions in a down-to earth kinda way for tech-savvy bon-vivants (and my mom).

1 – Who is the target customer?

The first step in building a product is to define who, if anybody, would likely purchase it. A brilliant product with no target is as good as a crappy product with one, like combs for the bald and skateboards for grannies, or something. Ahh, I wish it was always that obvious.

In reality, bigger companies might order extensive segmentation studies while a startup founder will most likely pick the brains of friends and relatives. Either way, the point is to intelligently define this target group (“single mothers”, “pre-teen boys from affluent neighborhoods”, “retired couples” and so on) and stick to it. Only then may a targeted positioning message, one likely to resonate with the group, be elaborated.

2 – What does the product or service do, exactly?

Arguably a products, by its nature, can have built-in elements of positioning. It would have been pretty hard to position a Smart car as a lean-mean driving machine, for instance. Objectively and clearly defining the product or service and what it does is the starting point to establishing its position in the minds of its target market.

3 – How is the product or service unique and different from competitors’?

Adding positioning elements above and beyond those that are intrinsic to the product or service is what makes a brand by distinguishing it from competing offers, even offers that essentially provide the same exact benefits. These positioning elements are what makes the difference between a Coke and a Pepsi, a BMW and a Mercedes or a Nike and an Adidas. And they must be engraved in consumer perception fast, before another brand gets the chance to fill that position.

Al Ries and Jack Trout argue that once a brand has “won” a position or category in the consumers’ mind, there is no replacing it. This does not mean going to market first, but being the first to take the position in consumers collective mind. So really, there can not be more than one, maybe two competitors in the same position.

Your best bet if another brand beat you to it? Go play in another field; make up a category that noone else has won yet. Once again, this does not mean changing the product – it can be exactly the same as the other guy’s, just its perception in the mind of consumers. So how do you differentiate the exact same product in the mind of consumers? EMOTIONS. Emotional benefits.

Let’s take a healthy food delivery service for example. Different positioning choices could suggest different emotional benefits.

-We bring diet meals to your door so you can lose weight, look better and finally land hot dates: feel beautiful & desirable
-We deliver meals containing only 100% good ingredients, so you’re always full of energy, rosy cheeks and all: feel healthy & happy
-We give you the practicality of takeout without the negative health impacts: feel productive & successful
We know that emotional benefit #1 already has its winners, Jenny Craig and the likes. We probably wouldn’t stand a chance in that space. What about number #2? There must be a few guys on the market, but from top-of-mind recollection no one big enough to have claimed the big win, so there might be something to work with. But that’s probably niche, you know, for those organic and paleo snobs *just making an example guys, I don’t care to insult anyone*.
And #3? Hm, people can eat healthy without wasting a minute on food prep or nerdy packed lunches? Work overtime and look good too? Gulp down a quick lunch then nail an important presentation without suffering from junk-food sweats? Why, people who use this service may just be the coolest, best looking, most successful people on the planet. I want to be like them, let  me have some! Same. Exact. Product. Different positioning.
Once position is pinned down there are just a couple things to left to do: give that brand a name and communicate synthetically & at the right time.
Brand name
Ries and Trout emphasize the importance of a brand’s name in consumers’ perception of it. They recommend making the name highly memorable so that it is retained amidst the flow of constant information that each individual receives daily. As such, they favor descriptive names over coined ones, names that aren’t too generic or precice and that tell the major product benefit.
Message simplicity
In our highly over-communicated society, it’s lucky to get people to remember one message. Even luckier if they can remember it AND associate it back to a product. In this aim, less is more. Sticking to a single message and linking it to one product is the best bet.
Timing
It is crucial in two ways. The first: you can’t communicate too early (before position is defined). Why? First impressions stick, so communicating before postitioning is established is a waste. Your core market is the group of customers for whom that first impression was just right – you WILL NOT get to them before you’ve got it down to a T, so whoever you get to, you’ll eventually lose once you get to your position.
But that’s not all. Also, you can not communicate at the wrong time. Because -I’ll say it one last time- positioning is all about the consumer’s mind, you have to communicate at a moment where it is open to receiving the brand message. If you’re selling Caribbean vacation packages, aim for lunchtime on a rainy winter day, right?
I’ll leave you with a past experience of mine, a pretty vivid illustration of the harm that bad positioning can cause on a project.
One of my most recent roles was to manage customer acquisition for a poorly branded website whose founders had never really questioned positioning, despite the busy competitive landscape. The concept was roughly copied from overseas (if it worked there, why shouldn’t it over here?) Bad mistake. Our advertising dollars got us to the customer, but our message didn’t stick in his/her mind. This is a typical outcome of poor positioning. Trust me, it’s not a cheap one.
And because first impressions last, repositioning is uncertain. You can rebrand, which is what we did, but can you make that prospect conception change? Not so sure. The project was interrupted shortly after the rebranding, so we won’t know. But even though, I don’t believe we would have ever made up for lost time, money and energy.

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