Marketing Expert's Corner

This article written in 2007


Tiger Woods doesn't play golf.  He is golf (you may need to click on the "Tiger" file that appears on your desktop).  He is a master of positioning the ball on the tee-off so that the putt is a no-brainer.

Sort of like Marketing and Selling.  Great Marketing doesn't just tee-up the ball so someone can make a nice long drive down the fairway.  Marketing should position the ball on the green -- and that means knowing which green is the right one for the game you're playing.  This is really hard stuff, and it does not happen quickly or without a lot of practice. 

Why so many duffers on the course?  It can be the player:  they're not a wizard, they're a weenie... but this talent problem happens less often than you'd think.  More often, the course is blanketed by fog, there's no map, and nobody can tell where the green is.  Too often, the course is straight out of Through the Looking Glass or Harry Potter -- reconfiguring itself continuously to trash the players throughout the game.

But the real reason there are so many hooks and slices:  the players are rushed, they haven't talked with enough real prospects, and they haven't heard what the market is saying.  It ain't always pleasant, but you've got to listen.  This goes double for the C-level execs. 


Taber Report readers will remember the "marketing heresy monthly" series I did a while ago -- this edition may be an honorary member.  I have to say that the topic of positioning generates an incredible amount of baloney, sloppy thinking, and tortured verbiage that has no effect or impact beyond "getting us out of that meeting." 

To detect ineffective positioning, just listen for unactionable babble and unmeasurable euphemisms.  This is the stuff that customers will ignore, even if insiders feel good the first few times they say it.  An effective positioning statement is brief, actionable, and true.

So, let's get some basics under control.  Positioning isnot:

  • your tag line
  • your value proposition
  • your slide presentation
  • your web site
  • your messages
  • your press releases
  • your ads

While positioning is related to all these things, you must avoid the mistake of thinking that positioning is something you can manipulate and control directly.  Like a reputation, it's something that is built gradually by customers' interpretation of your behavior.   Your position doesn't come just your actions, but from the context and meaning attributed to them by the customer.  In the words of Glenn Gow, "You don't position yourself, the market positions you."

The art of positioning, then, is to figure out how you'd like to be positioned and to take actions that reinforce that perception over time in the customer's mind.

Core Positioning

The core of positioning then, is how will potential buyers view your product and your company.  Some products lend themselves to places on a list (New York Times best-sellers) or a graph (Gartner Leadership Quadrant), but in most cases the "position" is in the mind of the customer.  This means standing out according to their value system.  This gets squirrelly fast, so hang on.

Since you're trying to get a position in the customer's mind, the first step has to be defining your target customer.  But you don't have one target -- you have segments.  So you have to choose the must-win segmentand understand how they perceive you and your competitors.  From this understanding, you can determine what position is within your reach, given the attributes of your product and the behavior of your company.  Be honest with yourself in choosing a position -- don't set unattainable goals.  For example, Alienware has taken the position of the gamer's PC for their target market, the gaming maniac (usually 18-38 year old males).  Alienware does not attempt to position to the non-gamer segment, even though their messages reach other parts of the market.

Trout and Reis -- who coined the word "positioning" in the 60s -- put it most succinctly:  positioning is the one word that you want to own in the customer's mind.  Autos make a clear example:  Ferrari probably owns fast, Porsche is Cool, Toyota is Quality, Safe is Volvo, Elegant is Jaguar, Class is get the idea.  Let's take an example:  when Kia enters the market, they have to figure out who they're trying to position to (let's say, "women under 25") before they try to claim the position (let's say, "value", in the sense of "best value in a first car").

Competitive positioning is a valuable shortcut because you leverage some other vendor's position in the customer's mind -- it took a long time to earn and it's not going to change quickly -- to communicate who you are.  Competitive positioning works best for the underdog who wants to get exactly the same segment that the leader has.  Looking at Kia motors again, their "value" positioning becomes "we're as good as a Ford Taurus, but at half the price."  Competitive positioning rarely works over a long period, and usually makes the vendor look cheap.  At some point, you have to pivot, transforming yourself into "the best in category at any price."  FedEX had to do this -- moving from positioning against the post office (in the 80s) to an independent position of global leadership (in the 90s). 

Companies sometimes want to reposition their product, and this can be a painful exercise.  If you actually do have a place in the customer's mind, they've built a mental model about you that they trust -- more than they'll trust new data about you.  You're trying to get them to disregard the reputation you have -- essentially, you're trying to position against yourself.  This will take a while.  Of course, if you are not strongly positioned, or you decide to change your target market at the same time, you'll be able to work with less baggage.  You'll be doing less repositioning and more establishing an initial reputation.

The real problem of positioning, though, is that while you're trying to get into the customer's head, the customer is busy trying to ignore you and all other vendors.  The customer doesn't really care how you're trying to position yourself.  So the challenge for effective positioning is to become important to the customer at an emotional level.  Finding a way to latch on to personal concerns -- wealth, power, good looks, health -- is just as important in B2B marketing as it is in consumer categories.

The Question of Positioning

You can find lots of methodologies for Positioning, and most of the time you'll come up with drivel.  Instead, let's try to connect with the customer at an emotional level, so they'll actually pay attention and care about the position we've chosen.

Somebody Brilliant* said that questions are more emotionally powerful than statements or claims.  I'm a big believer in Question-Based selling -- it's the method I try to use.  Statements or sales claims close off conversation.  If the customer doesn't agree with a statement, or even if they do, there's not much opportunity for real dialog.  The right questions, however, are inviting:  they're open ended, tentative, and provoke an ongoing conversation

So why not Question-Based Marketing:  why isn't positioning expressed as a question?  The goal of your positioning doesn't change -- you still want to own a word or concept in the customer's mind -- but how you get there is different.  And your first steps -- determining your target, and choosing the word / concept you want to own -- are the same. 

The Question of Positioning technique starts by discovering where your targets have emotional hot-spots related to your product or service.  What do they want to avoid, personally?  What do they want to get more of?  From this, develop a bunch of questions that would trigger the emotion in the target.  Then, you must test extensively.  There's no way to know in advance which variations of the idea (and what specific wording) will make the prospect immediately react.   These tests need to be face-to-face, so you can get the non-verbal reactions.  I've found that trade shows are a good place to rapidly test and refine positioning questions, until you find the one that really grabs people in 5 seconds.

Let's take the example of Kia motors:  what questions could they use to stimulate their target's emotions?  Instead of the statement "America's longest warranty," they could develop a series of questions related to quality and value:

  • Tired of break-downs?
  • Rattles driving you crazy?
  • Are 10,000 mile check-ups costing 50,000 pennies?
  • Bad paint job embarrassing you?
  • Can you afford a car that makes you late to work?
  • Want a car solid enough to keep you alive in an accident?

Which one will work?  I can't tell, you can't tell...testing with the target audience is the only way to know.  The good news is, this question-based approach takes a lot less time than a bunch of attitude studies or general surveys.

Once you've found your question of positioning, every time you ask it, your product will rapidly bind to an unsolved problem that matters to the customer.  They'll have no problem remembering you or your value proposition because they'll care


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