What exactly is positioning? It’s not as well understood as you might think. If I put a dozen senior marketers in a room together and asked them to define positioning, you are likely to get a dozen different answers. It turns out we still need positioning 101. When I talk about positioning at conferences, I sometimes like to start by defining what positioning is NOT. Positioning is not the same thing as messaging. It isn’t a tag line. Positioning is not your brand story, nor is it your vision or mission. It is not, as one CEO attempted to convince me, “Everything you marketers cook up over there.” The topic isn’t new, but it turns out we still need an introduction to positioning.

Defining Positioning

Here’s how I like to define positioning:

“Positioning defines how your product is a leader at delivering something that a well-defined set of customers cares a lot about.”

Yeah, OK, that’s a bit complex, but positioning is a complex topic.

Positioning as Context Setting

Over the years, I’ve used several analogies to try to help people understand what positioning is all about. Here’s my favorite one for non-marketing folks. Positioning is like context-setting for products. It’s a bit like the opening scene of a movie. We’ve just walked into the movie theatre, we take our seats, and we are about to enjoy the show. The opening scene of the movie is important because it gets us oriented. It answers the big questions – Where are we? What year is this? What’s happening? How should I feel? Who are these people? Until we get those big questions answered, we have a tough time paying attention to all of the minor details that get presented to us. Once we have established some context, we can settle in and pay attention to the story. 

Positioning Context Setting and Apocalypse Now

Take, for example, the opening scene of Apocalypse Now. The movie starts with a shot of a beach with palm trees. Then you notice smoke coming from the bottom of the screen, and the music is getting more intense. A helicopter moves quickly across the screen. Suddenly WHOOSH, the whole scene is on fire! We are in the middle of a war in the jungle. The scene slowly shifts to Martin Sheen’s face, and you realize you are seeing his memories. He’s smoking, he’s drinking, he’s got a gun, and your mother would have something to say about the state of that hotel room. He walks over the window, and you hear his thoughts – “Saigon. Shit. I’m still only in Saigon. Every time I think I’m gonna wake up back in the jungle.” We are 4 minutes and 45 seconds into the movie, but we know a lot about this movie already. We’re in the middle of the Vietnam war, our lead character has PTSD, and if you thought this was going to be a two and a half hour laugh riot, you are dead wrong. The opening scene positions the movie so you can stop wondering about the big questions of where, when and who and settle into the story.

Providing a Frame of Reference

Positioning a product in a particular market conveys a lot of valuable information. It sets off a really powerful set of assumptions about who your product competes with, what features your product should have, who the product is intended for, and even things like what the product should cost. If I were to tell you my product was “email,” you would have a very different set of assumptions than if I positioned it as “chat.” There is a large overlap in features between the two, but as buyers, we have different expectations for products in each of those categories. We expect email to filter spam, allow us to organize and store conversations, and integrate with a calendar. Our expectations for chat are different. We expect instant delivery, a way to see if someone has received or viewed our message, etc.

A Positioning Statement Can’t Help You

Market Category is one crucial aspect of positioning, but it isn’t everything. Traditionally we have thought of positioning as encompassing more than that. For many people, their first introduction to positioning was in school, where they might have learned “The Positioning Statement.” If you aren’t familiar with the positioning statement, the best way I can describe it is as a sort of “Mad Libs” fill in the blanks exercise for marketing folks. The blanks are things like market category, value, competitors, etc. Typically it looks something like this:

Positioning Statement

I’ve written before about why I think this exercise is not only pointless but potentially dangerous, but I can summarize by saying this – the exercise assumes that there is only one answer for each of the blanks. You simply “know” what it is. However, most products could easily be positioned in multiple different market categories, with different competitors, providing different value for different kinds of customers.

The 5 Components of Positioning

The only valuable thing we can learn from the statement is that there are multiple components of positioning. These are, in essence, the blanks of the positioning statement. The components are:

  • Competitive Alternatives
  • Differentiated “Features” or “Capabilities”
  • Value for customers
  • Target Customer Segmentation
  • Market Category

Great positioning is when you have defined these in the best way possible for the offering.

Storytelling, messaging, a tag line, your vision, branding – these are all examples of things that happen after positioning. Each of these things requires positioning as an input or the starting point. Put simply, positioning defines what market you intend to win and why you deserve to win it.

Those are the basics. If you want to go beyond this introduction to positioning you can go deeper in my book Obviously Awesome.

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