The value of positioning

I believe that positioning is a vital process that all businesses should spend time on. Recently I’ve had some conversations with respect to putting positioning into a pitch deck where the response has been that investors have rubbished the idea and I think I now know why.

What they are thinking (I think) is of positioning statements. These are rather formulaic statements, here’s an example from April Dunford’s book Obv!ously Awesome:

FOR target buyers, your offering
IS A market category
WHICH PROVIDES main benefits
UNLIKE primary competitor
WHICH PROVIDES competitors benefits

So here’s the problem. There is nothing inherently wrong with this template but presented with it I think most people are going to do a pretty shallow job of thinking what to put in here. The process of thinking about positioning is not aided by this statement format. But, often, I think that’s all people get.

I was taught positioning by Seth Godin (through his awesome online course The Marketing Seminar) and it’s one of those “easy to learn, hard to master” processes.

If we think about what we mean by the notion of a “position” it reflects that people are busy with a head full of stuff and are not waiting to hear about us. We need to find an “available slot” in their minds in which they can place and understand us.

The process of doing this is then to draw 2 axes on a piece of paper, place yourself top-right, label the axes, and then plot your competitors. Sounds simple, right? The catch is that the axis labels must be:

  • relevant to your customer
  • compelling to your customer
  • allow you to legitimately sit in the top right
  • not have any competitors near you

and this is where it gets very difficult but unless these things are true you don’t actually have “a position”.

Here’s an example of an early attempt at positioning that I made for The Art of Navigation:

Here I am positioning myself against a specific competitor “Do Nothing”. What you should probably notice is that the labels I have chosen are pretty rubbish.

And this is why this task is so difficult because coming up with labels that satisfy the constraints above is really hard. I drew grid after grid, spending several hours on it, before arriving at a position that I was vaguely happy with:

This is closer to a position you can work with. It’s important to the kinds of people I work with that my whole focus is around companies who build software and that I have a system: tools & processes that are known to help with doing this.

I could build a “positioning statement” from this if I chose to but it’s not relevant (who would I show it to) more that I use my positioning to understand how I communicate with people.

This, the process and the resulting communication is what is important (to me) about positioning.

I’m keen to hear what your perspective is on positioning and anyone else wanting to play the positioning game please post your grids!

Matt