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  • Writer's pictureMartha Olsen

The Art and Science of Positioning: Then and Now

“To develop a complete mind; study the science of art; study the art of science. Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.” Leonardo da Vinci

Over the past 25 years, I’ve led or participated in probably 100 positioning efforts. This work has covered the gamut – B2B and B2C, new products and mature products, and also intangible “products” like services, education, and partnerships.

I’ve witnessed an evolution in the practice of positioning over the years, driven largely by improved tools and technologies for understanding customers and analyzing competitors. A B2B positioning statement from 20 years ago might have optimistically targeted “CFOs” or “data analysts” who “need [our product benefits.]” Today, we can be far more customer-centric, made possible by readily available segmentation data, rapid prototyping and validation, robust competitive analysis and monitoring tools, and more.

The early days.

The concept of positioning dates back to the late '60s and the work of Al Ries and Jack Trout, who later wrote the seminal book Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind. But it was Geoffrey Moore’s book, Crossing the Chasm, that gave a whole generation of technology marketers the magic formula:

For [target customer] who [statement of need or opportunity] [product] is a [product category] that [compelling reason to buy]. Unlike [primary competitive alternative], our product [statement of primary differentiation].

It’s clear, complete, and useful – and it remains the gold standard for product teams around the world.

Learning curves.

Moore’s template gives teams a North Star for guiding the entire organization on the customer, the problem, and the solution -- from the developer team to the product team, marketing, and sales.

But a simple positioning statement belies the pre-work that went into creating it, and it’s tempting for a busy product team to take shortcuts. These are the ones I commonly see:

  • Targeting customers without a segmentation framework – describing target buyers as “CFOs of F500 companies” isn’t enough to create the deep understanding product teams need to deliver winning solutions. Nor is it enough to guide marketing efforts or messaging. Furthermore, larger companies can end up with multiple products targeting the same audience, defeating the whole point of positioning which, by definition, is segment-specific.

  • Needs conjured to match benefit statements – Not every product team has the benefit of actual customer research for understanding problems that need solving. Instead, product teams make an intelligent attempt at describing pain and challenges the solution is designed to solve. In truth, a problem or a pain point is what the customer says it is, not what you hope it is. As Steve Blank would say, “get out of the building.”

  • Competitors that aren’t fully researched – Early in my career, I worked for a company with an intense rivalry. We took it for granted that the market hated our competitor as much as we did. That isn’t a clear enough case for a credible, differentiated market position. You need to research competitors the way your customers does, adopting their evaluation criteria as your own.

  • Lack of differentiation – not every product is #1, particularly in mature or crowded markets. It is incredibly difficult to position a me-too product. This situation is made more difficult by a target market that is described too broadly, or customer problems that aren’t well defined.

  • Positioning too late – Have you ever been asked to write a product’s positioning statement just as you get ready to launch it? That’s too late. Unfortunately this is a common practice, particularly in larger companies with established products and multi-product portfolios. The positioning statement, or at least its hypothesis, should have guided the design and development of the product from the outset.

Fast forward.

We’ve come a long way since Crossing the Chasm was first published in 1991. The massive growth of start-up ecosystems means there are more people practicing and honing the art and science of positioning. And out of this crucible come insights and tools that can be applied by companies of any size, among them:

Delivering value to customers is more important than growth. See Andy Rachleff’s take on the product-market fit imperative.

Great positioning starts with truly understanding the customer, so you can speak to customers in their language. Learn more about the Customer Development Model in Steve Blank’s Four Steps to the Epiphany. (Or read Eric Reis’ excellent distillation here).

What a customer value proposition is, and isn’t. Learn how to build one effectively using Alex Osterwalder’s Value Proposition Canvas.

Winning products focus on solving problems, not implementing features. See Andy Cagan’s Inspired: How to Create Great Products Customers Love.

How many times have you started a positioning exercise with a list of product features that get sorted into capabilities that are embellished by benefits statements? That's inside-out thinking, and it's not very exciting. Nor will it inspire your marketing and sales teams. And if they're not inspired, your customers won't be either.

The first and best thing that a product team can do when positioning a product is to think outside-in. Specifically: who is my customer, and why will my product improve their life, their work, or the world in a meaningful way? That's when the story gets interesting.

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