A framework for better brand positioning

A few weeks ago, I wrote about messaging and how to write better sales and marketing copy. Today, I’m going to take those ideas a little further and talk about the larger - and far more difficult - job of positioning. 

Positioning is more than just writing better copy. It’s about deciding what people will think about your company. And it's incredibly hard. Very few companies get this right.

So let's discuss what goes into great brand positioning. For this discussion, I'm going to borrow some concepts from one of the all-time great marketing books - Positioning: The Battle for your Mind by Al Ries and Jack Trout. (All quotes below come directly from their book.)

Everyone needs to think about positioning, but it's especially important for anyone in the revenue organization. If you interact with customers or lead a team that interacts with customers, you need to understand positioning and how to get it right. So, how do you do it?

1. Look for the hole.

Start by really understanding your market or industry. What's missing from the market now? What will be missing a year from now? What about five years from now? 

And then - how can you fill that hole? What makes you different from what's already out there?

These are not easy questions to answer. But there's always a hole, something that hasn't been identified yet. And there's always something in your company's combination of experience, expertise, knowledge, and philosophy that will set you apart as uniquely qualified to fill that hole. You just have to find it and then articulate it.

Question your assumptions about what you think you know about your industry, especially if you've been in it for a long time. What are you missing? Do you have any blind spots?

Another great way to find holes is to listen to your customers, and understand how they see the market. They're the experts in your space, and customer development conversations will help you uncover those insights. 

This all assumes you know who your customers are, so that brings us to... 

2. Know your ICP.

“The biggest single mistake that companies make is trying to appeal to everybody.”

You can't appeal to everyone. You shouldn't even try - it's expensive and bound to fail. Be vigorous about determining your ideal customer profile (ICP), and the personas you're targeting within it. Narrow, refine, focus in on the ones you really want to talk to. Who are you trying to sell to? Who will benefit from your product? Whose lives can you change?

Once you've decided who you're selling to, learn everything you can about them. Answer questions like: 

  • What are your customers interested in? 
  • What are they worried about? What are their challenges?
  • Where do they hang out online? What do they read? Who do they listen to?
  • What do they like? What annoys them? 

Once you know who your customer is - and where to find them - it becomes a lot easier to talk directly to them. To target them with appropriate messaging and in the appropriate channels. It also is a lot easier to understand where you fit in their worldview, and what you need to do to convince them you're the right fit for their needs. 

3. Get there first. 

If you're lucky enough to be the first to market with something, hold on to your first place position as tightly as you can. If the idea is good, then someone else will have it and they'll be trying to take your place. Sometimes this means you need more resources - you need to spend more money to get your name out there. Sometimes this means you need more targeted marketing - you need to focus on reaching the people who really need to know you better. 

Don't allow yourself to become complacent if you find yourself somewhere first. There's always someone coming up behind you. 

When you're first, you have the opportunity to create how the world sees your category - you can influence trends, shape public perception, and set the standard for what future competitors need to do. But what happens if you're not first to something?

4. Create your own category. 

“If you can’t be first in a category, then set up a new category you can be first in.” 

This is one of the areas where Ries and Trout and I diverge somewhat. So let's talk about category creation for a moment. Marketers love creating a new category. And there are some examples of companies that have successfully created a new category - like HubSpot and inbound marketing. But category creation is difficult, takes a long time, and isn't always successful. Most companies never get there. 

And you know who doesn't care if you're trying to create a category? Your customers. So stop bragging about it on your website. Later, when you've successfully created a category, tell that story all over the place. But now, when you're trying to turn your marketing slogan into A Thing, stop telling people that's what you're doing, and just do it. 

I've been part of category creation a few times, and it's always harder than expected. It requires some different tactics from other kinds of sales and marketing, as well. You'll have to spend more time on PR and earned media, focus on producing more thought leadership and education resources, and reinforce messaging over and over. So think carefully about the time category creation takes before you do it.  

In addition, you need competitors to create a category - a category isn't just one company or one product. So, speaking of competitors... 

5. Understand your competitors. 

“It’s not enough to be better than the competitor. “

I used to hate talk about competitive products. I'd hate to compare what we were building to others - not because we weren't making a better product, but because it seemed silly to frame what we were working on relative to someone else. 

But you need to understand your competitors for successful positioning. Not so that you can compete on product functionality, but so that you can understand how they see the world, determine how that influences your potential customers, and find holes you can fill in. 

You can't just position yourself as the "better" choice - just because you have better customer service or a prettier user interface. You need to provide something your competitors don't. You need a unique hook. And you need to truly understand your competitors to know what your own hook is. 

6. Simplify your message.

“The best approach to take in our overcommunicated society is the oversimplified message.”

When Ries and Trout first wrote Positioning, it was 1981. It's kind of cute to think that people were worried about content saturation in 1981, given where we find ourselves now. Even in 2001 when the book was updated, the number of communication channels was still relatively small (they were worried about having 100 TV channels!). But that makes this argument that much more powerful now; it's even harder to stand out in this media environment than it's ever been. 

So it's incredibly important you do what you can to stand out. And you know what people pay attention to? Simplicity. 

Simplify, simplify, simplify. Keep it short. Keep it memorable. How? Sometimes that means you need to say less, which brings us to our final point.

7. Focus your message. 

“The most difficult part of positioning is selecting that one specific concept to hang your hat on.”

I've said this a million times, and I'm sure I'll say it a million more: pick one thing and go with it. Stop filling your pitch with commas and combos. Instead of saying, "Our product will save you X, Y, and Z," find one word that says the most important thing.  

This all comes back to simplicity. What is the one thing you want to be known for? Figure it out and focus on it obsessively. If you're trying to be everything to everybody, this will never work. But if you're trying to be one thing to one group, you'll be more successful. 

None of this easy. Positioning takes time and iteration. You won't get it right the first time, or even the tenth time. But you'll get closer over time, especially if you focus on these 7 tenets of successful positioning.