Positioning is a process that focuses on conveying product value to buyers, resulting in a family of documents that drives all outbound communications. Yet in recent years, it seems as if positioning has “devolved” into a document of vague superlatives that convey nothing as they attempt to trick the customer into buying the product. The best positioning clearly states how the product will solve specific customer problems.
The why of positioning
Agencies report that companies who have completed positioning documents will save 30% to 50% of their agency costs. Just as your local video store profits from late fees, the hidden costs of agency work come from all the re-work. Agencies often include an up-front cost allocated for discerning positioning from executive interviews. They interview the VP of Development and learn about company innovation; they interview the VP of Sales and learn about customer intimacy; they interview the company president and learn about stock performance; they interview the product managers and get product specifications. From these varying viewpoints, they attempt to write a campaign theme. On seeing the campaign, the executives say, ‘That’s not it. I don’t know what I want but I’ll know it when I see it.’
Does this sound familiar?
Positioning results in a series of well-crafted documents that focus on the buyer and how our solutions improve his life.
The trick to positioning is to understand the value of the product to the buyer. In other words, what problems can you solve for the buyer? Do you know the benefits your customers achieve with your products and services? Not sure? Ask.
Much of the writing we see in marketing materials seems obscure due to insincerity. It’s as if the writer wants to fool the reader into thinking the product is more important than it is, or that the product solves problems better than the competitor’s when it doesn’t really. If your product is clearly inferior, you cannot fix it with positioning. A product must be adequate for the market need to succeed; no amount of marketing can overcome it. (I can hear some of you thinking about Microsoft. Remember, Microsoft products are not inadequate; they are wonderfully adequate, and backed by strong marketing.)
‘The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.’
–George Orwell in 1984
For those who are stuck in writing jargon and buzzwords, check out Bullfighter, an add-in to Microsoft Office that rates your writing for its ‘bull.’ It’s particularly handy as a non-partisan comment on the writing of others. Run your company and product messages through Bullfighter to see how much is content and how much is nonsense.
Many organizations create cute or clever taglines that don’t convey meaning. But cute doesn’t work in B2B (and maybe not in B2C either). What does General Electric Company (GE) expect us to think about their ‘Innovation at Work’ tagline? Can we use GE products to be innovative while working? Are their products only good in the workplace? Or perhaps are they working to be innovative in the future? A Google search for this phrase generates over 5,000,000 pages. How meaningful is the phrase to consumers of GE products?
Does anyone believe an enterprise solution will ‘make your dreams come true?’ A Google search for this phrase generates over 3,490,000 pages.
For what it’s worth, I think that SAP does messaging pretty well: ‘The Best-Run Businesses Run SAP’ and ‘Innovative Solutions to Innovate Business.’ The latter phrase results in fewer than 5000 Google hits, all related to SAP.
Solving problems versus speaking specs
As an industry, we wallow in technical jargon and assume that the reader can connect the specs to their problems. Or we hope that our sales people can connect the dots. How unfair to both buyer and seller! The positioning, and thus the marketing materials and sales tools, should explain the value and use specifications to support our promises (if necessary for the buyer).
Compare these two product descriptions posted on eBay for the same product:
First the specification-oriented listing:
This is a trailer mounted z-boom model # is TMZ-34/19. This is a 2000 model Genie. This is a great value and innovation in the trailer mounted boom market. It is all electric, which is economical, it has 4 new batteries and new tires. It has a spare tire. The working height is 40 feet. 19 ft horizontal reach, articulating jib has 130 degree working range, Compact 34 inch width, 500 lb lift capacity, Large 8 in outrigger footpads, Junction box, shelf and tie down attachment points to accommodate generators up to 2500 W, Non-marking footpad covers, AC outlet in platform. It also has Surge Brakes, Parking Brake, Horn.
I am the original owner and this has only been used about 40-50 times It is in excellent working conditions. I own a sign shop and have used it when working on billboards. If you have any additional questions you can call me during the day or email me and I will get back to you. I will also be willing to meet someone within a 300 mile radius of [my hometown] if purchasing with either cash or cashiers check.
Now a problem-oriented listing (for the same product):
This is a great lift because you don’t have to maintain a gas or electric engine. You just hook it up to your vehicle and tow it into position, drop the four outriggers and up you go. Great for trimming trees, construction, or any job where you need a 40-foot reach!
This unit is a 1999 model that was factory refurbished (including new batteries) in 2002 and has been stored inside a hangar since then. It has been used about 10 hours since it was overhauled. The tires have about 300 miles on them including a new spare tire. It looks and operates like new.
This lift has a 500-pound capacity but is narrow enough to fit through many man doors. Plug it in, charge it up, and you are ready for a full day of power lifting!
You can pick it up or I am willing to tow the lift to one of the shipping firms in [town name] who can flat bed it to your location. All shipping arrangements and fees are the responsibility of the buyer.
For more details and specifications go to <link to manufacturer’s product page>.
You don’t have to look too closely to notice the specification and jargon in the specification-oriented listing versus the listing talking to the buyer in buyer language. The problem-oriented message left the specs out but provided a link to the manufacturer’s spec page.
And the results? The specification-oriented description was listed for two weeks with no bids. The problem-oriented listing sold for the same price as the competitor’s minimum bid in four days and three hours.
Focus on the buyer
Most technology companies use a template–and often a formula–for positioning. The best positioning is put in the context of solving a problem for a specific buyer. That means that there are multiple positioning documents, each conveying product value in terms that resonate with the specific buyer.
Start with the generic problem in the industry and the ideal generic solution (which is basically what your product does). Then provide a short primary message, 25 words that you want the buyer to remember, followed by a more detailed product description, again in terms of the buyer’s need. Finally, describe the three to five features that are relevant to this buyer profile.
It takes many different people within an organization to make a purchasing decision for a complex product. Typically, we see a financial buyer, a technical buyer, and one or more user buyers. Each of these buyers has a different primary goal and sees product information through a different lens. The user buyers want to know how the features will make their daily job different and better. The financial buyer obviously wants to know how the product will save money for the company, while the technical buyer is primarily concerned with how the product will fit into the existing technology environment. Of course, all buyers want to be assured that the product will satisfy the needs of the users of the product.
How can we use one message to communicate to multiple buyers? Obviously we cannot. We’ll need different articulations of our message that resonate with each buyer type.
In Pragmatic Institute’s Practical Product Management® seminar, we illustrate the differing viewpoints in positioning with a sales force automation product. A positioning document written for a salesperson should emphasize the features that reduce his paperwork while the document for the sales manager emphasizes the value of centralized territory data.
Company, family, product positioning
One company quadrupled sales of services just by positioning them using the same process. In fact, aren’t services products just like software and hardware? Services should be defined as repeatable offerings that are consistently communicated, sold, and delivered–just like software.
Products and services, as well as families of products, all follow the same method. Within the company’s overall message, we articulate how the product, service, or product family solves problems for each type of buyer.
For example, I assume that Microsoft has positioning documents for Microsoft Word (product), Microsoft Office (product family), and Microsoft Corporation (company). It must be true, as each positioning message is so clearly consistent with the others.
Ideally, a product positioning must amplify the company positioning. It may not matter if you do product or company first, but the product positioning must support the company positioning. Every product should integrate with the company message–or the product should be spun off into a different company.
Positioning has two main benefits. The one obvious to all marketers is the consistency of message. Each marketing and sales piece communicates exactly the same message. A less obvious benefit, but perhaps the more important one, is that the positioning process forces Product Management to identify and spell out clear benefits for each type of buyer. Without a clear message, most products are doomed to failure.