A Position On Positioning
by Shabnam Gideon
We need to talk about “the positioning problem.”
Not only defining your distinctive position but using the right methodology to arrive at true brand distinction.
It’s a great problem to have. Why? Because it drives us to look beyond what we think we know about a brand, helping us examine the emotional, psychological, and social — the human — qualities of a brand more deeply. And if, as we propose, the key to positioning is differentiation, then we say humanity is the heart of distinctiveness.
That means we’ve begun to approach positioning a little bit differently at Focus Lab: First, we focus on brand positioning, not product positioning. Second, we create a positioning strategy, not a statement.
We’ve developed this one-two punch over our years of experience and experimentation. And we continue to evolve it — we can’t stop thinking about it. (Yeah, we’re in deep.) Here’s why it matters to us, and how it benefits our clients.
How We Think About Positioning
Renowned brand strategist and author Marty Neumeier asserts that positioning is “the discipline of creating a compelling difference” and “the art of finding a strategic slot in your customer’s mind.”
But that “discipline” and “art” can (and should) take different forms — just as there are a variety of “positioning problems,” there are multiple ways to arrive at positioning. For us, though, we’ve developed a process that complements our clients: brand positioning strategy for B2B tech companies.
Far more than just a logo, color palette, or typography, a “brand” is the comprehensive experience, perception, and gut feelings customers associate with a product, service, experience, or organization.
In the B2B tech world — expansive as ever and evolving at light speed — it’s challenging to be “the first” or “the only” at something. And while some companies are genuine firsts (in terms of products they’ve invented or categories they’ve carved out), others are doing equally valuable work, such as:
Entering a crowded category with a dramatically improved product or service.
Beginning to develop a market offering based on a vision of the future.
Refreshing their position to better articulate their superior product or service in an increasingly crowded landscape.
When it comes to positioning, any company other than “a first” will struggle to differentiate itself on features and product alone — especially in the B2B world awash in buzzwords and jargon and “my product stack is bigger than yours.” That’s why brand positioning is so important — and why brands should embrace a “strategic slot” based on a more subjective appeal.
Lifestyle brands (another crowded ecosystem) provide an example worth noting. They build a tribe of devotees based on community, not on any objective measure like a feature or function. Commonly these are consumer brands, but they don’t have to be. And it doesn’t mean their products aren’t unique or compelling in and of themselves. The salient takeaway here: Products, features, and services may ultimately be meaningless if you can’t ascribe to them some higher benefit that appeals to your audience on a deeper level.
Nike doesn’t talk to us about their shoes, they help us feel like we belong. Patagonia doesn’t tell us about their clothes, they invite us on their crusade to save the planet. Zello doesn’t rest on app functions and features, they speak to their users’ “emotional desire to connect” and so they “nurture community in an unfettered, natural, and nimble manner.”
That deeper level is brand positioning — Focus Lab’s expertise. As a B2B brand agency and as brand strategists and writers, we aren’t business or product strategists or marketers, so we focus on what we can and should affect: your audience’s perception of your brand. And perception is most tenacious when it is rooted in the emotional, psychological, or social.
And therein lies the value prop of brand positioning: We explore both the objective and subjective measures of brand differentiation that may win you an audience larger than that you might have gained through products and services alone.
The Positioning That We Do
The positioning that we do is brand positioning strategy.
Our work aims to either find and label a point of differentiation that already exists within your business and brand, or define a new point of differentiation on which to base your brand and its strategy. Either way, the purpose of our positioning work is to examine your differentiation, illuminate what might make you stand out in the eyes of your customers, and develop key pieces of your brand position.
The outcome of this work is clarity on your target market/segment and their needs, competitive category, differentiation, and proof of your promise.
An Emphasis On Differentiation
Sometimes our positioning strategy can identify an existing differentiator on which to base a brand and marketing strategy; this result uncovers your differentiation. But other times our strategy finds no compelling differentiator exists, so we work with you to define one.
In either case, we put a lot of weight on differentiation because identifying what’s unique usually forces us to look beyond the objective — since that’s where the greatest potential for cementing your target perception in the minds of your audience is.
We also describe how to talk about your brand and offerings to your target audiences.
The reason we do a brand positioning strategy and not a positioning statement is that the term “positioning” lacks clarity and the term “statement” seemed to get everyone bogged down in wordsmithing and confused about what the statement should and could do.
We’ve found this to be much more powerful and practical than a single positioning statement — a vehicle that we don’t want to overload with trying to carry all your positioning needs (such as product position or go-to-market strategy).
The Positioning That We Don’t Do
Your work defines how you conceive of your business, products, and services in response to a market (i.e., product or service positioning). Our work considers your business strategy but ultimately gives us what we need to differentiate your brand in relation to your competition in the eyes of your audience (i.e., brand positioning).
Yes, there is a fine and sometimes confusing line between brand position and product positioning — this is particularly true for companies who present a single product or service. But we don't believe brand is defined by or limited to the number of products a company carries. Even one-product companies prove again and again an ability to develop deep emotional resonance beyond the bounds of their offering.
Finally, here are some other positioning “problems” we can help you navigate:
Category: You're a car, sure, but what type? Category tells your audience who they should compare you to. Sometimes it's best to fit in an existing category. Sometimes it’s best to create a new category. And sometimes label an unnamed category.
Primary audience need: Often, products and services were developed to solve a particular need, but over time you learn that you’re actually solving a different or deeper problem. Sifting through audience pain points illuminates how what you provide serves their greatest need.
Underdeveloped differentiation: You can play the game of table stakes, but it’s unlikely you’ll continue to win. A deep dive into objective and subjective differentiators will yield the greatest opportunity for clarifying what really sets you apart.
Proof: Proof is not what you say makes you better, and it’s not saying that you are better. It’s laying bare your true offerings in a way that can be substantiated. We help you sort through the fluff to get to the real proof of benefit in your offerings.
All this to say: you are more than your product. You are a purveyor of purpose and your positioning will solidify your connection to the people you serve. And we can help you navigate those murky waters and filter out all but what is essential to you and to your customers.
Special thanks to Wade Livingston and Idoia Gkikas for their counsel, heavy editing, and at least a couple straight plagiarisms.
Photos by kirk lai and Steven Wright on Unsplash