Brand Strategy

A Position On Positioning

11 min read


ere’s a statement: at Focus Lab, we don’t write positioning statements.

What? (What?!?) It’s true.

We have our reasons, and we’ll share them with you. First, though, a disclaimer: we’re not saying there’s an absolute right or wrong way to arrive at positioning. There are many techniques, many of them are valid, and some of them might work for you. But please hear us when we say this: if you’re a B2B tech company and you’re asking, “What can we own?” the answer always begins with strategy.

And that’s because strategy — at least the way we do it here at Focus Lab — considers the full context of your company and the competitive landscape you occupy. Our strategic lens is that of your best-fit customers and what matters most to them. And at the heart of it all is brand — not product — because that’s something you can build that is truly distinctive.

Speaking of distinctiveness, let’s take a quick look at how differentiation has become, well, difficult. Doable, though. Very doable. We can (we will!) get there. Together.

Strong Statements

In the 1950s and 1960s, positioning statements became The Big Thing. While he didn’t invent the statement itself, renowned brand strategist and author Marty Neumeier defined positioning as “the discipline of creating a compelling difference” and “the art of finding a strategic slot in your customer’s mind.”

It’s a clear concept. Notice how it highlights a “strategic” aim. Note how it’s customer-centric. All good things. Great things, even — especially at a time when it was much easier to own differentiation, to be first, to be … the only. But as the saying goes, times have changed.

Today there are simply more companies vying for the same customers. The pace of innovation and the nuances of technology mean new products and services debut every day — maybe they’re better, maybe they’re not, but it’s become increasingly difficult to clearly describe how and why. And trying to describe how and why in a single sentence that isn’t 50 words long and doesn’t sound like something out of a graduate-level computing course? Good luck.

Oldschool positioningstatement2

For these reasons we believe the positioning statement has become strained. While its heart and intent are still admirable, the vessel itself often falls flat. Additionally, it’s become more about what makes a product cool and less about why that matters to a target audience. In this sense we’ve seen two major developments with positioning statements: they’ve started to abandon strategy, and they’ve become hollow prompts for organizations to tell themselves what they want to hear. In many instances, they’re merely fill-in-the-blank templates that lack originality and struggle to account for changes we’ve seen in buyers, marketplaces, and tech in general.

The result? A statement that might “sound like us” but doesn’t move a brand forward. There’s a better way.

Stronger strategy

Here’s the truth: it wasn’t long ago that Focus Lab was, in fact, writing positioning statements alongside our clients. This is also true: many of those clients have seen their brands evolve and thrive. (That’s an important point: the success or failure of any brand doesn’t hinge on a single element, be it a positioning statement or a logo or the copy in the hero headline.) But we noticed some patterns.

We called them … The Five Too’s.

  • Too many ideas: a laundry list of features and exhaustive (or, exhausting) search to find The One (even if it didn’t exist).
  • Too little focus on best-fit customers: a quest for broad appeal instead of laser focus on the customers that really count.
  • Too limited differentiators: a tendency to focus on product alone … even though a good product is table stakes for entry into the market.
  • Too little attention to alternatives: the trap of proclaiming why product capabilities are better instead of looking at alternatives (read: brand) that can create authenticity and offer greater value to people.
  • Too much wordsmithing: the act (crime!) of trying to make positioning word-perfect … so it can play externally on the website. (This is not the purpose of a positioning statement.)

Maybe you’ve read all this and you’re thinking, This all makes sense, but can simply moving away from positioning statements magically break these patterns? No. But that’s not the point. When Focus Lab stopped writing positioning statements, we weren’t trying to create an Easy Button. Instead, we wanted to make space for collaboration and valuable discussion. And within the aforementioned patterns there is plenty of fruitful dialogue to be had.

So, here’s what we did, what we still do today — and why strategy-led positioning at Focus Lab is decidedly different.

We call these … The Four B’s.

Brand first
— At Focus Lab, our approach to positioning relies on a strategy, collaboration between us and our clients, and a real desire to connect with audiences on an emotional level. This work is a process, intentionally defining what your brand will be known for and by whom. And our process stems from our ethos, “brand first,” with product as decidedly supplementary. (Note: We will add a product positioning exercise to scopes when appropriate, but our primary positioning work explores aspects that go beyond table stakes, so you’re positioned for something bigger than products and services alone.)

— We live and breathe B2B technology (this is our position, as a company!), so our positioning approach reflects our commitment to our client base. We dig into the specifics of your brand and industry so that we can make compelling connections between technology and human nature. Buying cycles, target accounts, wins and losses, market trends, internal team dynamics — we know these need to be baked into the way we deliver on positioning, so we’ve tailored our approach to capture the nuances of B2B landscapes.

Best customers and context
— Drink your coffee and dive right in: let’s reexamine your differentiators through the eyes and minds of your customers and build your positioning from their point of view. And let’s only consider your best, most loyal customers. We’re not looking to build positioning to reach everyone or prevent dissatisfaction; that’s a recipe for a half-baked brand. Remember: Lululemon isn’t trying to appeal to just anyone who exercises.

And what about context? This is your market or industry category. You're a platform, sure, but what type? Do you want people to compare you to other platforms, smaller plug-ins, or offline solutions? The right context tells your audience the setting and specific features to expect from you and alternatives.

Bridging strategy and verbal identity
— Our strategists and writers work together throughout the whole of positioning, each contributing their skills to the sum of a stance our partners can both believe in and put into practice. This means we take ideas and concepts developed in strategy and wrap them in specificity and emotion as we build out brand messaging. In this way, our client partners and their teams are able to see how to make the brand come alive — and ensure that positioning moves from abstract to actionable.

Strongest stance

Here we go: positioning should not be limited to a statement. It should be a collaborative exercise that combines branding expertise with the client’s expertise. It will work if we all put in the work.

If, in the digital world beyond this blog post, you ever encounter a Mad Lib-style exercise that has you fill in the blanks to arrive at your positioning, beware. Can exercises like this be useful? Sure. But they can’t be the only tool to chart the course for your brand’s future. Branding expert April Dunford goes so far as to say that positioning statements are “not only pointless but potentially dangerous.” She explains: “The exercise assumes that there is only one answer for each of the blanks [market, offering, category, benefit, competitor]. You simply ‘know’ what it is. However, most products could easily be positioned in multiple different market categories, with different competitors, providing different value for different kinds of customers.”

Similarly, if someone ever says to you, “Hey, don’t bother with positioning, it’s NBD,” walk away. The truth: if you (and your branding partner) don’t put in the work to position your brand, your competitors or audience will do it for you. This leaves your perception up to chance.

But when you work with a partner who’s excited to collaborate, and who can help you articulate your brand’s appeal beyond cliches and table stakes, you’re in control. Even in today’s world where being unique or The Only is increasingly challenging, you can still establish, in the words of Mark Ritson, “relative differentiation.” This is a sharp and consistent brand message with careful attention paid to “three three C’s” — “What does my target customer want, what can I deliver, and what does the competitor for this particular target customer offer?”

When you replace a statement with a strategy, you have a stance. And that means you have the strength to steer the market.

Strong partnerships, stronger brands

While it’s possible to look at a brand and infer its positioning, we’d like to invite you behind the curtain — so you can see how we helped build stronger brands with stronger stances. Below are just a few of the hundreds of clients we’ve partnered with over the years.

Note: In each of these examples, successful positioning hinges on internal buy-in, consistency, and monitoring. Positioning is hollow without the backing of your marketing and sales teams. It’s ineffective if it is only implemented in a handful of touchpoints. It’s fragile without a plan to ensure it adapts to significant changes. So, we typically advise our partners to revisit their positioning on a calendar basis. And that’s another thing we do differently at Focus Lab — remind our clients that positioning should evolve, as needed.

Locally is the store locator platform, but what kind? The kind that tells you exactly what’s in stock and where, through real-time inventory. This positioning addresses the chasm their best-fit audience faces: the convenience of online shopping with the desire to support local businesses.

- Geographic color palettes
- “Locally was founded to fill the gap.”
- Around the corner variable logotype

Real Thread
Real Thread stands for the best quality custom shirts with none of the guilt. Against low-quality and unsustainable alternatives, their brand serves audiences who care less about overnight delivery and more about shirts that last well beyond the moment.

- You can see how their positioning aligns their brand promise with their products, demonstrated by this excerpt of homepage copy “Guaranteed accuracy, quality and delivery. Real Thread exists to elevate the everyday.”

Zuora is end-to-end, covering every tech need across subscriptions and monetization. Diverse, yet interconnected. This position allows them to have a non-platform model built around the needs of flexibility and scale, so that businesses can unlock new ways to grow and connect with end customers.

- From their interlocking monogram to motion elements that “flex” and “scale,” Zuora’s whole identity is built from its positioning. Most directly, you can see the ties of this position in its website hero blurb, “Designed to help you build, run, and grow a modern business rooted in recurring relationships.”

Everyone uses Sheets, but does anyone love Sheets? Rows chose a position to build a competing solution around a customer-first approach and a personal, friendly tone.

- “Where data comes to life.”
- Personal, friendly illustrations
- Vibrant, lively color

This blog was rewritten in 2024 to better reflect our current stance on positioning.

Photos by kirk lai and Steven Wright on Unsplash

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