4 mins • Positioning


"Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the ax." –Abraham Lincoln

 Illustration of a chocolate chip cookie

Marketers like to believe that consumers care about brands. Economists believe that consumers are rational and carefully weigh their options before making decisions. In reality, brands are merely mental shortcuts.

Consumers often make snap judgements based on incomplete information. They make purchasing decisions based on emotions and use rationality to back their decisions.

If nobody really cares about your brand and nobody reads your carefully crafted ad copy, how do you get people to pay attention in the first place? And when there are so many competing alternatives, how do you get them to choose your products over others?

The way to do that is by having a message so sharp and clear that it can cut through the clutter and stand out in people’s minds.

Positioning is about perceptions

What do you want your customers to think, when they think of you? If every great product tells a story, what’s your product’s story about? This is the essence of positioning. It is a marketing tool that helps you shape the mental image in the customer’s mind about your products.

Positioning is a simple, clear and intentional concept that you want your customers to associate you with. It’s a a selection of words or statements that describe what you want to be known for.

Positioning is not about slogans, or even what the product is. It’s about what the customer perceives the product to be. People will form perceptions about your products whether you like it or not. Positioning tries to shape that perception.

Let’s say you sell chocolate chip cookies. How do you position it?

  • An indulgent afternoon snack for a working adult?
  • A treat for a well-behaved child?
  • A gift for your significant other on a special occasion?
  • A vegan product that’s better for the environment while being lower in calories?
  • A force for change in the world through sustainably sourced ingredients and a donation program with 5% of profits going to cocoa farmers?

Each of these choices would require a different set of tactical decisions, such as which ingredients to use, how much to charge, where the cookies are sold and how they are marketed. This is why positioning is at the core of marketing strategy. It sets the tone on how you grow.

Great positioning is simple

When done well, positioning puts you in the best possible light against the competition. For example, for years, Apple stood for simplicity, creativity, and humanity. This was most apparent in their famous advertising campaign, Think Different.

For the past decade, Apple has been evolving its positioning towards “privacy”. This move positions Apple as the defender of privacy among the increasingly high value, privacy-conscious consumers, while painting its competitors Google and Facebook as the data-hungry, evil corporations. It is also a very defensible position for Apple and almost impossible for competitors to claim due to the nature of their respective business models.

Another great example is Basecamp. In their early days, Basecamp was positioned as the enemy of Microsoft Project, the 800-pound gorilla in the room. In order to compete, Basecamp chose to do deliberately less, packaging their project management philopophy by writing books, waging war against gantt charts and even refusing to add due dates on todo lists. They started a mini movement and gained a loyal following along the way.

Today, Basecamp’s positioning evolved into an “all-in-one” solution for project management, and their marketing website reinforces this with messages such as “the only tool you need to run your entire business”.

Getting positioning right is crucial

A good positioning addresses who the product is for, what problem it solves and why it does better than anyone else. Here are three questions to figure it out:

  1. What would your customers do if your product didn’t exist? Write down every single alternative, including “ignore the problem”, “use pen and paper” or even “eat muffins”. This will help you figure out who your true competitors are.
  2. Why does your product solve these problems better than competing alternatives? It could be superior technology, in-depth insights, sustainable practices, anything that sets you apart.
  3. Who are the customers that care most about your unique way of solving these problems? Your solution might be faster, but not all customers care about speed.

When you look at the answers, you will start to see themes emerge. Use these themes as the basis of your positioning. It could be a few words, a sentence or a paragraph, the format is not important.

Can your entire company rally behind this new positioning? Can you use this positioning as the glue to bind your product, pricing, distribution and marketing communications together?

Positioning is the backbone of a sound marketing strategy and it’s essential to get this right. Include your whole team in the process and take your time. Focus on customer perceptions.

Once you know what you want your product to stand for, ruthlessly sharpen and simplify your message as this is your only chance to be remembered the way you want to, if remembered at all.