Back in Feb 2004 I was host to a hoppin' debate about positioning. In the past couple days, the conversation was revived again by Greg with the question, "How can I simplify the concept of positioning for new business owners?" I thought it was a great question and one to bring forward in a new post.
I answered Greg with this comment:
'What can you do better than anyone else that meets an unmet need in the market?' That's your position. To arrive there, you need a pretty good understanding of your customer and your competition.
Part of me wonders how possible that really is... i.e. unmet need. Is there really anything new under the sun? Or have we not looked in the right places?
There are unmet needs everywhere! You simply need to talk to customers to learn what they really care about.
And this ties into my most recent post on innovation: Find out what customers want, and then deliver on it. This does not mean we let them tell us how to do our jobs. But I think most companies would be amazed to learn what customers really think.
There are two different kinds of "talking to customers." The first is direct company/customer dialog; this method is terrific for making customers feel heard, identifying areas for product/service improvement, and finding out what they like best about the products/services. Jonathan Dampier offers a great example:
We recently invited 10 key, multi-million dollar accounts to a no-holds barred customer advisory/user group meeting. What's the big deal? Some LOVED us and consistently sang our praises while others would likely be calling our competitors come contract renewal time. Yet we encouraged open and honest feedback on what we were doing right as well as how we were screwing up. We also exposed our R&D concepts and asked their opinions...
Bringing together clients with various feelings about our company was a risk. Yet, we saved large amounts of money and other resources killing projects deemed to be turkeys. And we'll generate more future revenue by bolstering the burgeoning product lines we now know will sell.
However, this method of talking directly with customers is not the best for a positioning exercise. Drawbacks are twofold:
- Blind spots. You're talking with a non-representative sample of your customer/prospect population.
- Bias and lack of complete information. Customers will often refuse to share perceptions of the company's competitors. Or, they'll play down (or up) competitor's strengths and weaknesses.
For positioning, we need an unbiased view from a representative sample of customers, prospects and trialers. This requires third-party involvement to coordinate 'blind' studies that explore:
- Perceptions of the category
- Awareness and perceptions of all the players in the category
- Likes/dislikes about the current available options
- 'Ideal world' and how it differs from current options
There are many other areas for exploration, but I find that these basic questions will unveil the obvious issues related to brand/product positioning. From this exercise, you should be able to draw 3 circles that (ideally) overlap in one spot; that one spot is your positioning.
- Company strengths
- Competitive difference
- Customer needs
But many times they don't overlap. You might have a competitive strength and point of difference in an area that no one cares about. Or you identify the perfect unmet customer need, but your company can't deliver on it. And I've also had a situation where all the circles overlapped, but the company wasn't using the most relevant words to communicate that core benefit and customers were rejecting the message. (Actually, all these options would make for good follow-up blog posts!)
This is a great, multifaceted discussion topic. If you have questions or comments related to positioning, I'd love to hear them.