May 16, 2017
Everything You Know About Positioning Is Wrong

Positioning as a concept has been around since 1969 when it was first introduced by Jack Trout. The idea became mainstream marketing knowledge after Ries and Trout published “Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind” in the early 80’s and marketers have been taught this style of positioning ever since.

Ries and Trout argued that Positioning was the solution to standing out in a noisy marketplace filled with too many products and too many marketing messages trying to promote them. They reasoned that customers, when presented with too many choices, will look for ways to compare and classify solutions. Positioning is the act of giving those customers a map of the current landscape and then instructing them where they fit and why one solution is better than the others around them.

Positioning Matters More Now Than Ever

The problem that Positioning was designed to solve hasn’t gone away — it’s gotten exponentially worse. If customers were hit with too many marketing messages in 1969, imagine how much worse that is today when advertising has moved beyond newspapers and TV to spread across every corner of both the physical and digital world. If there were too many product offerings back then, what we are offered today in a borderless world of Etsy makers, lean startups and Shopify stores is head-spinning.

As we try to introduce new offerings, we are presented with the following set of Positioning challenges:

1. Getting the attention of prospects (while they are bombarded with so much advertising that they are experts at ignoring it).

2. Having prospects quickly understand what the offering is (when they are already trying to figure out billions of other offerings).

3. Having prospects easily understand how this offering is different and better than others (when there are already established “leaders” in every existing market).

We need good Positioning now more than we ever have.

Digital Technology has Changed How we Develop & Market New Products

But the same factors that have resulted in an increasingly noisy market have also changed the way we develop and market new offerings — to the extent that the way we have traditionally done positioning is no longer effective or perhaps even relevant.

Traditionally Positioning has been an exercise performed by a company ON a market. Marketers inside the company decided on the key attribute the product would be known for, developed positioning and then built marketing campaigns aimed at changing the opinions and preferences of potential customers.

Digital technology changes this dynamic entirely in several key ways:

- Customers are now in Control — Social media and digital channels have given prospects the power to connect to each other and gather data from sources way beyond the company itself. They now form their own opinions about brands and are increasingly skeptical about messages coming directly from companies. The influence that companies have over their own market positioning is decreasing while customers are becoming increasingly powerful in defining how a company is seen across a market.

- Fast Feedback/Fast Changes — It used to take companies months to understand how a new products and message was being received by a market. We can now measure this in hours or days. Now we can work quickly to iterate not only the way we talk about products but also the products themselves in real-time.

- Rapidly Shifting Markets — New offerings are now rapidly introduced into markets and the preferences of prospects are changing just as rapidly. Where we used to position a products in well-defined and established market spaces, we now have to deal with a shifting landscape where everything from the competitors, the characteristics and the boundaries of the market are rapidly shifting.

So How Does This Change How We Do Positioning?

The result of this is that positioning a new offering in a market requires a completely different process. Modern positioning needs to be fundamentally different in three key ways:

- Positioning needs to be an iterative process — Positioning is no longer a one-shot deal that a company tosses out into the world in the hopes that it can convince prospects that their view of the world makes sense. Modern positioning is iterative, and is developed and refined over time by the company and prospects interacting with each other. Positioning will (and should) shift over time as features, markets, competitors shift.

- Positioning involves re-framing the context of a market — Traditionally Positioning was about teaching prospects about where a new offering fit within an existing established market. But markets are much more dynamic today, quickly shifting as new technology and offerings emerge. We can no longer always rely on a pre-defined market frame of reference within which to position our products. For new products, this represents a huge opportunity to work with prospects to re-draw the boundaries of the market. As brands, we are no longer forced to play an existing game against established competitors, we are free to invent our own game with out own rules, where we can use our strengths to take on larger competitors and win.

- Positioning is a process that involves market and product development together — The act of Positioning an offering is no longer a point in time marketing decision that is done independent of product. It is a process that involves developing the market and the product together in concert. Product features that are built purposely to help reach and acquire customers and get them using the product have become a critical component of success. The process of Positioning can no longer be left to the marketing department along and is a cross-functional effort aimed at helping make the offering successful.