Positioning is the art of differentiating your product in the mind of your prospect. Often, it’s referred to as product positioning but it does not involve doing anything to the product itself. In fact, most positioning is cosmetic – it helps to secure a worthwhile position in your prospect’s mind.

Positioning is the first thing that comes to mind when you first hear about a brand, but it should not be confused with branding.

For example, what do you think when you hear about McLaren Automotive? You probably think something along the lines of: precision use of technology to achieve maximum performance and luxury. This is McLaren’s positioning. As a result, there’s no chance of confusing McLaren with Kia.

Why is product positioning important?

We live in an over-communicated society – per capita consumption of advertising in the developed world is at all-time highs. As a result, we see around 5,000 to 10,000 adverts every day. For brands to cut through the jungle of messages we see daily, the only hope of landing a punch is to be extremely selective on who we target. This means concentrating on narrow target markets and to segment those markets even further for more effective messaging. This is the art of positioning.

It’s a crucial ingredient in the buying process – it’s about establishing a place in your prospect’s mind. A place that means something. It’s your opportunity to influence your target market’s perception of your products and services.

If you choose not to address the issue of product positioning head on, you are unlikely to succeed. Consumers are constantly positioning products in their mind – if you don’t help them, they’ll position it with the help of your competitors. Consequently, you won’t be painted in a good light.

Clear, concise and meaningful product positioning helps you to cut through the relentless noise your competitors (and even unrelated products) in the marketplace. Once you’ve entered the mind of your prospect, they can put your messages into context with your positioning and they have a better chance of cutting through.

The goal of product positioning

Our aim is to position a product in the mind of your prospective buyers and to keep it top of mind when they are considering a purchase. To cut through, your positioning must achieve three objectives:

  • It should differentiate your product from your competitors’
  • It should address important buying criteria in the eyes of your prospect
  • It should articulate key benefits or characteristics of your product or company

The most successful product positioning strategies follow a simple set of characteristics that are not too dissimilar to the best marketing messages.

  • They focus on delivering one primary message
  • They mean something to the target audience
  • They positively differentiate against the competition
  • They are relevant to the target audience, not just today – but into the future
  • It is believable, relatable and credible

The road to establishing your positioning

To achieve the three key objectives of successful positioning strategies outlined above, you must have a deep understanding of the three pillars of positioning. You must understand how your target market makes buying decisions. You must understand how your competitors position their products. And you must understand what your product has to offer and how it is different.

The three pillars are heavily interdependent. Therefore, they must be balanced with finesse to achieve competitive advantage. If you only understand two of the three pillars, you likely don’t know enough to successfully position your product in the context of your prospects and the market.

1. Understand your target market

To begin understanding your target audience, you must develop your ideal buyer profile and buyer personas. This requires primary research – speaking to your customers and prospects directly – but it helps you to build an understanding of your target customer’s buying criteria:

  • What product features are important them?
  • What product benefits do they emphasise?
  • How have you helped your existing customers solve their problems?
  • Which of those were the most important or achieved the greatest outcome?

List their buying criteria, problems and frustrations in order of importance. If possible, assign a quantitative weighting to each criterion. If primary research in your target audience is not feasible, consult your sales team, industry experts and third party resources like Facebook Groups, Craigslist and UserTesting to create best-guess assumptions.

Buying criteria in target market
(prioritised and weighted)
42% - Reliability/Reputation
25% - Scalability
16% - Network performance
11% - Bandwidth price
6% - Support experience

2. Analyse your competitors

Research your market thoroughly. This requires a lot of work with a combination of primary and secondary research. You should look at the whole market – it’s the only way to understand the context of the entire market. However, you should then complete more in-depth research on your five most important competitors.

Determine how they position themselves, scrapbook examples of their messaging, sign-up to their email newsletters, go through their sales process, identify the strategies they’re using and how successful they have been.

3. Map buying criteria against the competitive landscape

Now that you’ve completed most of your market research, you need to map your target market’s buying criteria against your competitors’ product positioning. Create a table with two columns – one with your prioritised and weighted buying criteria, and the second with how your competitors position against these criteria.

How does each of your competitors position themselves against the target audience’s needs?

Target market buying criteria
(prioritised and weighted)
Competitive positioning
42% - Reliability/ReputationCompetitor A, C
25% - ScalabilityCompetitor B, C, and D
16% - Network performanceCompetitor E
11% - Bandwidth priceCompetitor F
6% - Support experienceCompetitor A, G

It’s quite normal for more than one competitor to battle for the same position in the market. Expect the market leader to have established a strong position within the highest priority buying criteria. Look out for competitors who are trying to occupy several positions - their positioning is probably confused. Don’t be surprised if one or more buying criteria are not being targeted by any of your competitors.

Try to understand the ‘why’ behind your analysis. Why is nobody targeting X need? Why are Competitor A and B battling for criteria Y? How come nobody has tried to battle the market leader on their positioning?

4. Assess your product’s strength against the target audience’s buying criteria

During your conversations with your customers, you asked which problems you’ve helped them to solve. You also asked them which had the greatest impact on their business. Combined together, this data will give you a great view on where your product is strong.

You should also look outward – analyse your product against your competitors’ because it’s important to understand the context of the market. If you can, buy and directly compare your products to your competitors’. If you can’t, do your secondary research – places like G2Crowd are great for finding reviews of SaaS products. For those in a different industry, start by looking on industry-related forums, message boards, reviews and groups where people are sharing their thoughts on different competitors in the market. This should give you some clear signals on what’s hot and what’s not.

Your table should now look like this:

Your product strengthTarget market buying criteria
(prioritised and weighted)
Competitive positioning
42% - Reliability/ReputationCompetitor A, C
#325% - ScalabilityCompetitor B, C, and D
#216% - Network performanceCompetitor E
#111% - Bandwidth priceCompetitor F
6% - Support experienceCompetitor A, G

5. Look for your market opportunities

First of all, review your research and analysis, and then determine the opportunities that exist in the market. Is there an opportunity where you can deliver and excel? Would you achieve your business goals if you successfully positioned yourself in the vacant position?

If there are no vacant opportunities in the market (or there are, but it doesn’t make sense to position yourself there), you must decide which competitor to target. In the example, I’ve deliberately picked a very crowded market. There are a lot of competitors in the cloud hosting industry, but it’s important to note that there’s still a huge opportunity to differentiate and achieve rapid growth.

You must determine whether the buyer need is strong enough, and whether you can satisfy that need – or a combination of needs – better than anyone else. Are your competitors vulnerable to attack if you position on their key buying criteria? You must ask yourself this question, because the battle will be fierce once you start engaging.

You’ll need to find a beachhead to establish a strong hold on as you enter your competitors’ market segment. I’ve successfully positioned products on a hybrid of very related buying criteria, but ultimately one criteria must take priority or you risk blending in – we achieved this with extreme focus. We targeted our beachhead and then expanded out once the stronghold had been established.

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