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B2B Book Of The Month - Obviously Awesome

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"Because I hadn’t studied marketing at school, early in my career I read stacks of marketing books and took dozens of courses. I learned a lot but one thing really bugged me - why didn’t we learn how to do positioning?" said author April Dunford in a recent Twitter thread.

So, how did she fix this? Well, take a look at the title of this article. She wrote a whole darn book about it. 

obviously awesome

"I developed a process for doing positioning - first for my own use as an exec and later I taught it to startups in one-on-one workshops and group classes at accelerators. The process became more refined (and battle-tested by sceptical startup founders)."

You'd think with a name like "Obviously Awesome", a book would be setting itself up for slight false advertising. But you'd be wrong. 

April Dunford is not one for overpromising. A specialist in product positioning (across 7 different startups, and the companies which acquired them, she's repositioned a product in each one), market strategy, and building sales teams, she knows what she's talking about.

This is what makes this book so seminal - it offers a positioning technique which is differentiated, unique, and established. But before anything else, the book asks us:

What is Positioning?

According to April Dunford, positioning is showing your customers “how you are the best at something that your target market cares a lot about.”  It's all about acting to deliberately define this, to a defined audience. Definitely. 

April notes that these new definitions are vital, as the concept of positioning is so old and established, and as a result, outdated. People tend to have a preconceived notion of what positioning is, how it is used, and what it looks like. So, we need to develop a useful understanding of the concept, in order to use the idea in practice.  

Every single marketing and sales tactic used in businesses uses positioning as an input and a foundation. So, if people fail at positioning, they fail in these two regards. Then, if those are messed up, the entire business fails.

Basically, none of those fancy marketing trends we all love, like growth hacking, chatbots, content marketing, video marketing, and others. Get your positioning right, and the rest of your marketing will follow. But if you get your positioning wrong, every other part of your marketing will flop. Positioning yourself strongly, and providing the right context for your offerings, is key. 

So, when you're able to clearly communicate what your product is, what it can do for your customers, and what category it occupied, your customers will know why they should buy it now. This will give your company a leg up over the competition, according to April. 

Plus, when the UI and UX of your product are top tier, you'll find yourself in a good space. You'll be able to sell more if everything is more clear, more smooth, and easier to understand than your competition. All of this means your value is easier to understand and experience from the user's standpoint. 

What is Positioning Not?

The following things flow from positioning, which should happen first:

  • A tag line 
  • A point of view 
  • A vision 
  • A brand 
  • Messaging 
  • Marketing or a go-to-market strategy 

How Can Positioning Provide Context?

Positioning might also be defined as the ability to give people context about your product, and how it can benefit them. It helps them figure out what's important, like the blurb of a book, or the establishing shots in a film. 

Most of the most famous and utilised products in the world are special when they've been understood within the right frame of reference. Positioning provides this frame. 

April argues that positioning is all about context:

"When customers encounter a product they have never seen before, they will look for contextual clues to help them figure out what it is, who it’s for, and why they should care. Taken together, the messaging, pricing, features, branding, partners and customers create context and set the scene for the product."

Understanding something which is unfamiliar and new can be challenging for humans. This is because we don't have a current frame of reference for that thing, and we will strive to make sense of it. This will involve taking all the clues available to us, and using this to define the new thing. 

So, this is the same situation faced by customers. When they encounter a product they haven't seen before, they'll look for contextual clues to help them figure out what it is, who it's for, and why it should matter to them. This is where positioning comes in. 

Where businesses trip up is in their belief that their customers will have the innate knowledge to understand their product. Well, customers aren't mind-readers. Most business leaders don't intentionally position their products and assume it's as obvious to their customers as it is to them. Bad move. 

What is the Product Positioning Framework?

April suggests that businesses can position themselves advantageously in just 10 steps.

If you want to get to positioning that’s really differentiated, you have to work through the pieces in the right order.

In order to do this, businesses should follow the framework below:

  1. Understand your happiest customers. The customers who love your product hold the key to understanding what your product is.
  2. Create a positioning team. Exactly what it says on the tin; a positioning process works best when it's a team effort. Consider the outputs of marketing, sales and business development, customer success, and product and development in your process. 
  3. Align your vocabulary, and get rid of your positioning baggage. To consider new ways of thinking, you have to set aside the old ways of thinking. Your team needs to agree to suspend their previous opinions about the positioning of the product. 
  4. List your competitive alternatives. Understand how a customer might replace you, in order to understand how they categorise your product. 
  5. Isolate your unique features and attributes. Strong positioning is centred on what a product does best. 
  6. Map attributes to value 'themes'. This isn't about highlighting every little feature, but focusing on the most critical things that make you worth considering.
  7. Figuring out who cares. Once you have an understanding of your product's value, you can look at who really cares about the value. 
  8. Find a good market frame of reference. The next step is to pick a market frame of reference that makes your value obvious to the groups which care the most about that value. So, you can position to win an existing market (Head to Head) or position to win a subsegment of an existing market category (Big Fish, Small Pond). 
  9. Layer on a trend. But be cautious. Aligning with a trend can make your product seem up-to-date and relevant to people interested in that trend. But describing a trend without declaring a market can make your customers confused. 
  10. Capture your positioning so it can be shared. Your positioning will now need to be shared across your organisation. It needs to have company buy-in, so it can be used to inform branding, marketing, sales, product, and customer success. 

What is Bad Positioning? 

There are a couple of signs of poor positioning. This includes:

  • Your current customers are happy, but new prospects can't figure out what the heck you're selling. So, the value of your product is obvious to some. But if new prospects can't understand who you are, they'll not understand this value. 
  • Your sales cycle is super long, with low close rates. As a result, you're losing out to the competition. Products with a strong position make their value obvious and therefore sell quickly. Positioning tells you which customers to go after, and how to avoid prospects who aren't a good fit. 
  • You have high customer churn. This is customers churning shortly after purchase, and new customers who are asking for features you don't offer or don't plan to offer. This is described by April as “Customers who misunderstood your value chose you for the wrong reasons, and now they’re trying to recover sunk costs by turning your product into what they thought they were getting.”
  • You're under price pressure. If customers are complaining that your prices are too high, you haven't differentiated yourself, and are going to be seen as everything else on the market. If your positioning is clear, clients can easily see the value you are delivering. 

But why does bad positioning happen? Well, April gives two reasons. She calls these 'the two traps'. 

Trap number one: The product changes. You're blind to alternative ways of framing your product. For example, you might start out by building a database, and change the product as you respond to feedback. But because this happens over such a long period of time, you don't realise that what you've built is now an entirely different product from before. This means you still use the same messaging, which confuses customers, who can't understand the new product in the old frame of reference. 

Trap number two: The market changes. So, your product is designed for a market, but that market shifts. So, you might have an established business selling apple juice from a cart. But then a competitor opens a cart next to yours selling "VEGAN JUICE CLEANSE DETOX WATER SQUEEZED FRESH FROM GREEN APPLES". It's the same product, right? Only thing is that you failed to adjust the positioning as the market shifted. The market no longer wants apple juice marketed as solely 'healthy', but desires the other benefits of the product too. 

TLDR; 

The best takeaway is that April doesn't espouse a "silver bullet" solution. She emphasises the importance of examining your environment, then examining it again. 

Positioning is a complex area. It's not just a statement written by your marketers (although that is the foundation for it). Instead, it is a critical element of business strategy, that can determine whether you win or lose the market. 

So, positioning needs to be defined as a rigorous, definite, and intentional process for teams. It clarifies key elements that should inform how business markets, sells, and operates, to win.

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