Why is product positioning so hard?

Product positioning matters – especially in crowded markets – but how do we position our product well and correctly in the eyes of our target consumers? With the help of positioning expert April Dunford, author of “Obviously Awesome, this article shares tips to help you succeed.

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What is product positioning?

“Product positioning is not a new concept and has been around since the early 1980s,” said April on “Reel Talk: The Customer Insights Show.” “Positioning is misunderstood. Most folks confuse positioning with what we want to do with positioning once we have it.”

Product positioning is not:

  • Let’s write a tagline
  • Brand positioning
  • Branding
  • Messaging

April explained that product positioning defines how your product is the best in the world in its specific category, how it delivers value, and how customers view it. It’s not just what a product is.

“It’s context setting for products,” April said.

Why is product positioning hard?

Positioning can be challenging because companies default to what they think the product is.

“We are building a database,” April gave as an example. “What else could it be other than a database? This isn’t hard. We are just going to position this as a database. It couldn’t be anything else.”

But that doesn’t always translate in the market. A new consumer looking at the product might not see it as clear-cut as the company did when they saw it first in the market. Of course, that’s not a good place for a company and leads to confusion in the market.

Production positioning is hard because we don't position deliberately.

“It’s not just a database. It’s a database in the context of how consumers are using it,” added Jenn Vogel, chief revenue officer at Voxpopme and host of “Reel Talk.” “To bridge the gap of how we think of our product and how our customer thinks about the product – that’s where the hardest part is.”

Another time-consuming path can include focusing on tasks that won’t help us position the product. For example, some companies try to determine their why – something Author Simon Sinek has made popular.

“I had people say to me they worked on determining their why, and now they ask, ‘and now what do we do with it?'” April added that these concepts might be more meant to encourage us to think differently, but maybe aren’t supposed to be taken so literally.

As Mark Schaefer said on “Reel Talk,” the why can matter in brand activism activities but don’t use it in your marketing.

If it was really about the why let’s take a successful company and see if we know its why. How about Apple? I’m certainly an Apple fanboy, and I don’t know their why.

“No one knows,” April said. “I guess that’s not why we are buying it then.”

How to understand your customers to get product positioning right

First, April said, we need to know how a customer makes a purchase decision. For example, in B2B sales, there are often five to eight people involved in the process, and it’s sometimes not very straightforward.

“We need to understand who the champion is and who does the bulk of the work,” April said. “But we also need to understand who else the champion needs to get on board to make this deal happen. Sometimes there’s an IT group, or security or legal. Sometimes a person above them writes the check, so we need to understand that.”

To position our product correctly, we need to understand the customer’s perspective on what alternate solutions there are.

“If they have a problem, they are already solving it some way,” April said. “And often that way is terrible. They do it with a spreadsheet, interns, or pen and paper.”

Understanding companies’ status quo matters and what prompts them to consider changing.

“Did something break? Was there an accident? Did the person get a new boss?” April rattles off some possible reasons for change.

And then, once companies start the buying process, we need to figure out how to get shortlisted.

“In B2B, we don’t buy the first thing we see,” April said. “I need to make a shortlist; explain to my boss why somebody made the shortlist.”

And remember that not everyone cares the same amount about solving a particular problem. So it matters to figure out who cares the most about fixing the issue you are solving.

“That’s where the magic happens,” April said.

Read next: The importance of genuine relationships to understand customers

How to understand the buyer profile to move forward

It starts with asking the right questions to understand what’s happening. But then also consider the trends and similarities you are seeing between consumers in the cohort of your perfect buyer.

  • Consider who they are comparing you to.
  • Think about how they see their problem and why they see that action is needed now to fix the problem?

To truly understand your customers, ensure knowledge about them is shared centrally. Different departments gather customer insights – from sales and marketing to insights and beyond.

Read next: What does it mean when companies are democratizing research?

Ways to test positioning

There are several ways to test if your product positioning is on the right track.

Use the design-thinking process to get feedback and ideas from consumers along the way. You could also do a video survey with target consumers. April said to consider testing new ways to position a product in a sales pitch.

“If I got a sales team, I could create a pitch deck that reflects the positioning,” she said. “I can get qualified prospects in the door and see what’s going on. You’ll get a lot of signals.”

Read next: What does it mean to be consumer-first?

Product positioning in the sales process

We want to understand the customer and their problems! But, there comes a time when we should discuss how we can solve their problem with our product.

April mentions the sales strategy where salespeople ask many questions to get started on a call. Tell me about your system, how you do this now, etc. I’ve worked with sales teams that did this well, but what they were selling to particular clients differed based on the answers.

Why do we need to play a game of 20 questions when the product sold is the same, no matter the answer? April said that we should get to the point.

“They are trained to go in and say ‘let’s talk about your pain,’ and I think that’s a waste of time,” she said. “Customers have all kinds of pains and – especially as a startup – we solve one little thing. So just assume they have that pain or qualify them on that one and be done.”

Just go in and say:

  • We work with a lot of companies like yours.
  • Here’s what we see they are wrestling with.
  • Do you have that problem?

"It doesn't matter what they say. We are still only solving this one thing. Asking for all their problems is performative."

“Why are we asking all these questions if we roll into the same pitch regardless of what they say?” April said.

Is production positioning ever done?

In short: No.

Consumer trends change. New competitors emerge. Sometimes established brands are entering your area, and that’s now something to consider – how are we different from them? And are consumers agreeing with that differentiation? So once we are on the right road to position our product, the journey continues with updates along the way – based on who else is traveling along the same road.

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What’s a question you’d like to ask consumers?