Why classic B2B positioning statements don’t work

Costanoa Ventures
Aug 21, 2016 · 4 min read

By: Martina Lauchengco, Operating Partner

This piece originally appeared on VentureBeat.

Positioning statements are one of the most foundational marketing tools for any company. So why are so many of them bad?

The popular formula has become so common there’s even a generator that creates one in 30 seconds. Not surprisingly, formulaic statements are generic and defeat the purpose entirely — identify what a company does in a simple and compelling way.

Throw away the formula

The classic formula — especially in the B2B space — has created overreactions of two kinds. Companies either: (1) differentiate with too much information (TMI) or (2) simplify to the point of being meaningless.

Here’s a TMI example from a data security company:

[Data Security Suite], the leading data loss prevention solution, accurately prevents data leakage, secures business processes, and manages compliance and risk by discovering where data is located, monitoring its use, and protecting it, on the network and at the endpoint.

It is comprehensive to a fault (category + benefits + key use cases) and thus difficult to quickly understand. Then it overreaches on benefits, followed by a complete list of everything it might do. Differentiation — if there is any — is lost. Even though the value it provides is real, the only reaction from its target users is, “I need the product data so I can figure out what this really does.”

The statement’s fundamental flaw is that it lost track of its target audience. Data security folks tend to be some of the most skeptical and want to judge the merits of benefits on their own. Any claims are just “marketing speak” — product facts are what make claims credible. By mixing everything together, the entire statement lost meaning.

This next positioning statement is on the other end of the spectrum:

Better detect and defend your most valuable data by gaining visibility.

Is this for security? Data analytics? Data visualization? Is it about actionable insights from data? The product may do all of these things (it’s mostly data analytics), but readers don’t have a clear map to what problem the product is trying to solve or what it’s best at. Again, if you think about the likely target audience for this, how many times have they read these same claims for similar products?

3 steps for better positioning

So how should a B2B marketer find the happy medium of being meaningful but not overdoing it?

1. Choose clarity over comprehensiveness

Delighted uses the Net Promoter System® to gather real feedback from your customers — in minutes not weeks. No technical knowledge required.

This statement is highly specific: NPS vs. “customer feedback”. It also says how it’s easy (no technical knowledge required) and fast (in minutes not weeks). It’s more credible because it goes beyond claims. It also breaks it up — throw out the rule that positioning needs to be one sentence! Delighted’s product also does analysis, email survey throttling, and is integrated in Slack and Salesforce, but the company’s marketing team saves the detail for later when you’re engaged enough to learn more.

2. Be authentic vs. authoritarian

Expense reports that don’t suck! Hassle-free expense reporting built for employees and loved by admins.

Use words that real people use. I’ve put this positioning statement alongside others in front of 50+ marketers, and it is always chosen as the most distinctive and informative. Expensify wasn’t afraid to say what everyone feels. That immediately makes the company credible and plainly articulates the problem. They then tell you it’s easy for users but also plays well with financial systems by saying it’s loved by admins — but they do so using very human language.

Marketers have the supremely bad habit of writing in hyperbolic “marketing speak,” using a buzzword over a simpler word. That’s not what people want to hear.

3. Really know your audience


VictorOps is for IT Ops Admins responsible for keeping infrastructure live 24/7 and therefore find themselves on call and flooded with alerts from many systems. You may have no idea what the fine print underneath the headline means. And maybe the headline doesn’t resonate with you (don’t take this to mean using the word “suck” in positioning makes it good :->). But VictorOps rightly decided this is just for their target audience who know exactly what they mean and therefore say exactly what they do. No marketing buzzwords like “manage your workflow more efficiently” because that would be meaningless to their target audience. The LARPing image also brings the entire message home: “we know you and what you’d rather be doing.” Remember, your positioning is always processed within some context, so don’t be afraid to use it on your behalf.

The new rule: Be clear enough to make them care

The positioning statement formula was created at a time when technology wasn’t a daily experience for every person on the planet. Those days are long gone, and the competition for attention is now millions of apps and services, not a select few. The only rule for positioning should be to make clear what you do so someone will care. Then you’ll have the opportunity to grow deeper engagement from a positive first impression.

Costanoa Ventures

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Costanoa Ventures

We back tenacious and thoughtful founders who change how business gets done.