In a great article on marketing positioning statements, in May, 2014, Chanpory Rith lays out the building blocks of how you start crafting a positioning statement. It’s important to remember that positioning statements are essentially about products, not companies. If your company is named the same thing as your product (like Facebook, for example) just use caution so you don’t confuse the two. As a purveyor of said products, this becomes a tool for understanding your place in the Universe so you can consistently communicate what your product is and why anyone should care.
Killer brand positioning statements include three components. Rith nails the first two out of three must haves. (Which infers the reason we need another article on this topic.) The third element is IMHO the most important.
What am I talking about here? The three elements are who your product serves, what it does for them, and why it does it better than anyone else. Even if you see a model has more steps than this, its content fits within these three buckets. Rith draws on a P&G model and a simplified model by Marty Neumeier. In Crossing the Chasm, tech marketing godfather @geoffreyamoore spells out something similar, but hints that there is more. From p. 154 of the revised edition:
For (target customers—beachhead segment only)
Who are dissatisfied with (the current market alternative)
Our product is a (new product category)
That provides (key problem-solving capability).
Unlike (the product alternative),
We have assembled (key whole product features for your specific application).
The first sentence contains the first two elements, which identify 1. For [fill in the blank with your target customer] who [fill in their compelling need], 2. Our product [fill in the blank with the benefit your product or service provides—i.e., how your product meets the compelling need]. Well crafted, you will meet the need in a unique way, position yourself as the category leader in a new category, etc. Moore offers a glimmer of the third element when he says “We have…” He’s intimating that this product has something that others don’t. It goes further.
Nailing all three
The formula for a perfect brand positioning statement follows this pattern:
1. For [fill in the blank with your target customer] who [fill in their compelling need],
2. [Our product name] + [fill in the blank with the benefit your product or service provides—i.e., how your product meets the compelling need in a unique way]
3. That’s because [fill in the special quality, process, secret sauce, etc. that forms the foundation of your positioning in the market.]
The first two are the price of admission. If you don’t have them, the capstone won’t save you. But once you do, the third phrase is where all the subsequent action lives. It’s the pixie dust, the sizzle, the sex appeal, the opportunity, the reason to believe. Without it, your positioning statement is useless as a motivator for you or your customers.
The first two are the who and the what. The third is the why. And all the compelling material lives in the why. But before we get to that.
You can’t skimp on who or what
Lest you be tempted (by my touting) to skip to the third step without paying your dues in the first two, don’t. They are essential groundwork and provide the problem/solution component of your story. Let’s break them down.
By answering who your product is for, you start out on the right foot. You can’t answer this question without putting the customer first—which frankly eliminates a lot of errors right from the beginning. Google is a bad example here because their customer demographic is so broad. It would be better if you could say, “For teen stamp collectors starting private school this month” or something equally precise.
In my book, The Pillars of Inflection: Seven Fundamental Strategies for Explosive Company Growth, I encourage companies to start by asking the question “Whom do we serve?” pretty much before they do anything else. This point (borrowed from Eric Denna) can be belabored elsewhere. Suffice it to say that if you can’t answer this question, you need to figure it out. If in answering this question, you discover that things aren’t the same as you thought, time to pivot in either your company direction or the product.
Try a Segment/Target/Position (STP) exercise and start drawing lines around who is and who isn’t your ideal customer. Get familiar with psychographics and VALS, or whatever method you like and start understanding the language of articulating who your customer is. Then go from there.
… at its essence, a product is something that grants the customer/user power to do something they were unable to do without it.
Second is focusing on what benefit your product provides. Introspect and follow step one by putting yourself in the shoes of your customer. Remember that, at its essence, a product is something that grants the customer/user power to do something they were unable to do without it. It’s enabling. So, what does it enable the user to do? In my Google example, I called out online searches with some qualitative modifiers. If your product sucks, please stop making it, or make it better. Be good at something.
Have a frank features vs. benefits conversation and identify truly what the benefit is that your product provides. The more compelling the need, the more acute the problem your customer is experiencing, the more compelling your solution will be. Ideally, you want to be solving a problem that is generating a huge amount of pain. Pain translates into customer demand.
This is also where you can tackle the positioning element of the Segment-Target-Position triumvirate and cast your solution in a unique way relative to the market and the competition. But you can’t really describe your uniqueness without the last step.
The third essential element of a brand positioning statement starts with “That’s because…” Then you fill in the special quality, process, secret sauce, etc. that forms the foundation of your positioning in the market. This is the different, better or special thing that sets you apart. It isn’t enough to just say, “we are better.” You need a reason why. For example:
“For people looking to find information online, Google’s search engine provides fast, predictive, and relevant results to search queries. That’s because they have a bad-A algorithm with a b’jillion intelligent man-hours of coding in it.”
The story is more important than the facts.
In understanding the elements of story (a wonderfully detailed and worthwhile treatment that I will not repeat here is given in Nancy Duarte’s latest work, Resonate), I borrowed an example from Holly Lisle. She broke the elements of story down in an example from one of her kids.
Robin Hood was walking in the forest. He met the Sheriff. They fought. He won.
If every story were told in those four sentences, bookstores would have a lot more shelf space. The magic happens when you talk about the why. What special ingredient do you have that allows you to deliver where others cannot.
Think about it. These basic elements of the story are told in steps one and two. You have identified the characters, the problem and the solution. The who and the what are covered. At this point, your customers believe either that they are not interested, or that the idea of your product would make life better for them.
So, why don’t we stop there? Because if we do, nobody buys.
What’s missing? Prospective customers need a reason to believe that your product can actually deliver the promised benefit. Up to this point, your entire effort is about making a promise to the customer. Now we give a reason to believe that we can keep that promise. (If we actually keep that promise when they purchase, now we are building a brand!)
Need money? This works for VCs too
This third component isn’t just about product marketing. This is the process you follow (wittingly or un) when financing your company.
In the must-read category for entrepreneurs, is Nail It then Scale It, by @nathan_furr and @paulahlstrom. Riffing on Moore’s model, they propose something similar on p.71, but in the context of proving your product’s value before you pitch to investors. I bring this up, because savvy investors intuitively sense risk and opportunity, whether they have a system for articulating it or not. Just like a retail customer, they respond to well thought-out and authentic messages.
When you pitch to investors, you tell a story about how your company represents an opportunity for them to make money (the opportunity to generate a return is why people invest). Your story about the opportunity is the who and the what. By the time you finish that much, they know whether they are interested or not.
But getting interest from investors is not the same thing as closing the deal. Everything else, your product, your market, your management team, your financials—are all about giving your prospective investor a compelling reason to believe that you can actually deliver on the opportunity. If the reason to believe is strong enough, that is where you close the deal.
What I hope you take away is this: do the work to nail the who and the what, but spend time and artistry crafting the message around the why. The why is where you land customers and get paid, because that’s where they start to believe that what you are telling them might actually be true.