Obviously Awesome

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Link to book - Obviously Awesome


If we fail at positioning, we fail at marketing and sales. If we fail at marketing and sales, the entire business fails.

The first step to optimizing positioning is to really understand what it is. I like to describe positioning as “context setting” for products. When we encounter something new, we will attempt to make sense of it by gathering together all of the little clues we can quickly find to determine how we should think about this new thing.

The concept of positioning first became a popular marketing construct in 1981 with the publication of Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind by Al Ries and Jack Trout.

Ries and Trout argued that markets had become crowded with copycat products, and buyers were overwhelmed with the volume of marketing aimed at them. In order to break through the noise, companies would need to take into account their own strengths and weaknesses, then contrast them with their competitors to create a unique leadership position in the minds of customers.

Clear positioning was important in 1981; we are doomed without it today.

This book will show you how to deliberately position your product to maximize the success of your business.

“Strategy is about making choices, trade-offs; it’s about deliberately choosing to be different.”

Weak positioning leaves a trail—the signs are there if you know where to look. Your current customers love you, but new prospects can’t figure out what you’re selling.

When do you need positioning?

You need positioning when -

  • Your company has long sales cycles and low close rates, and you’re losing out to the competition.
  • You have high customer churn.
  • You’re under price pressure.

Positioning as Context

Context enables people to figure out what’s important. Positioning products is a lot like context setting in the opening of a movie. The opening scene positions the movie so you can stop wondering about the big questions of where, what, why and who and move onto focusing on the story itself within that context.

A good example of this is the famous context experiment conducted by the Washington Post. The experiment involved Joshua Bell, an internationally acclaimed violinist, who at the time was considered the best classical musician in America. Joshua Bell regularly sells out concert halls where tickets cost $300 or more. For this test of context, he would play the violin outside a busy subway station in Washington, DC, during the morning commute. Would people recognize Bell’s extraordinary talent, or would they simply walk past him as they would any other street performer? And more importantly for the experiment, would he make more money than a typical street performer? Bell performed for forty-five minutes. In that time, 1,070 people passed by, and of those, 27 gave him money, and only 7 paused to listen. His total earnings for the concert: $32.17. Joshua Bell was sabotaged by his context. Even a world-class product, poorly positioned, can fail.

We rely on context to make sense of a world that is full of street performers and concert hall musicians, and full of millions of products of all shapes and sizes. Context allows us to make thousands of little decisions about what we should pay attention to and what we can simply ignore.

Trap 1: You are stuck on the idea of what you intended to build, and you don’t realize that your product has become something else. Gradually we, the product creators, often don’t notice it. We still see the product as the thing we set out to build. What else could it possibly be? Customers, though, are often left confused by products that don’t seem to match up with the way companies are positioning them.

Trap 2: You carefully designed your product for a market, but that market has changed.

The common failure in both of these traps is not deliberately positioning the product.

“Find out who you are and do it on purpose.” DOLLY PARTON

Like Joshua Bell delivering a world-class performance in a context that didn’t ascribe value, lousy positioning makes your prospects work harder to figure out if you are worth paying attention to.

Great positioning takes into account all of the following:

  • The customer’s point of view on the problem you solve and the alternative ways of solving that problem.
  • The ways you are uniquely different from those alternatives and why that’s meaningful for customers.
  • The characteristics of a potential customer that really values what you can uniquely deliver.
  • The best market context for your product that makes your unique value obvious to those customers who are best suited to your product.

Positioning can be a big and somewhat complex concept. But don’t worry, we can make it easier by first breaking it down into its components and then working through each of those in a systematic way.

The Five (plus One) Components of Effective Positioning

These are the Five (Plus One) Components of Effective Positioning:

  1. Competitive alternatives. What customers would do if your solution didn’t exist.
  2. Unique attributes. The features and capabilities that you have and the alternatives lack.
  3. Value (and proof). The benefit that those features enable for customers.
  4. Target market characteristics. The characteristics of a group of buyers that lead them to really care a lot about the value you deliver.
  5. Market category. The market you describe yourself as being part of, to help customers understand your value. (Bonus)
  6. Relevant trends. Trends that your target customers understand and/or are interested in that can help make your product more relevant right now.

In business software, the most common competitive alternative is a combination of general-purpose business software (spreadsheets, documents, presentations) and manual processes. It’s important to really understand what customers compare your solution with, because that’s the yardstick they use to define “better.” For example, your solution might be much easier to use than the product that other startups are selling, but if the real alternative in the mind of a customer is Excel, you can’t say your product is easier to use unless it is easier to use than a spreadsheet.

For technology companies, these are often technical features, but unique attributes could also be things like your delivery model (such as installed on-premise vs. software as a service), your business model (think Rent the Runway upending retail by leasing instead of selling special-occasion wear) or your specific expertise (perhaps you have a dozen international banks as clients and therefore understand their business better than others in the market).

If unique attributes are your secret sauce, then value is the reason why someone might care about your secret sauce. And simply put, they are the customers who care the most about the value your product delivers. You need to identify what sets these folks apart. What is it about these customers that makes them love your product more than others? How can we identify them?

Suppose your company was running out of cash and if the team didn’t close a certain amount of business by the end of the month, very bad things were going to happen. What types of customers would you focus on and why?

Think of the market category as a frame of reference for your target customers, which helps them understand your unique value.

“Sit, walk or run, but don’t wobble.” ZEN PROVERB

Buyers are always interested in how the world is changing and that makes them interested in trends. Media, blogs, magazines and books cover trends because they are new and interesting to read about.

Using a trend in positioning is optional (but often desirable).

In the work I’ve done with startups, I’ve determined that it’s critical to start with understanding what the customer sees as a competitive alternative, and then working through the rest of the components—attributes, value, characteristics, market category, relevant trends—from there.

The 10 Step Positioning Exercise

Step 1. Understand the Customers Who Love Your Product

We discovered that our philosophies were strikingly similar—we spent all our time looking for things that work, and then deciphering why. What marketing campaigns brought in the most leads? Which pieces of content were consumed the most? What events had the most attendees? Asking these questions led us to the happiest customers. Once we narrowed in on the happiest customers, we went looking for the reasons they were so satisfied while others were not. There didn’t seem to be any patterns in why people picked us. I wondered if the results would look different if I only surveyed the ecstatic fans and left the moderately happy customers out of it.

“There is only one thing stronger than all the armies of the world: and that is an idea whose time has come.” VICTOR HUGO

The first step in the positioning exercise is to make a short list of your best customers.

Most of your target customers have never heard of you or your rival startups—they simply want to know how your product compares to what they use today.

Customer-facing positioning must be centered on a customer frame of reference. Shouldn’t we position our product for customers the same way we position it for investors? Absolutely not! Investors are investing in what your company will be in the future; customers are buying a solution to a problem they have right now.

Investors want to hear your vision for what your company will look like five or ten years from now, and how you intend to be a leader in a large, preferably fast-growing market. Customers, for the most part, are making an immediate decision to spend money they have right now to get immediate value and relieve an immediate pain.

Step 2. Form a Positioning Team

A positioning process works best when it’s a team effort, ideally from across different functions within the company. Each team, from sales to marketing to customer success, can bring a unique point of view relative to how customers perceive and experience the product. Positioning is a business strategy exercise—the person who owns the business strategy needs to fully support the positioning, or it’s unlikely to be adopted. In startups, the head is the CEO and/or the founders.

Positioning is intertwined with the overall business strategy and therefore needs to be led by the business leader.

Step 3. Align Your Positioning Vocabulary and Let Go of Your Positioning Baggage

In order to consider possible new ways to think about a product, we have to consciously set aside our old ways of thinking about it. To do that, we need a common positioning vocabulary. Market confusion starts with our disconnect between understanding the product as product creators, and understanding the product as customers first perceive it. Do you use terminology and describe features in the same way as when you started? Being conscious of the presence of your history in your current position will help everyone be open to alternatives.

Step 4. List Your True Competitive Alternatives

Customers don’t always see competitors the same way we do, and their opinion is the only one that matters for positioning.

Step 5. Isolate Your Unique Attributes or Features

Strong positioning is centered on what a product does best. Once you have a list of competitive alternatives, the next step is to isolate what makes you different and better than those alternatives. Third-party validation that your product’s feature is better than the alternative counts as proof. If an independent reviewer or analyst stated that your product is easier to use, that’s a fact. If a customer says in an approved quote that your customer service is much better than another company’s, that’s proof.

Step 6. Map the Attributes to Value “Themes”

Feature: Something your product does or has

Benefit: What the feature enables for customers

Value: How this feature maps to a goal the customer is trying to achieve

Sample table:

Benefits & Themes

Clustering the Value into “Themes” In your list, you should see a handful of themes start to emerge and the value those features deliver to customers. Now we need to organize the list.

Step 7. Determine Who Cares a Lot

Once you have a good understanding of the value that your product delivers versus other alternatives, you can look at which customers really care a lot about that value.

Step 8. Find a Market Frame of Reference That Puts Your Strengths at the Center and Determine How to Position in It

In the context of this exercise, a “market” needs to be something that already exists in the minds of customers There are different approaches for isolating, targeting and winning a market—and certain styles work better for some than others.

  • Head to Head: Positioning to win an existing market
  • Big Fish, Small Pond: Positioning to win a subsegment of an existing market
  • Create a New Game: Positioning to win a market you create

Timing is also important in creating a new category. To help customers make sense of why this category hasn’t emerged sooner, there should be a very strong answer to the questions,

  • Why now? What factors have finally made this category possible and/or necessary? These might be new technology capabilities, a shift in buyer behavior, a change in the business environment such as new government regulations or a shift in the economy.

Category creation is about selling the market on the problem first, rather than on your solution.

If the category doesn’t already exist, it means customers aren’t currently aware that they have a problem. They don’t understand the cost of not solving that problem, nor do they understand the potential value they can unlock by solving that problem. Customers need to be aware of those things before you can successfully convince them to purchase any solution (including yours).

If you choose to use the Create a New Game style… Follow a long-term plan. At every step, you need to defend yourself as the category leader, or risk having a competitor with more resources and name-brand recognition reap the rewards of your hard work in creating the category. The most common way startups fail at this style is by working to build the market and then losing out on establishing themselves as its leader.

Mark says, “The most successful efforts in category creation do not result from company executives creating an acronym at an offsite. Rather they are discovered from deeply understanding a narrow set of customers. These customers are often ‘freaks,’ extreme in their attitudes and behavior, forged by tectonic technological and societal shifts. The category then emerges when and if the freakish attitudes and behavior become mainstream. Category creation is hard, slow work, but if you are successful the rewards are huge.”

Step 9. Layer On a Trend (but Be Careful)

Product that is well positioned in a market can still be very successful without relating it to a trend.

“If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” WAYNE DYER

Step 10. Capture Your Positioning so It Can Be Shared

Positioning on its own isn’t useful to a company. Once you have worked through your positioning, you need to share it across the organization. Positioning needs to have company buy-in so it can be used to inform branding, marketing campaigns, sales strategy, product decisions and customer-success strategy.


  • Product name and one-line description Market category (and subcategory)
  • The macro market and submarket (if applicable) that you compete in Competitive alternatives
  • What would customers use if your product did not exist?
  • Unique attributes What features/capabilities does your product have that the alternatives do not?
  • Value What value do those attributes enable for customers?

After Positioning: What Happens Next?

As a group, once you have completed a positioning exercise, you can work through defining a story of how a salesperson would pitch the product. This doesn’t mean you will be creating the exact copy that will go in the presentation, nor will you be working on making that presentation look good. You can think of this as more of an exercise where you define the components of a sales story that will later be worked into an actual presentation for the sales team to use.

There are already stores full of books that can teach you how to do a better job of messaging, so I will give you just one tip that I think is important: write a messaging document. Every campaign you create or new piece of material you build is going to have a slightly different purpose and slightly different messaging. If there isn’t one master messaging document that is used as the starting point, your messaging (and often your positioning) will start to creep as messages are built on modified messages in a chain. A messaging document helps you

I recommend checking in on your positioning every six months or when there has been a major event that could impact the competitive landscape or the way customers perceive and evaluate solutions.

During economic downturns, business customers generally shift their focus from pushing hard to expand revenue to cost cutting and cash conservation.


Any product can be positioned in multiple markets. Your product is not doomed to languish in a market where nobody understands how awesome it is. Great positioning rarely comes by default. If you want to succeed, you have to determine the best way to position your product. Deliberate, try, fail, test and try again. Understanding what your best customers see as true alternatives to your solution will lead you to your differentiators. Position yourself in a market that makes your strengths obvious to the folks you want to sell to. Use trends to make your product more interesting to customers right now, but be very cautious. Don’t layer on a trend just for the sake of being trendy—it’s better to be successful and boring, rather than fashionable and bewildering. Knowing how to do something is not the same as understanding how to teach someone else how to do it. As leaders, we often become very good at doing things that we have a very hard time explaining to the teams that work with us. This book is my attempt to codify and teach one of the most complicated processes I’ve learned to do in my career. I sincerely hope it offers you a shortcut to better position your products to succeed.

Written on August 8, 2020

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