When I first came across the book “Obviously Awesome”, I was a bit sceptical; “not another book on positioning?!” and “how applicable will this book be?!” However, April Dunford, the author of “Obviously Awesome”, often shares great insights about the world of product marketing, and I was keen to read her thoughts about product positioning. And I’m glad that I did! These are the things I took away from her book:
What is positioning? — Dunford describes positioning as “the act of deliberately defining how you are the best at something that a defined market cares a lot about.” Clear and deliberate positioning acts as valuable “context setting” for products, outlining the value and differentiators of a brand or product.
Positioning with the customer in mind — For me, the biggest takeaway from “Obviously Awesome” was Dunford’s emphasis on the customer when thinking about your product positioning. “Customers need to be able to easily understand what your product is, why it’s special and why it matters to them.” She explains how a disconnect can appear when your (target) customers have a different perception of your product compared to its intended positioning. Similarly, If you see a disconnect between how your happy customers think about your product and how prospects see it, you likely have a positioning problem.
It’s all about context setting — If we consider positioning as valuable context setting for products, we need to think carefully about the contextual clues we provide to our customers. Especially for those customers who encounter a new problem or an innovative product they haven’t seen before, it’s important to offer customers contextual clues. This will help them figure out what the product 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.
The “Two Traps” — There are two common traps with respect to positioning which Dunford points out in her book. Firstly, product creators being stuck on what they intended to build, not realising that their product has become something else. You decided that your product was X, but it actually become Y as you were developing it. Secondly, a product has been carefully designed for a specific market, but that market has changed. For startups and tech companies, this problem is very common. Our markets are complex, overlapping and shifting rapidly. The net outcome of both ‘traps’ is the same: Your original positioning will have shifted and you’ll need to course correct to ensure the positioning resonates with the right customers.
Deliberate product positioning — Dunford points out that product people often fall into the trap of thinking there is only one way to position an offering. We feel that the product positioning is fixed, and that we’re therefore unable to shift that contextual frame of reference, especially after we’ve released the product to market. Conversely, most products can be positioned in multiple different markets and appeal to different customer segments.
Common elements of great positioning — Great positioning takes into account the following elements:
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.
From the different elements that Dunford highlights, the ‘customer’s point of view’ element really resonated with me. We often make the mistake of looking at our competitive landscape to identify and prioritise any capability gaps, without taking the customer perspective into account. I believe that this can be problematic for two reasons.
Firstly, the companies that we view as competition might be not be perceived as such by our (target) customers. Even more so, customers might not even be thinking about ‘products’ when they think about alternatives to your product. Alternatives aren’t just “products” per se. “We’ve created this workaround”, “we hire an intern to do it,” or “we use a spreadsheet”, can be alternatives to your product.
Secondly, by solely comparing and contrasting competitor features, we overlook whether and why these capabilities resonate with our customers and prospects. These are the 5 (plus 1) components of effective positioning that Dunford highlights:
- Competitive alternatives — What customers would do if your solution didn’t exist.
- Unique attributes — The features and capabilities that you have and the alternatives lack.
- Value (and proof) — The benefit that those features enable for customers.
- Target market characteristics — The characteristics of a group of buyers that lead to really care about the value you deliver.
- Market category — The market you describe yourself as being part of, to help customers understand your value.
- (Bonus) Relevant trends — Trends that your target customers understand and / or are interest in that can help make your product more relevant right now.
Dunford stresses that these 5 (plus 1) components are all interlinked. Because the relationships between the different components flow from one another, the order in which you define the components is very important. She mentions examples of teams that started with defining key features (step 2), without looking at competitive alternatives (step 1). As a result, their product positioning didn’t connect with how customers really evaluated the product.
Target market characteristics — Your product positioning needs to clearly identify who your target audience is. The positioning needs to reflect those things that make the product special and valuable in the eyes of our (target) customers. Dunford shares a handy template which makes it easier to outline the positioning for your product or brand.
Main learning point: Thought you knew how to to think about and do positioning?! Worth thinking again and checking out April Dunford’s great book about positioning. Dunford is focused on the customer and the (perceived) value that we deliver to the customer. A critical perspective for all product and marketing people, which Dunford underpins with both real-life examples and practical steps.