Positioning: Why startups need to know their “place”

An ‘unpositioned’ product is a ship without a rudder

Recently, I’ve been helping a startup position their new software product. It occurred to me that most of us are startups one way or the other. We’re all trying to find a position to start a conversation or promote a product or a perspective. But what does the word ‘position’ really mean, and why do so many business startups fail to position their product or service at all?


Positioning, simply defined, is the place where your company or product or service stands or “fits” in the mind of a prospective customer. Most products and services have no clear position at all. The world is saturated with products, all of them are battling for attention, but only those with a clearly defined position achieve success. The trouble is, positioning is not the same as promoting. It is not about showcasing your product or putting your best foot forward. It goes deeper than that.

“Positioning is not what you do to a product,” said the fathers of positioning, Al Ries and Jack Trout, in their seminal book called, appropriately enough, Positioning. “Positioning is what you do to the mind of the prospect. That is, you position the product in the mind of the prospect.”

To gain a deep understanding of your positioning, you need to answer the following questions:

• What are your business goals?
• What are the strengths and weaknesses of your product (you can’t be great at everything)?
• Who are your competitors?
• What is your target market and what are their needs?
• What key trends are happening in your market?

To create an actionable positioning statement, this framework is helpful:

For… (target customer)
Who… (statement of need or opportunity),
Product name… is a (product category)
That… (statement of key benefit).
Unlike… (competing alternative)
Product name… (statement of primary differentiation).

If you want to see positioning in action, Arielle Jackson highlights two real world positioning examples — Amazon and Harley Davidson.

Amazon:

For World Wide Web users
Who enjoy books,
Amazon is a retail bookseller
That provides instant access to over 1.1 million books.
Unlike traditional book retailers,
Amazon provides a combination of extraordinary convenience, low prices and comprehensive selection.

Harley-Davidson:

The only motorcycle manufacturer
That makes big, loud motorcycles
For macho guys (and “macho wannabes”)
Mostly in the United States
Who want to join a gang of cowboys
In an era of decreasing personal freedom.

It is not an overstatement to say that positioning lays the foundation for your marketing, your sales, and your future success. Startups can save themselves a lot of grief, time and money if they learn how to correctly position their product or service in the minds of their prospects, and then stick to their guns when it comes to communicating that message.

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