How Winners Really Differentiate
Editor’s Note: This article first appeared on Medium here.
Enough with the positioning statements.
If you’re a member of a leadership team today – or have been over the last 25 years – odds are you’ve participated in a positioning exercise. If your experience was like mine, you teamed up with colleagues, perhaps under the guidance of an outside consultant, to craft some version of this sentence:
For [target customer description]…our product is a [product category] that provides [compelling reason to buy]. Unlike [the product alternative], we have assembled [key features…].
You interviewed customers, aiming to capture what they found compelling about your products. You surveyed the offerings of competitors to identify shortcomings. After carefully weighing feedback from your investors, your co-workers, and industry analysts, you defined a killer category and an airtight argument about why you were fit to be its king.
And then, if your experience was really like mine, nothing happened.
Customers didn’t buy more. Your sales cycle didn’t get any faster. In your quest for more compelling sales decks, web pages, and content, your positioning statement wasn’t much help. Worse, if your category definition and/or claims did see the light of day, competitors parroted them, dragging you deeper and deeper into a never-ending war over features and functions, speeds and feeds.
Which made me wonder: Why do leadership teams still do this? And if constructing a concise statement to articulate your category definition, benefits, and advantages is misguided, how in the world do successful companies stand out from competitors?
Where the Positioning Statement Comes From
In 1991, an English professor turned tech marketer named Geoffrey Moore published what is arguably the world’s most influential book on growth strategy, Crossing the Chasm. To innovators, entrepreneurs and CEOs fretting over stalled progress after early market adoption, Moore delivered the comforting, utterly unfake news that the “chasm” was a normal – even necessary – stage in the growth of any successful venture.
That book, as far as I can tell, was also the first to codify the positioning statement as that Mad Libs, fill-in-the-blanks exercise we’ve all come to know. (The version above comes from its pages.) Rereading Crossing the Chasm recently, I was struck by the fact that its organizing metaphor is military invasion. Specifically, Moore equates your company’s attempt to expand beyond early adopters with D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy during World War II:
Our long-term goal is to enter and take control of a mainstream market (Western Europe) that is currently dominated by an entrenched competitor (the Axis). For our product to wrest the mainstream market from this competitor, we must assemble an invasion force comprising other products and companies (the Allies). By way of entry into this market, our immediate goal is to transition from an early market base (England) to a strategic target market segment in the mainstream (the beaches at Normandy).
(This view of growth marketing, as primarily focused on outmaneuvering competitors, was very much in vogue in the decade leading up to Crossing the Chasm’s publication, and led to thinking that sounds almost ludicrous today. As Al Ries and Jack Trout, widely recognized as positioning pioneers, wrote in 1986: “The true nature of marketing is not serving the customer…[it] is a war where the enemy is the competition and the customer is ground to be won.”)
Moore tells teams that to successfully launch an invasion into mainstream markets, they should arm themselves with his positioning statement – “a claim of undisputable market leadership within a given target market segment.” Yet defining your company and products this way has major shortcomings – particularly now that innovation happens so rapidly:
- In a world where product features can be upgraded, changed and enhanced daily (or faster) – not to mention quickly copied by competitors – how can features possibly serve as the foundation of an effective long-term position?
- The positioning statement essentially presents an argument (a boast, really). But as any great salesperson will tell you, arguments rarely influence buyer behavior.
- If your product category is new or unfamiliar, how will your prospect connect the dots about how features and benefits will ultimately improve his or her life? (This drawback gets more serious as you move past early adopters especially as you get into situations where buyers and users are not the same people.)
- The biggest obstacle to any sale is a prospect’s attachment to the status quo, about which Moore’s positioning statement says nothing.
- Competitors can easily mimic your feature and benefit claims. What then?
A more lucrative metaphor: Journey to the Promised Land
In Crossing the Chasm, Moore astutely warns that “most failed positioning statements arise from vendors being unable to see themselves from someone else’s point of view.” Yet his positioning statement practically forces you to see things from your own point of view! That’s because – both metaphorically and grammatically – it casts your company/product as the conquering hero (subject) and your customer as territory to be conquered (object):
What would it look like if, instead, your positioning was rooted in a story in which the customer was the protagonist? You would have to invite the customer on some kind of journey to a new, presumably happier place:
In fact, this is exactly the way that companies like Salesforce, Zuora and Drift have successfully positioned themselves as market leaders in very crowded categories.
Positioning via the Promised Land
I’ve written extensively about positioning strategies of the leaders at the three companies above (in The Greatest Sales Deck I’ve Ever Seen and, more recently, Great Pitches Start with Change). But Drift CEO David Cancel offers the clearest example of this approach, and is its most vocal advocate.
The cornerstone of Cancel’s positioning of Drift is not a list of “compelling reasons to buy” or even features. Instead, it’s a story that starts with why, now that most people expect always-on, instant communications, you’re on a road to ruin if you continue to engage buyers through traditional email forms (the status quo):
Then, Cancel articulates a “Promised Land” in which buyers and sellers can initiate conversations instantly, wherever they are:
When Drift launches new functionality, the company positions the features not in relation to competitors, but in terms of how they help customers overcome obstacles to the Promised Land. In fact, in a recent blog post, Cancel espouses a view of positioning and growth that is diametrically opposed to Moore’s. Regarding competitors, Cancel simply advises:
Don’t worry about them at all.
What is positioning, if you’re not going to talk about how you’re different from competitors?
It’s about becoming so customer-centric that customers don’t even think about your competitors. How do you do that? Like Cancel, start by inviting customers on an irresistible journey. The journey must be made urgent by a change in the world that makes the status quo untenable, and its destination must be a desirable yet difficult-to-reach Promised Land (more on how Drift does that here). Whereas a traditional positioning statement aims to conquer prospects into submission (getting them to say: “Yes, your products are the best”), positioning via the Promised Land seeks validation (getting them to say: “Yes, you’re telling my story”).
Of course, competitors can always parrot your Promised Land in an attempt to adopt it for themselves. So you must demonstrate – every single day – that you can get customers to it as fast and reliably as possible. (Cancel has committed Drift to launching new features every month.) In other words, throw away self-centered mission and vision statements (“We want to be the most trusted provider of …”) and make getting customers to the Promised Land your North Star. It should guide everything everyone does at your company – product development, sales, marketing, recruiting, everything. Do that, and competitors won’t dare steal your Promised Land language, because it will be obvious to everyone that they can’t deliver on it as well as you can. (Plus, you’ll have committed to it so fully that if they do try it, they’ll clearly come off as desperate.)
Three years ago, I launched a consulting practice in which I help CEOs and their leadership teams align around a strategic story. Needless to say, I never bother with positioning statements. Instead, I see my role as helping these teams switch metaphors: from the competitor-centric combat one (traditional positioning statement) to the customer-centric journey one (Promised Land narrative). How do I know they’ve got it? When their pitch starts sounding less like an infomercial and more like a movie.
Always a movie, though, in which the customer is cast not as territory to be won, but as the hero of his or her own epic adventure.
About Andy Raskin
I help CEOs and leadership teams align around a strategic story – to power sales, marketing, fundraising, product, and recruiting. My clients include teams backed by Andreessen Horowitz, KPCB, GV, and other top venture firms. I’ve also led strategic storytelling training at Salesforce, Square, Uber, Yelp, VMware and General Assembly.
To learn more or get in touch, visit andyraskin.com.