Position Your Customers, Not Just Your Products.

By Paul Wiefels, managing director & co-founder of Chasm Group, LLC


In the many articles we read about the art of positioning, most eventually end up focused on product or company attributes, benefits, and differentiators. None more so than in the world of B2B technology. While important, far fewer of these conversations center on customers or prospects, specifically the attributes that suggest why you might be for them, and they for you. And conversely, why you might not be.

Trout and Ries noted long ago that “Positioning is not what you do to a product. Positioning is what you do to the mind of the prospect.” Positioning is something that exists in people’s heads, not in positioning statements or the sometimes complex, even esoteric marketing and communications gymnastics that companies engage in to build these associations.

Customers evaluate market alternatives based on their own mental map of the market. Each individual’s map is different based on his/her own view of reality and his/her own beliefs, prejudices, and point of view. (Just look at modern politics.) It follows that to be the superior product or company of choice, you must be first, the most relevant choice. We filter the thousands of commercial messages we are subjected to each day, first with the question, “Is this relevant to me?” Product, marketing, and sales organizations can fall prey to assuming the affirmative. After all, that’s why we’re in business, created these widgets, or “created” (or recreated) this category. And it might even be true.

Modern markets exist because people are able to obtain what they are looking for, typically in an environment of transparency, abundance, and choice. It follows that one person’s choice—and their rationale for that choice—could be quite different from someone else’s. If you’re the choice of one but not the other, does that make one of these people “wrong?” Of course not.

Now, consider the world of consumer marketing, specifically packaged goods, and business services. Marketers know that they’re selling products that have few functional differences and are purchased for the same essential reasons. The real work involves finding out and understanding, at a deep level, who is the customer they can best appeal to, and who are the customers best suited for someone else. The US peanut butter market is dominated by three large, national brands. “Choosy mothers chose Jif,” the market leader. Pledge furniture polish promises to clean as it shines, and thus “Isn’t that a nice reflection on you?” Consider business services. “Those who know, know BDO.” Yes, these are advertising appeals but ones that are firmly rooted on the basis of what these companies know about their best customers.

Strong, sustainable positions are created by companies that are prepared to make tradeoffs that consider what, how, and why. They begin the process by understanding who. How do your efforts stack up?