Why the right product positioning is critical to successful marketing programs

Barb Mosher Zinck Profile picture for user barb.mosher December 2, 2021
How organizations position products is vital, says tech marketing veteran April Dunford.


April Dunford knows a lot about positioning from a career that has involved leading teams at big name tech firms such as IBM, Siebel and Sybase, as well as a number of start-ups. She shares her experiences and her approach to product positioning in her book, “Obviously Awesome - How to Nail Product Positioning, so Customers Get It, Buy It, Love It.” She also speaks at many events, and I’ve had the opportunity to listen to her a couple of times, including at the recent DEMAND event.

In her book, she starts by saying that when she’s asked to speak at marketing and tech conferences and wants to talk about positioning, she’s always asked if she can talk about something “cooler.” But what could be cooler than nailing down your company’s position and finding market success?

According to Dunford in her talk at the Metadata.io DEMAND event, positioning is one of a marketer’s most powerful tools. But it’s also deeply misunderstood.

Positioning is not a tagline, or your messaging, or your brand, go-to-market strategy, or any of those types of things. Instead, these things flow from positioning, which Dunford defines as:

..how our offering is BEST IN THE WORLD at providing SOME VALUE that a well-defined set of CUSTOMERS cares a LOT about.

Positioning is context setting

Context setting is how we make sense of things. So if you see a product in a particular context, you make assumptions about what that product does. Dunford says that a shift in context can completely transform the way customers perceive your product.

One way to set context is by market category. So, for example, if I am looking for a solution to manage my email marketing, then I have a set of assumptions as to what that product will do. I assume that products categorized as email marketing will have a certain set of features. I’ll also assume who the competitors are (other email marketing tools) and the price.

As Dunford says, if a company positions its product right, great. But if they position their product wrong, marketing and sales will have a lot of challenges.

One example she gave is a company that positioned its new product as ‘email for lawyers.’ But the product didn’t do calendaring or have other capabilities you would assume an email solution would have. And they were struggling. What the solution did do very well was secure collaboration and file sharing. And when the company was repositioned as a collaboration tool, they were able to charge more money and win more customers.

Positioning is a series of component pieces

As a marketer, Dunford said you might think positioning isn’t your job. But if someone doesn’t do it, your marketing efforts might not be so great. So if you want your efforts to be successful, then you need to get it fixed. That makes positioning your job.

Many companies struggle with understanding where they fit and how to best position their offering in the market. That’s because it’s not simple. Also, that traditional positioning statement they teach in marketing courses? It doesn’t work.

Dunford says that positioning is a series of component pieces, including:

  1. Who are your competitive alternatives?
  2. What are your unique attributes or capabilities?
  3. What value can you deliver?
  4. What customer segment (or best fit) for your product?
  5. What market category do you fit?

You can’t answer these questions one by one. All the pieces have a relationship to the others, she says. It’s hard to figure out where to start. But she did, and the order listed above is the order you need to tackle them.

She explains it this way: What would people do if they didn’t have your product (alternatives)? She calls this your stake in the ground to win a deal. Then ask yourself, what unique features or capabilities does my product offer that the alternatives don’t have and once you have those listed, map them to the value they provide (why does the customer care). The next step is to figure out who your best-fit customers are for this product. What are the characteristics of your best-fit customers? And then finally, you can map the context or market category.

The most important step is to figure out your competitive alternatives, Dunford said. Competitors are not just other companies offering something similar. For example, a competitor might be a spreadsheet. She said in B2B, a large percentage of deals are lost to “no decision,” which she says means you lost to Excel. So, you have to think about all potential alternatives and plan for them.

My take

Dunford ended her DEMAND session by explaining that positioning is not a one-time exercise. It’s not carved in stone. Instead, it will mature as your product evolves and your company grows. This means you have to reevaluate your position and adjust accordingly regularly.

I first listened to Dunford’s approach to positioning when I bought her book on Audacity. But then I bought the physical book to mark it up with all my thoughts and notes. As part of my marketing services, I have been able to help with positioning with a couple of companies, and I can tell you that it’s tough to do. The approach Dunford teaches makes it easier to think about and tackle. And I agree that a marketer needs to be sure the positioning is right before they build their programs to support it.

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