How to do a Product Positioning Exercise

Overview and Objective of Product Positioning

Welcome to the most controversial phase of a product positioning. (Ok, it really is the second most controversial - naming is the most controversial.)  There will always be a pull from two different extremes when you are talking about positioning.  There are those who want/need the company/product to sound like "the next big thing".  This type of positioning will be broad and complex.  Then there are those who actually have to sell the product or service.  They want a positioning that is narrow and clear.  If you are a small boot-strapped company, the narrow and clear positioning is critical to your success.  If you are a venture-funded or very large organization, the broad and complex positioning may be required to get the attention of the right people.  This document only deals with the narrow and clear positioning due to the personal bias of the author.

Who Should be Involved

Positioning should be a formal exercise, no matter how large or small the organization. If you are discussing company positioning, it should involve all senior management. If it is product positioning, it should involve representatives from Sales, Field Engineering, and both product marketing and marketing communications.

The Product Positioning Exercise

A meeting or conference call with all parties involved is critical. Ideally, everyone should be in one room with a white board or large tablet to keep track of ideas and thoughts.  It is also important that everyone have a say and that the highest-ranking person does not dominate the meeting.

Before Getting Started

Everyone should attend the meeting prepared to discuss your customers.  If you don't have enough data on the customers, who they are and why they bought, then discussions with the customer must take place first. If you don't yet have customers for the product then you need to come prepared with market research and market validationinterviews with potential customers.  If you haven't talked to your customers (existing or potential) then the meeting is a wasted exercise. If there is a current positioning for the company and/or the product, you ideally want to forget your existing positioning during this exercise.  However, that positioning was probably developed through trial and error, so the background for the positioning should be used, but it is important for people to try to think beyond the current positioning.

The Objectives

The objective of the meeting is to reach agreement on the following definitions.  In all cases, it is easy to start broad and then narrow the focus through elimination.

1.   Define the primary customer - It is a good idea to start broad and then narrow it down.  It is important to note that your primary customer may be the same or different from the person who is using the product. For example, in enterprise software, you have many users, but your primary customer is the person driving the purchase of the product. But if you are a web 2.0 site, your primary customer is your users, even though your advertisers may be paying the bill.

2.   Define secondary customers -- Define secondary users and buyers of your product .

3.   Define the problem - What is the problem you are solving.  What is the real area of pain for the primary customer listed above.

4.   Define the secondary problem or other symptoms of the problem - A significant problem will have an impact in multiple areas.  List all the areas affected by the problem and how they are affected.

5.   Emotions - List the emotions of the customer as they think about the problem.  What is the primary emotion associated with the pain?

6.   Market characteristics - Breakdown the characteristics of your primary customer.  What do they buy?  How do they buy it?  What are their hot buttons?  What do they worry about when they think of their competition?  What keeps them up at night.

7.   Channels - Describe the other companies that the customer works with in solving similar problems.  Decide if these companies are good partners for you.  What is their primary business?  How are their sales people compensated?  What is their biggest pain at this moment.  What can your product offer them?

8.   Elevator pitch - Describe the customer, their pain, and how you solve it differently then anything else on the market.  Provide just enough information for the listener to want to know more.  Target the message to your primary customer and bring their emotions into the pitch.

9.   Competitors - List your competitors and their strengths and weaknesses in comparison to your offering.

The Process

Start the meeting by sharing the most current discussions with customers and potential customers.  Anyone who has had these conversations, whether they are formal market research, or casual conversations, should share that information with the rest of the group so that everyone has an equal understanding of the target market.

Walk through the nine objectives above, in the order they are listed.  Again, start broad and narrow the objective down by the process of elimination.  

Generally, by then end of the meeting, everyone should feel like the exercise was worth while and that they have a new focus for their job.  If this is not the case then additional market validation should be done and the group should reconvene.  

What Do You Do With the Results?

The elevator pitch should be distributed to the entire company and everyone should use it when discussing the offering.  If this is a company positioning, the message should be incorporated into the home page of the website, datasheets, and the corporate background collateral.  Strengths over the competitors should be emphasized in the product literature and on the website.

After several months of using the new positioning, review it with management and customer facing individuals.  Find out what works and what doesn't work.  Decide if it needs to be updated with new competitive information or new direction.

For further reading on Positioning please see Jack Trout's book The New Positioning.

I also found "Words that Work" by Dr. Frank Luntz to be a great book on messaging. You don't have to like his politics to find value in his ability to simplify a message and create wording that resonates with the masses.

Lastly, I have created a binder with some positioning resources off of the web:


Product Positioning