Editor’s note: This post is adapted from a recent presentation given by April Dunford, founder of Ambient Strategy, at the 2019 Traction Conference in Vancouver. Traction offers a forum in which high-level professionals from some of the world’s fastest-growing tech companies share their wisdom and advice on getting, keeping, and growing a customer base at scale.

A veteran of seven start-ups, six acquisitions, five big multinationals, and 16 product launches, April Dunford is an international keynote speaker about positioning, market strategy, and new product introduction. Her presentation focuses on mastering the often-misunderstood art of product positioning.

What is product positioning?

Product positioning is one of the most powerful tools at a product person’s disposal. So powerful, in fact, that mastering this one concept could mean the difference between the success and failure of a product, your company, or even your career. Product positioning is also one of the most misunderstood concepts in product marketing. To get it right, it’s important to understand what it is and what it’s not. It’s not a tagline or a vision statement, nor is it messaging or branding. All of these things flow from product positioning, but they aren’t actually the positioning itself.

On the contrary, you have to figure out your positioning to develop your branding and vision statement. Think of it this way: If everything you do in sales and marketing is a house, then positioning is the foundation on which that house is built. Positioning defines how your product is the best in the world at providing something that a well-defined set of customers cares a lot about. Put simply, product positioning should tell your prospects and customers what your product is and why they should care about it.

The context conundrum

Research shows that when we encounter something new, we use what we know to make sense of what we don’t. Context is important because it’s what customers use to understand a product. When you’re positioning a new product in an intensely crowded market, it’s absolutely critical.

Positioning your product in a specific market category sets off a really powerful set of assumptions in the minds of customers about what your product is all about. In fact, a shift in positioning can completely transform the way we see a product. Take martech, for example. There are currently around 7,000 martech companies, up from just 350 in 2012. Positioning your product in the right place, or niche, will reduce the number of real competitors you have from 7,000 to just a few hundred. That, of course, can make a huge difference.

One of the biggest problems companies have around positioning is that they almost never deliberately position their products. Instead, they go for the default, which is almost never right. April says that for each of the 16 products she launched, for example, she re-positioned each at some point from a default position to something more niche and accurate.

Positioning explained

According to April, the first step to effective positioning is to break the process down into components. To do so, you need to answer such questions as: 

  • What is the market category you’re going after?
  • What are your competitive comparables? 
  • What are your product’s unique attributes? 
  • Who are your customer segments? 
  • What is the value you’re creating for those segments?

Importantly, you have to understand how all of these components relate to one another. April suggests starting with competitive comparables. If you didn’t exist, what would customers use instead? Companies always get this wrong. Competitive comparables aren’t who you think your competitors are, but rather what your customers would use if you didn’t exist. If you get your competitive comparables wrong, you’ll get the features that you’re trying to highlight wrong.

April argues that you need to understand what your true competitive comparables are, then compare that to your unique key attributes, which should result in a list of themes. Mapping those themes to the value they provide will then give you a set of value themes. From there, you need to ask yourself which customer segments care about those values. Finally, consider the market category.

Getting market positioning right

As April says, positioning a product isn’t just as easy as looking at the market and slotting your product in somewhere. But, with careful analysis and thought, you can give your product, and your company, the kick-start it needs to become a market-leader.

To learn more, view the full presentation: