Wednesday, August 18, 2004


Eric Sink writes about the importance of positioning and the need to capture a "position" in the mind of the target customer.

The basic idea of positioning is that your product occupies a place in the mind of the people in your target market. You are defined by their perceptions of you.

Let's try to explain this by using an example: Windows XP has a position which I would describe like this:

The most popular operating system for desktop PCs

The first thing to notice is that when you describe a position, the first word is usually "the", a definite article. Only one product can occupy a given position in the mind of the market.

Describing a position has three important parts:

  • First, describing a position almost always includes a superlative of some kind. In this case, the superlative is "most popular", but I could have said "number one". Often people can remember only the first and best thing in a category. Being number 6 in your market segment is probably not a position at all.

  • Second, a position will describe what label the market places on your product. In this case, the label is "operating system", which fits just fine. If there is no label which fits your product, you have a big problem. If the market cannot compare your product to something else, then you don't have a position.

  • Third, the position will have qualifiers which define exactly what group of people have this perspective of a product. In our example, the market segment is "for desktop PCs". This position doesn't say anything about operating systems for enterprise servers or mobile phones.

Another view of positioning is to ask in which market segment you want to be known as number one. You want to be known as the best of your breed, even if you need several qualifiers to constrain the scope of your claim. Don't think about being fifth place in a large market. Instead, be number one in a smaller market. Apple's Macintosh is a distant number two in desktop computer platforms, but they are number one among graphic designers.

Radio stations understand positioning very well. Obviously most small ISVs do not buy radio advertising time, but if you did, you would discover that every radio station claims to be number one in their local market. :-) One of them is the number one station for males 45 and up. Another station is number one with secretaries who listen at work. Another is the top radio station for classic rock.

What position do we want to have?

How do you want the world to think of your product? Identify the three parts of a position: superlative, label, and qualifiers.

Superlative ("why choose this product")

For what attribute do you want your product to be known? There are actually plenty of choices here besides just claiming to "the best" or "the number one". You can choose a superlative which says something more specific. Perhaps you want your product to be known as "the fastest" or "the easiest". For example, Fog Creek appears to be positioning CityDesk as "the easiest content management tool".

Label ("what is this product")

The important thing here is to choose a position which actually exists in the mind of the people in your target market segment. If you have to invent an entirely new category for your product, then you have chosen a position which doesn't really exist. VA Software describes their product SourceForge as "the leading Development Intelligence application". I don't think I've ever heard of that category of application before. I can't find anybody else that describes their product with that label. As far as I can tell, VA is trying to claim a position which doesn't actually exist. If I had asked you to name the number one Development Intelligence application, what would you have said?

Qualifiers ("who should choose this product")

The common mistake here is to avoid using qualifiers, as if their omission will magically increase market share. You need to get specific about who you want to reach with your product. You can describe your market segment by budget, platform, geography, specific feature need, etc. There are lots of qualifiers available. Don't be afraid to use them.

Marketing is not just telling the world about your product. Marketing is also deciding what product to build. You have to design and build your product to fit the market position you want it to have.

This discussion of positioning is certainly not a complete treatment of the topic. If you want to read more, check out Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, by Al Ries and Jack Trout. It's an excellent read and is considered one of the classics of marketing.


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