Positioning; relevance, awesomeness, or both?

“Obviously Awesome: How to Nail Product Positioning, so Customers Get It, Buy It, Love It” was recommended by a colleague on our climate-KIC programme. A book about positioning. On the climate-KIC programme alone, I have worked with hundreds of companies, and yes, positioning is an issue, as is the definition of the value proposition. Invariably, they go hand in hand.

Positioning is hard

Positioning is how you want to be perceived by the marketplace. Paul Hayes of Beach Hut PR talks about the five words you want to be associated with. For some companies, it is the memory hook. For others is the framing. Sometimes it is the pitch itself (Aliens was pitched as “Jaws on a spaceship”). It is very simple and, at the same time, very hard.

Different dimensions

Because not only are you positioning at the client level, you are also positioning at the investor level, you are positioning at the PR and media level, you are positioning at the recruitment level, you are positioning at the stakeholder level, and all these positions are different. For example, investors are investing in what your company will be in the future; customers are buying a solution to a problem they have right now.

Be different, be relevant

You need to be different, you need to resonate, you need to touch the nerves, you need to get the attention of your audience, it needs to be relevant, it needs to be authentic, maybe a bit weird, but most importantly, you need to be relevant to the target market you have picked. The secret is in the picking of your market segment or, in the case of a start-up, your beachhead market.

Perennial selling

Perennial selling” uses “It’s a ______ that does ______ for ______ “. According to that book, the first success factor is the segmentation and definition of the target market. Picking your beachhead. An audience is not a target that you happen to bump into. Instead, it must be explicitly scoped and sighted. It must be chosen. Having no specific user in mind is one of the major mistakes that kill startups.


Ultimately it is all about storytelling or talk-triggers. Even a world-class product, poorly positioned, can fail. Most products are exceptional only when we understand them within their best frame of reference. 

Context is king

In “Obviously Awesome” defines positioning as the act of deliberately defining how you are the best at something that a defined market cares a lot about. If you fail at positioning, you fail at marketing and sales. It is the context setting for the product. Why pick you?When customers encounter a product they have never seen before, they will look for contextual clues to help them figure out what it is, who it’s for and why they should care. Context can completely transform the way we think about a product. Read “Contextual marketing“. “Obviously awesome” uses the example of Joshua Bell. Joshua Bell regularly sells out concert halls where tickets cost $300 or more. He tested what would happen if he played the violin outside a busy subway station in Washington, DC, during the morning commute. Nothing happened. The context sabotaged Joshua Bell.

The things to consider

Great positioning takes into account all of the following:

  • The customer’s point of view on the problem you solve and the alternative ways of solving that problem.
  • The ways you are uniquely different from those alternatives and why that’s meaningful for customers.
  • The characteristics of a potential customer that really values what you can uniquely deliver. 
  • The best market context for your product that makes your unique value obvious to those customers who are best suited to your product.
  • The competitive alternatives. What customers would do if your solution didn’t exist.
  • The unique attributes. The features and capabilities that you have and the alternatives lack. Your unique attributes are your secret sauce, the things you can do that the alternatives can’t. It is the reason why someone might care about your secret sauce.
  • The value (and proof). The benefit that those features enable for customers.
  • The target market characteristics. The characteristics of a group of buyers that lead them to really care a lot about the value you deliver. Preferably the customers who buy quickly, rarely ask for discounts, and tell their friends about your offerings.
  • The market category. The market you describe yourself as being part of, to help customers understand your value. Declaring that your product exists in a market category triggers a set of powerful assumptions.
  • The relevant trends. Trends that your target customers understand and/or are interested in that can help make your product more relevant right now. 

Thought leadership

That would suggest that you have a deep understanding of the market and the problem, a deep understanding of the competitive landscape, and a clear perspective on the sector’s future. You have the networks and the connectivity, and you are an undisputed thought leader in the market you have picked.

Go for best-fit

Customers need a way to make sense of the overwhelming number of products on the market. The book suggests you go for the best-fit customers. Best-fit customers are the easiest to sell to and retain.The clients that love your product. So you start with making a short list of your best customers. Your form a position team from different functions within the company (marketing, sales, customer service, engineering, etc.). You make sure you are all on the same page.

Competitive analysis

The features of your product and the value they provide are only unique, interesting and valuable when a customer perceives them in relation to alternatives. That is why you need to start talking to customers and get an understanding of how customers first perceive the product. How do they see the competition? Understanding what your best customers see as true alternatives to your solution will lead you to your differentiators. Why do they care about you? Why do you matter? Get the proof points of the strengths of your product. Your opinion of your own strengths is irrelevant without proof. In most companies I work with, this is the weakest link. The comparison of their value proposition compared to the completion. Once you have a good understanding of the value that your product delivers versus other alternatives, you can look at which customers really care a lot about that value. 

You have three choices

1. Head to head: Positioning to win an existing market

2. Big fish, small pond: Positioning to win a subsegment of an existing market. Becoming a super nichist. 

3. Create a new game: Positioning to win a market you need to create. Read “Blue Ocean Shift“.

Go for the niche

In our climate KIC accelerator, we always suggest option 2. In Head to Head, you are attempting to beat Coke in the cola market; in big fish, small pond, you’re selling Coke for dogs. Many startups compete in established market categories and do so successfully by first breaking up the market into smaller pieces and focusing on one piece they can win. The goal of the big fish, small pond style of positioning is to carve off a piece of the market where the rules are slightly different. Word-of-mouth marketing also happens most naturally in tight market subsegments.

Some lessons:

  • Awesome is irrelevant if the market does not understand you.
  • A product that is well-positioned in a market can still be very successful without relating it to a trend.
  • It’s always better to be a little boring than completely baffling.
  • Describing a trend without declaring a market can make your product cool but baffling.
  • Trends can only be used when they have a clear link to your product.
  • Position yourself in a market that makes your strengths obvious to the folks you want to sell to.
  • Use trends to make your product more interesting to customers, but be very cautious. Successful and boring is better than fashionable and bewildering.

The holy grail

I read somewhere that advertising is the tax you pay for having a bad product or service. You can add bad positioning to that as well. Ultimately it is all about doing your homework. Selling is hard work. A good story that resonates with your customers, where they are not only willing to buy into becoming part of the story but are also willing to share that story with others, is the holy grail.  Link that to meaning, purpose and culture and you have a winning combination.

sensemaking cover


Sense making; morality, humanity, leadership and slow flow. A book about the 14 books about the impact and implications of technology on business and humanity.

Ron Immink

I help companies by developing an inspiring and clear future perspective, which creates better business models, higher productivity, more profit and a higher valuation. Best-selling author, speaker, writer.

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