Book cover art for Obviously Awesome
Obviously Awesome
April Dunford

Coherent and straightforward guide to product positioning. Very little filler, gets straight to the point and uses useful stories to flesh out the different ideas within. Works particularly well because it's first principles thinking rather than just a 'system' or series of steps.

'Positioning is the act of deliberately defining how you are the best at something that a defined market cares a lot about' (Page 4)

Good positioning is basically context setting—helping customers understand what you and your product are in relation to other things; other products and the market itself. You want customers to know three things about your product:

  • What it is
  • Why it's special
  • Why it matters to them

There are many signs your positioning is weak:

  • Your current customers love it, but new customers are baffled
  • You have long sales cycles and low close rates
  • You have high customer churn
  • You're experiencing price pressure (i.e. it's too high)

Positioning and Context

Setting the scene is incredibly important. Consider the case of the talented, acclaimed violinist Joshua Bell who, for a Washington Post experiment, played his violin on the subway and nobody appeared to care. The problem was the context, not his talent. We rely on context to make sense of the world around us and what/how we should understand.

'Context enables people to figure out what's important. Positioning products is a lot like context setting in the opening of a movie.' (Page 19)

The Two Positioning Traps

Build Delta: set out with one thing in mind, build something else, don't pivot the marketing to adapt to it.

Market Shift: 'what people want', or whatever's in vogue, changes all the time. There is a constant need to pivot and adapt to this.

Products require deliberate positioning at all time. Good positioning includes:

  • Customer's point of view on the problem you solve and the alternatives avaiable
  • How you are different from those alternatives
  • Characteristics of a potential customer who values those differences
  • Best context that makes your unique value obvious to those customers

Don't bother with traditional positioning statements. They're next to useless and nobody really does anything with them once they're written. They don't suggest what to do next, they're forgettable and they just reinforce the status quo (which may be wrong, after all).

Five Elements of Good Positioning

Competitive Alternatives

'The competitive alternative is what your target customers would "use" or "do" if your product didn't exist.' (Page 47)

Unique Attributes

'Your unique attributes are your secret sauce, the things you can do that the alternatives can't.' (Page 48)

Value (and Proof)

'If unique attributes are your secret sauce, then value is the reason why someone might care about your secret sauce.' (Page 49)

Target Market Characteristics

'Your target market is the customers who buy quickly, rarely ask for discounts and tell their friends about your offerings.' (Page 50)

Market Category

'Declaring that your product exists in a market category triggers a set of powerful assumptions.' (Page 51) 'Market categories help customers use what they know to figure out what they don't.' (Page 53)

Bonus: Trends

'Trends can help customers understand why a product is important right now.' (Page 55)

10 Step Positioning Process

1. Understand Your Customers

They will tell you why your product is great and why they love it, helping you understand the position and the market that it needs to be in. No customers yet? Fine! Cast a wide net to begin with, then hone in on what works best. Customers != investors. the stories may look totally different to them. Sell to your customers as they are right now, not in the future.

'Keep in mind that most of your target customers have never heard of you or your rival startups-they simply want to know how your product compares to what they use today. Customer-facing positioning must be centered on a customer frame of reference.' (Page 70)

2. Form a Team

This is usually going to be the business owner or CEO along with sales, marketing, product and customer. Run workshops and bring everyone along with you on the journey.

'Assembling a team often exposes how different groups in your company hold certain assumptions about your attributes, value and target markets.' (Page 77)

3. Establish a New Shared Vocabulary

Everyone needs to understand the following:

  • What 'positioning' actually means
  • What the component parts of good positioning are
  • How to refer to products internally from now on

Everyone has different points of view on these things, but all need to be brought onto the same page.

'Market confusion starts with our disconnect between understanding the product as product creators, and understanding the product as customers first perceive it.' (Page 86)

4. List Your True Competitive Alternatives

When it comes to knowing who your real 'alternatives' are, customer opinion is all that matters here. What would your best customers do if you didn't exist? Who would they go to? They will tell you the other companies or, at least, you can infer those other companies relatively easily.

5. Isolate Unique Features/Attributes

They normally sound something like this:

  • 'One click install'
  • 'Free in-person installation'
  • 'Rapid response'
  • 'Anonymous transactions'

Some of these can be positive, some of them can be negative. You just need to make sure you are focussed on what is unique to you. It's not just product features either, it can be about your business too.

6. Map Attributes to Value 'Themes'

Put benefits into, or describe them in relation to, the thing that customer is trying to achieve. Each feature may have multiple value points, valued differently, depending on the context.

'Features enable benefits, which can be translated into value in unique customer terms.' (Page 105)

Your features have benefits which give value. E.g. 1 Click Install means a quick setup which saves time and doesn't need technical expertise.

7. Determine Who Cares a Lot

Which customers really care about the value that you deliver? Determine their characteristics and hone in on them specifically. Then, sell fo them. They will be your fans and advocates.

8. Frame Within the Market Context So Your Strengths are Highlighted (Then Figure Out Your Tactics)

What market is it in? Find out:

  • Keep it simple. Do the 'duck test': if it walks and talks like a duck, it probably is.
  • What are adjacent growing markets doing?
  • Ask your customers (carefully...) They often don't completely know what they're talking about.

When we know the market, we need to know how we are going to operate in it.

'Pick a market frame of reference that makes your value obvious to the segments who care the most about that value.' (Page 121)

There are then different approaches for entering the market.

Entering the Market

Head to Head: compete to win in an existing market and beat the incumbent(s) at their own game.Market will already be understood by customers and purchase criteria will be clear.

When to use this strategy:

  • Strong/breakthrough product
  • 'Shifting sands' in the marketplace
  • Strong leader not established in new market

If you already are a market leader, you essentially need to work on maintaining your spot.

Big Fish, Small Pond: find a small section of the wider market and do extremely well in it. Don't just sell office chairs, sell office chairs for gamers. Easier than taking on a market leader and lets your message spread within a community.

This strategy requires:

  • Established market leader
  • A poorly-catered-to subset of this audience
  • An unmet need

'The goal of the Big Fish, Small Pond style of positioning is to carve off a piece of the market where the rules are a little bit different-just enough to give your product an edge over the category leader.' (Page 135)

Make a New Market: usually only possible in one or more very specific circumstances:

  • Big company with serious clout
  • Can't fit into any current market
  • Massive new technology/change
  • Shift in what is considered 'important'

'Creating a new category is the most difficult style of positioning, even when the pre-existing conditions are aligned to support it, mainly because it involves the greatest amount of "teaching" the customer.' (Page 146)

It's incredibly difficult to do because you need to teach customers all of the following at once:

  • Why this new market should exist
  • How to evaluate products in this new market
  • Why you are the best in this new market

You need to sell the market on the problem first before you can sell the solution. Customers won't know they have a problem that needs a solution until you tell them. If it works, though, there's a huge payoff to be had because you've set the terms of the whole market and you get to sell to it first.

'To credibly create a new category, you need a product that is demonstrably, inarguably new and different from what exists in other market categories.' (Page 147)

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