If people don't understand what your product does for them and why it's special, they won't buy from you. Product positioning solves this. When an engineer turned marketer helps re-position company after company to grow 10X and 20X, they know something we don't. Below we'll cover what positioning in marketing is, why April Dunford's new process is so popular and give you 10 positioning examples and links to templates.
After positioning comes narrative: 3 Examples of Sales Narratives
10 companies show you their positioning strategy
- Superhuman achieved great positioning by creating an engine
- Upscope's SaaS positioning lesson? They never read the third line of the email
- Cobloom positioned around their best performing clients AND their best work
- Userlist followed the positioning process precisely and won
- A serial entrepreneur explains the danger of positioning around saving money
- Positioning for mice vs elephants
- Databox re-positioned in one week
- Grow & Convert had to position for specific industry problems
- Positioning for minimum support or stress and maximum freedom
- Positioning a healthy lunchtime venue in Soho
Why positioning matters? It's worth a billion dollars
How many companies "could" have been Dropbox or Slack? A lot of startups built the equivalent of Dropbox but never became Dropbox.
Product positioning is central to a winning strategy for many companies.
"For some folks it’s mainly a messaging exercise, while others associate it very closely with branding. But positioning is much, much broader than either of those things.
Product positioning describes the specific market you intend to win and why you are uniquely qualified to win it. It’s the underpinning of your go-to-market strategy and impacts everything from marketing to sales, to customer success and the product itself." April Dunford
As Judy Loehr says the fundamental problem companies have is: "No-one cares about your product".
We need every advantage in getting the right product to the right people and positioning is a job to be done.
What is positioning?
Al Ries definition: "Positioning is not what you do to the product; it’s what you do to the mind of the prospect. It’s how you differentiate your brand in the mind. Positioning compensates for our over-communicated society by using an oversimplified message to cut through the clutter and get into the mind. Positioning focuses on the perceptions of the prospect not on the reality of the brand."
April Dunford's definition: "In order to break through the noise, companies would need to take into account their own strengths and weaknesses, then contrast them with their competitors to create a unique leadership position in the minds of customers."
Wikipedia Definition: "Positioning refers to the place that a brand occupies in the minds of the customers and how it is distinguished from the products of the competitors. In order to position products or brands, companies may emphasize the distinguishing features of their brand (what it is, what it does and how, etc.) or they may try to create a suitable image (inexpensive or premium, utilitarian or luxurious, entry-level or high-end, etc.) through the marketing mix."
Using positioning statements was simply guessing and now there's a science
April Dunford is an engineer turned marketer and has helped reposition companies to go from, for example, $2 million to $70 million in 18 months and also advises startups on positioning so they don't waste years going in the wrong direction.
The old way of positioning was to fill in the blanks on a positioning statement and that's a very crude and random process.
The new process outlined by April includes some of the points listed below:
- Start by focusing on your best customers.
- List your unique attributes that service those customers.
- List the real value of each of those attributes to those customers.
- Find out exactly who cares about them a lot.
- Find a market frame that helps those strengths stand out.
I wish I had come across it years ago.
We run two profitable bootstrapped SaaS companies but we wasted years growing slower than we should because we didn't understand positioning.
We ended up doing bullshit meetings and a/b tests discussing what our home page title should be, what market is best, what our onboarding flows would do, how we'd run sales demos and more. This book would have solved around 90% of those discussions even if the answer was to "wing it until we know more".
It would also have been great if someone had explained to us how positioning is different to a strategic sales narrative. The strategic sales narrative is the compelling story you tell your customer so they understand why they need your product.
Beware of one page book summaries
You know those books which could be shortened down to 1 page of bullet points?
This is not one of them.
If you try and follow a summary of this positioning book you'll end up swearing at the person who summarised it.
That's not going to be me.
The details are essential because it's a heavily condensed book of years of experience.
Before reading it start by watching the writer present it here on Youtube.
It has also has an incredible range of endorsements from experienced founders and marketers including Rand Fishkin who read it in 2 hours.
1. Superhuman achieved product market fit and positioning by creating an engine
This is first in the list because it's a near perfect breakdown of not only achieving product market fit but also positioning and its accompanying messaging.
Superhuman built an engine to:
- Find the customers that loved their email client product.
- Find the features they really liked.
- Create their value messaging around it.
I thought Superhuman was all hype
I first heard about it on Twitter from venture capitalists and founders who tweeted on how much they loved it.
I was very confused. It's a damn email sender with the same features as other email senders, how good can it be?
It turns out that I primarily communicate on Intercom these days and so send very few emails.
I also did not understand the problem it solved for other heavy duty email users because my bubble is VC and founders on twitter so I missed the other use cases.
How is Superhuman positioned?
Is Superhuman an email client?
Is sending and receiving mails a new shiny technology? No, it's been around since the internet began.
Does Superhuman have more features than other clients? It has some unique new features, though it's not positioned around those.
Is Superhuman cheaper than other services? No, there are cheaper options.
How have they positioned it then? By saying that it is the FASTEST email experience ever made.
It turns out that people who send and receive lots of emails each day care about speed A LOT and are willing to pay the $30 / month for it when there are cheaper and possibly more feature rich email clients out there.
Those heavy duty email users are signing up for it, tweeting about it and Superhuman now have a waiting list of users to be onboarded.
When it comes to positioning around speed, they're not just saying it, they prove their commitment to speed through engineering around a minimum speed rule.
How did they get to this positioning?
They built an engine to achieve product market fit and find positioning.
For example they segmented users, they used Sean Ellis's 40% disappointment survey, they created customer profiles using Julie Sapan's high expectation customer framework and lots more.
Two key things greatly helped find their position.
- They initially passed over feedback by those who would not be disappointed if the product did not exist. In short, ignore those who don't need it.
- Within their survey they asked one key question "What is the main benefit you get from Superhuman?" and created a word cloud with the results. Speed stood at the centre of that word cloud.
The engine they created to get both product market fit and positioning can be used by almost any company starting or even re-evaluating positioning.
2. Upscope's SaaS positioning lesson learned: They never even got to the third line
In April Dunford's book we read that positioning is a deliberate exercise.
We didn't commit to a deliberate position at first so our marketing misfired.
They never made it to the 3rd line of our email
We sent out cold emails knowing we were emailing the right people with the right product.
It's true. We've now confirmed that we did email the right people with the right product.
What went wrong?
Everyone replying formed an idea in their mind after reading the first sentence.
Judging by their replies they even skimmed through the rest but had already made a decision.
They replied saying they already have a tool for that problem
Upscope, is for "Seeing what your customer sees, instantly".
It's a form of instant and interactive screen sharing also known as co-browsing.
It integrates with live chat systems like Intercom and Zendesk whose users are a clear targetable market.
We specified clear differentiators to existing screen sharing tools.
- No downloads.
- See what your customer sees in one click.
- Scroll and click for them on THEIR screen.
That's what we thought.
We sent out cold emails to live chat users explaining all these wonderful shiny advantages.
What did people say?
"No thanks, we use Teamviewer".
Why couldn't they see the difference?
We half-cooked it and that was deadly
It turns out they don't have mental energy to spare in learning something new.
We should have focused on contrasting ourselves with Teamviewer and existing screen sharing tools straight away rather than starting with our wonderful new shiny thing.
There are 4 ways to frame a product
We didn't know that contrasting to screen sharing was one of 4 possible ways to frame our product.
- Dominate an existing category.
- Dominate a segment of an existing category.
- Reframe an existing category.
- Create a new category.
We hadn't done any of these deliberately.
We changed our home page headline half a dozen times but with no real structured reasoning.
That's not saying it fails to attract people, it just means we grew slower than we could.
What are we doing now?
We decided that we'll continue to be positioned as part of the growing co-browsing market and against our competitors but we'll do what we should have done from the start: By having our own view of the market regardless of what our competitors are doing. Our own intrinsic vision, values and culture around building a product that we believe in. Why do this? It's a positioning strategy and also emotionally satisfying.
3. How Cobloom positioned around their best performing clients AND their best work
Cobloom went from SEO agency to inbound SaaS agency by analysing their best performing clients and by looking at what they themselves were good at and enjoyed.
Here's a good moment to insert Mark Cuban's quote on following your effort rather than your passion:
“One of the great LIES of life is follow your passions. Everybody tells you to follow your passion, follow your passion. If you put in enough time, and you get really good, I will give you a little secret: Nobody quits anything they are good at because it is fun to be good. It is fun to be one of the best. But in order to be one of the best, you have to put in effort. So don’t follow your passions, follow your effort,” says Cuban."
Cobloom were good at marketing SaaS companies and that's what worked.
What was the problem? Customers didn't trust SEO companies
The Cobloom founders realised that offering an SEO service was difficult when people did not trust SEO service companies.
I'm familiar with this as I also distrusted SEO services until I understood more.
They went through multiple stages.
Stage 1: We are an SEO service
There were multiple problems with being an SEO service at the time including the shady reputation of some SEO companies, budget constraints, an imbalance between what companies wanted and what they were willing to pay and proving results related to the work they did and not some other random factor.
In short, positioning as an SEO company was bad for business.
Stage 2: We are a B2B Inbound agency and a Hubspot partner
This is where they followed the rise of content as central to marketing and became an inbound agency, a Hubspot partner and provider of content to a range of industries.
However, it became flooded with competitors who described themselves the same way and they found that competing on price for high value complicated work is difficult.
Stage 3: We are an Inbound agency for SaaS
This is where they discovered the perfect junction of performance and joy.
Their best performing clients were SaaS.
They enjoyed working with SaaS.
They were winning a lot of SaaS business.
They focused on SaaS.
This fits with April Dunford's approach of looking at your best clients and building your positioning off of them and adds a great point of finding what you enjoy in your work and doing more of that.
Being authentically you is a competitive advantage people find hard to copy. (Source: Naval Ravikant)
4. Userlist followed the 10-step method precisely
Userlist is a beautifully clean drip messaging tool for SaaS companies. It's an alternative to Intercom's own messaging component which we use at Upscope and we're fully aware of how complicated that can be to set up and use.
Userlist exactly followed April Dunford's 10 step process for positioning as described in her book.
Key points to note in their journey to find positioning:
- Before the positioning exercise they had described themselves as an "email automation tool" but were immediately compared to strong competitors with more features like Drip and Active Campaign and so needed to change.
- The decided to precisely follow April Dunford's 10 step rule from her book.
- When they mapped their features to the question "Who cares about them?" they had the word "Bootstrapped" or "SaaS" in almost all the columns.
- They shifted their product category from email automation to “customer messaging tools” in which Intercom also exists and they contrasted themselves with Intercom's own messaging module.
- They've built their marketing around the growing trend of user onboarding which links naturally to the service they provide.
- They re-launched their product and got rave reviews.
How did the process change their description of themselves?
They changed it to "Onboard and engage your users with Userlist — a customer messaging tool for SaaS companies. More efficient than building it yourself; less complex than Intercom or Customer.io."
Positioning statements are useful after you've done a positioning exercise otherwise they can be dangerous box ticking exercises.
That said, the above fits almost perfectly with the structure below provided by Google's head of marketing Christopher Escher as covered in this article.
For (target customer)
Who (statement of need or opportunity),
(Product name) is a (product category)
That (statement of key benefit).
Unlike (competing alternative)
(Product name)(statement of primary differentiation).
5. If you position on "saving money" you lose money
Jason Cohen has built and sold several companies and is the Founder and CTO of WP Engine.
He perfectly explains a situation in which you can 8X your price if you avoid positioning around "savings" and instead focus on growth.
Summary of how to 8X your price
- Assume you sell a tool called 'DoubleDown' that can reduce any companies ad spending but still bring in the same number of leads.
- You find a company spending $40,000 per month on ads.
- You sell your product to the ad guy at that company for $5,000 per month. They use the tool and cut their ad spending by $15,000 per month.
- The CEO finds out about the savings but doesn't really give a damn. Why? The CEO cares about growth first because if the company grows 20% then that covers the ad spending anyway.
- The pitch should have been "You’re paying $200/lead right now, yielding 200 leads per month. Using DoubleDown, you can double the number of leads you’re generating, still at a cost of $200/lead".
- In short, if the company primarily cares about growth then they're willing to spend $80,000 on ads per month if they can guarantee that the same number of quality leads come in to help them grow.
- You as the double down tool owner could have charged $40,000 per month not $5,000.
This was painful to read.
As a co-founder I'm always thinking about growth and value and yet we get tempted to throw in other factors that are not priorities for clients.
In short, think about core value rather than saving money.
6. Positioning for mice vs elephants
This point is focused more on landing pages as part of positioning to attract larger companies and for enterprise clients, this matters a lot.
As a SaaS company we did not understand the real reason "why" our larger competitors could get away with odd headlines and lots of seemingly boring summary docs linked to their landing pages.
The following 5 groupings are taken from this great article.
To get to $100m dollars in annual revenue you need:
- 1,000 enterprise customers paying you $100k+ per year each; or
- 10,000 medium-sized companies paying you $10k+ per year each; or
- 100,000 small businesses paying you $1k+ per year each; or
- 1 million consumers or "prosumers" paying you $100+ per year each or
- 10 million active consumers who you monetize at $10+ per year each by selling ads
Let's take the 10,000 medium-sized customers at $10k each per year as an example.
If you have a $100 a month product, people will sign up, buy it and you might never talk to them. Your support may well be simply live chat support, a few emails and sometimes a demo or webinar.
If you have a $1,000 per month or a $10,000 per month product then people will almost always want to talk to you before buying, they will have questions, they will need lots more information and they will need to trust you not to get them fired and they know they'll need it to pass through several departments to get implemented.
Below is one example of how it might impact your landing page.
Why do companies going for $100k customers have all this crap on their landing pages?
One of the most confusing things for new SaaS startups looking at the website of a larger established SaaS company in the same space is wondering why they have all that crap on their landing pages.
Why is their main headline talking in such vague general terms when we need to be so precise about the problem we solve?
Why do they have these boring docs on their page like security and datasheet pdfs?
Why do they have shallow one pager articles on how they serve each industry?
While I can't yet explain their vague headlines other than that they're already an established brand and have their own marketing channels that work, the docs are important.
The messaging on landing pages that attract 100,000 vs 10 dollar products is different and that includes the docs.
How does your page change when positioning for large companies?
"If they visit your website and it looks like it’s made for tiny customers, they’ll move on. Great marketing isn’t just when you understand your customer, it’s when your customer feels understood by you. When they visit your website they have to feel like “this company gets me.” Kyle Racki, CEO of Proposify
Upscope's first landing page had no security docs, no industry information, a startupish about us page and no careers page.
That's all changed through iterations made as we learned more.
Below is an image of what you'll see on the Upscope home page footer.
There are 4 sets of key improvements we've made to just our footer as part of our transition to attracting larger companies:
- Book demo. Many people at larger companies want to talk first without signing up. They often first book a demo to see if they can learn more about us and also trust us as a company. Yup, we didn't have this when we started.
- Upscope for finance, insurance, improving customer experience. We added pages for individual industries and topics that large organisations care about. Customer experience is an important subject for many organisation as many companies with similar price and features all compete on it.
- Security information, HIPAA and GDPR compliance. Every single large company using Upscope has asked questions about data security and compliance. Why is this so important? Because "there are key stakeholders who will kill the deal the minute a red flag goes up." and "In my experience, security and legal concerns tend to be the biggest hurdles blocking enterprise deals."
- Additional minor changes include a slightly more mature about us page covering our founder skill sets in a more serious light, a careers page and phone numbers.
Has this resulted in larger companies approaching us? Hell yes.
7. Databox re-positioned in one week
This is an example of pivoting from enterprise to mass market which is the opposite of Upscope and is a great example of why you don't need to wait.
This article hit home because I find it tempting to say "We need to gather more data before we change our positioning" but this can simply be a denial of circumstances. We probably have enough data now to at least adjust and test our positioning.
John Bonini, who pushed for repositioning Databox said the following :
"In a crowded space, I argued for defining the market positioning rather than letting the market define it for us. We’re not Geckoboard. We’re not Klipfolio. We’re not Domo or Tableau. We’re not just another dashboard or BI tool. Databox is different, and I strongly suggested communicating that difference to the market ASAP."
My first impression looking at their website was that they're a dashboard type tool and below is their old home page:
They deliberately switched away from enterprise exec types because selling to large companies was tough.
They instead moved to freemium and mass market after John had done some great analysis.
Key points from their positioning analysis
- The problem they realised is that spreadsheets, slide decks, and status meetings suck and have to go.
- While execs knew what was happening via a multitude of these spreadsheets and slide decks most others didn't understand how the business was doing or, by the time they did, the data was a month old.
- Their product was evolved for marketers and others without needing too much input from engineering to get set up which was often a roadblock.
- It was also right for helping marketing agencies who work with multiple clients.
- Freemium was a key differentiator.
Here's the new home page:
8. Grow & Convert had to position for specific industry problems
Benji Hyam has written an in-depth post on positioning and it's always interesting when a marketing company has to re-position itself because their reasoning and insights have greater experience backing them.
It's tempting to blame marketing tactics
I like this part at the start of the post:
A management team might say the following:
“The traffic from content is just not converting into customers, we need to go [upmarket, different niche, optimize our conversions, etc.]”
When conversions are not as high as they could be across multiple channels, it's often a positioning problem.
In some industries companies can positioning on accountability
One thing to note reading this and reading about the other company that began with SEO services is that some industries have industry specific trust problems and whoever solves it best can win.
Marketing companies all have a problem proving results and being accountable for them because content marketing, as an example, takes a variable time to have an impact and people expect an ROI in a set period of time.
What problems did they see in the industry
A. You can't hire just any writer to write an 'expert' post for readers on a subject whose readers have been in that industry for decades.
B. Marketing agencies all lacked a good promotion strategy for content.
C. Agencies didn't measure results by leads and actual sign ups.
What was their positioning approach?
They used the following structure to find position:
- Who are you targeting?
- What pain points does your product solve?
- How are you unique?
- Can you prove the above is true?
What specifically did they do to fix industry problems
They decided to only supply 3 posts per month to maintain quality.
They only measured by sign ups and leads, rather than traffic.
They created a 3 step content promotion strategy.
In short, they took the toughest problems in their industry and came at it head on.
Pricing as part of positioning
The article also covers notes on how they priced the software. They chose $6,000 to start with as it was industry standard and equates to $72k per year which you is what it might cost to hire writers. That's partly why they also focused on companies that had tried content marketing before and knew the costs.
9. Positioning for minimum support and max freedom
This will be a comical addition to the list because it's not positioning for growth but for consistent survival as a passive income business with minimal time spent on support.
Not every company is built aiming for billions in revenue
If you've been watching the recent Basecamp founder Tweet storm you'll be aware of their view that not every company wants to grow into a behemoth and sacrifice their 20s and 30s building up said company.
Some companies might want to position for minimal support.
Some companies might want to avoid doing enterprise sales which involves having to do demos, provide services, create custom slide shares, security docs, run webinars and training sessions.
How do you position to make consistent revenue even against large competitors?
By not challenging every competitor out there on every feature and instead be the best at one thing which part of the market appreciates.
Anymail finder is an email finder we built which is used by founders, marketing departments, sales teams and marketing agencies.
Since Anymail finder began the email finding field has been flooded with competitors and some of them have big teams, millions in funding and they service some huge companies out there.
Some of these competitors charge a lot more and provide lots of add-ons, some of them charge a lot less but still provide lots of add-ons.
Yet Anymail finder revenue has been consistent and it has loyal customers who are aware of the alternatives.
How we positioned it for our aim of minimising support
To do that, we needed to have a service with close to zero complaints or problems.
In order to have zero complaints or problems, we needed:
- A strict set of features and time spent refining those rather than adding more.
- The value from those features was 100% guaranteed.
- We were absolutely transparent from beginning to end on that core value.
From our Google listings through to our home page, our pricing page, our onboarding emails and all the way through the purchase process, we repeat one thing: We only charge for verified emails, all the rest are free.
Meanwhile, our competitors are offering many different features and charging for both verified and guessed emails causing a larger number of complaints when the emails bounce (yes, we hear about them from their customers).
Complaints take support time and energy.
- A larger feature set requires more support time and not every customer needs them as they use other systems already.
- Unclear pricing requires more support time.
- Haggling over refunds requires support time and energy.
The aim is to minimise it.
Total time spent on Anymail finder is currently around 15 to 30 minutes a day by making maximum use of saved replies and inserting relevant articles.
Has it grown much? No, it's been steady.
Are people happy with the service? Yes.
Does positioning around one specific thing and doing it well work? Yes.
Will it work forever? Probably not but has been for a considerable while.
Has it given us time to work on other things we enjoy even more? Oh yes.
Anymail finder is positioned around core value for a specific set of customers who have all the other features they need and just want verified results.
10. Positioning a healthy lunchtime venue in Soho
Indulge me a little, I want to talk about a local food spot that has queues every day called Eat Activ.
With an office in Soho London, we've seen food places come and go over the years and one has appeared, stuck around and nailed it.
It's not just a temporarily trendy place, they've been consistently busy.
Here's how they describe themselves:
"We believe that fast food doesn’t have to be unhealthy, and healthy food doesn’t have to be boring."
Ok, they talk to the talk.
Do they walk the walk?
I'm going to go through April Dunford's positioning steps to analyse this place from the perspective of a customer.
Understand the customers who love the product
The raving fans of Eat Activ include myself, Joe, Tom, the sales people from one-login and several others.
We're people who go the gym and want to eat good food but try and eat healthy as often as possible.
The ideal combination for us is something that tastes good and healthy, is ready to take away in minutes and which we'd choose even over a Pilgrims double pepperoni and honey pizza.
Only Eat Activ has come close to that.
List the competitive alternatives
What would we do if Eat Activ did not exist?
Pret sandwiches, M&S salad boxes, Itsu sushi place, Tommy's burgers, Pilgrim's pizza, Detox Kitchen's extremely healthy boxes,, wraps from the street market, bring food from home in tupperware.
Isolate the unique attributes or features
It's quality restaurant food in a box.
The main thing that Eat Activ nails is the speed at which they produce food that normally requires sitting down in a restaurant and waiting for.
Their prep and process to grill food and put together boxes is INTENSE.
Waiting time is typically less than 5 minutes which is incredible for the quality level.
Determine who cares a lot
Even though we're in the heart of the tourist district, the people queueing are not tourists, they're all the local office workers from WeWork, the film and theatre industry and other co-working spaces nearby.
We can't speak for everyone but we are tired of the mass produced feel to much of the food around and we want healthy food without that sense of the taste being sucked out of it.
We're willing to pay more for the right quality AT SPEED.
We don't want to sit down and eat for an hour, we want to take it back to the office.
Find a market frame of reference and position within it
Eat Activ is in the healthy food category and is priced at marginally above most of the regular clean eating venues.
It goes head to head with M&S salad boxes, Detox kitchen and others that do the salad / meat combo for healthy eaters. It's winning on quality and speed of service.
A while back I was thinking that the perfect place for me is a venue that does salad and fish or chicken in a box that tastes good. It's healthy, it's good for gym workouts, it's also light enough that I can concentrate in the afternoon.
No-one really lived up to that but Eat Activ has read my mind and clearly a lot of others feel the same.
Eat Activ's key advantage is in their pre lunchtime prep and the speed at which they operate.
I don't know if they can maintain that without the owner standing right there and pushing it along but it's working for now.
The funny thing is that their name is badly positioned but accidentally works
We thought EatActiv meant food for active people but it's because they use 'activated' ingredients. There's even a poster inside explaining it. Nobody I spoke to knows what activated ingredients are. However, the name works both ways so they are fortunate. I don't know if that was deliberate or not.
- First I would recommend reading the book as it is a heavily condensed template and I don't want to get blamed for bad summaries leading to bad decisions :) If you'd like an overview of the process in the book then read April Dunford's post here.
- April has posted her templates on her blog here.
- The Userlist example we gave above is a great step by step implementation of that same positioning process.
After positioning comes the strategic narrative
Why do you need a strategic sales narrative? Why are CEOs and sales departments lining up to learn about creating one?
Because Obi-wan FAILED to sell the trip around the galaxy to Luke.
What if focusing on problems and pain points is wrong? What if instead you should start by talking about "change" and focus on "stakes not problems".
What else to read?
This is an enjoyable process to test out on your copy: Using Jobs to be Done Method in Marketing to Explain What Your Company Does though now I'm thinking more about the above strategic sales narratives and using this as an input.
Also see our content writing for SaaS post which includes a number of methods we often use to write emails, blog posts and landing page content.
Essential read connected to positioning: 3 Examples of Sales Narratives
Another part of the jigsaw puzzle: 10 Companies Show you their Go-to-Market Strategy