Steps to Positioning Success

Product Positioning

When my sisters and I were teenagers, friends of my parents invited our family to their home for dinner. As different from each other as we girls were, we were united in thinking the idea sounded dreadfully dull and immediately started fabricating excuses to avoid participating. Rather than playing her “because I said so” card, my mother cannily took each of us aside and shared a single daughter-specific fact about the couple’s son, Rodger. She told my older sister, a budding lithographer, that his paintings had recently been shown in a juried art show. She told my younger sister that he was, like her, captain of his high school swim team. She told me, a Beatles-era misfit with a serious crush on José Feliciano, that he played acoustic guitar. Swoon!

In short, she convinced each of us that we’d regret missing what promised to be a fun night. What we didn’t know until we actually met Rodger was that all of those things were true. However, had my mom told all of us every attribute, she would not have changed our minds about going – he would have sounded too good to be true. She understood that tailoring the promise of fun would depend on her insights about each daughter, and the reasons to believe would need to be just that – believable. Not bad for someone who didn’t have B school on her resume!

Positioning your product or service is like matchmaking – it’s all about sacrificing some information to highlight what’s most meaningful to a specific target. The goal of positioning is to stake a claim in the customer’s heart and mind.

And, since you can’t be everything to everybody, this challenge is best met by exploring, prioritizing, developing, and testing a range of concepts that focus on three integrated key components:

  1. A Consumer Insight (The Premise)
  2. A Key Benefit (The Promise)
  3. And 2-3 Reasons To Believe (The Proof)

These are the steps to positioning success

The Premise—Consumer Insights

Nailing your consumer insight is critical—get it right and the rest of the concept flows from a strong foundation of understanding. The challenge is, how do you nail it? One proven way to find meaningful consumer insights is to actually talk to articulate and creative consumers—ones that are good at self-analysis, and willing to peel back the layers of meaning to explore emotions that go beyond what first pops to mind. Engaging with the right consumers will not only bring multiple perspectives and a range of truths to the party—it will also uncover language that other consumers relate to.

You can think of an insight in a positioning concept as an “I statement” that causes the people who relate to the sentiment to nod their heads in agreement. It’s the opening hook that lets people know that you’re speaking to them—or not—and often begins with phrases like:

  • I think...
  • I feel...
  • I believe...
  • It seems to me...

These statements indicate what’s going on with the consumer before they’re aware of your product or service. Let me reemphasize the key word “before.” Successful positioning concepts avoid statements like:

  • I wish I had a...
  • Wouldn't it be nice if there was a...
  • I need a...

These are all just ways for benefits to masquerade as insights—which for most consumers is an immediate turn-off. It’s imperative to open with a statement of meaningful truth. One that will keep the consumer interested in what you have to offer. You don’t want to waste any opportunity to make a connection with your target by teeing up a benefit that simply isn’t compelling.

Another common mistake when developing positioning concepts is to prematurely assume what “it” is that your product or service is solving for consumers. It’s a good idea to begin positioning projects by creatively exploring a series of opportunity expansion questions, such as:

  1. What's true? (Attributes and Characteristics)
  2. What's uniquely different from the competition?
  3. Who/What/When is it especially for?
  4. What are its benefits? (Functional and Emotional)
  5. What is it like? (Analogies and Metaphors that trigger new language and ways of thinking)

A talented group of articulate consumers presented with these questions will yield a wide variety of answers that highlight a broad range of positioning possibilities—and provide you with multiple opportunities to develop and test.

Positioning: A Free  Step-By-Step Guide

The Promise—Consumer Benefits

A Consumer Insight should link directly to the Consumer Benefit—so that the benefit pays off the insight in a focused and single-minded way. At its core, the benefit is the promise that your product or service delivers to the consumer. It must clearly answer the consumer question, “What do I get?” Avoid the temptation to string several benefits together, pretending it’s one benefit, just because you put a period at the end of the sentence! It can be hard to choose, but choose you must. How can you possibly test relevance and key drivers if you’re promising everything to everyone in an “everything but the kitchen sink” concept?

The good news is that if your product has several compelling benefits, you can test several concepts. The more expressions of a given benefit—and the wider the range of unique benefits you generate during ideation—the more likely you are to find the ones that appeal to your consumers. “Wait,” you must be asking, “aren’t multiple benefits in a single concept verboten?” Yes! That’s correct. But you will need to generate many benefits to have sufficient fodder for selecting the most compelling positioning statements, while at the same time developing a wide array of possibilities.

The Proof—Reasons To Believe

Now for our proof points. How will you convince your consumer that your product or service will really deliver on the promised benefit? Over the years, I’ve seen client teams craft hundreds of positioning concepts by first diligently working to identify a meaningful insight, and then carefully isolating a compelling benefit—only to complete each concept with the same RTB paragraph. This mystifies me. Why not test a variety of support statement options? To be certain, the positioning “chain” is as strong as its weakest link. The benefit needs to pay off the insight—and the RTBs need to pay off the benefit.  Strong positioning concepts treat each component as an important and integral part of the whole message.

As for the question, how many RTBs are enough? Research shows that 2-3 support statements are usually the right amount. (I personally think of this as the Rodger Rule: too many proof points can strain credibility and weaken your argument—but a few carefully curated supports gives your benefit legs—while providing the confidence that your idea can actually deliver.)

Make A Match
Matchmaker, Matchmaker, make me a match, Find me a find, catch me a catch. Matchmaker, Matchmaker, look through your book, And make me a perfect match!

When all is said and done, a solid positioning matches your product, brand or service to your consumer in a unique—and ownable—way. This is primarily done by identifying what your key point of difference truly is, and leveraging it in a way that no competitor can touch. And, like any good matchmaker would recommend, it’s also done with an eye for the most eligible prize catch—for a winning position does not try to be all things to all people. If done well, it will not only speak relevantly and insightfully to your specific consumer—but will actually create a positive relationship with them in the process.  


Cynthia Ryan is an Innovation Process Facilitator at Ideas To Go. She facilitates customer-centered innovation for Fortune 500 companies across all market categories and industries

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Emeritus Facilitator Cynthia Ryan

Cynthia Ryan is an Emeritus Innovation Process Facilitator at Ideas To Go, an innovation agency that works with Fortune 500 companies in ideation and concept development to incorporate the voice of the consumer.