To a first approximation, messaging is the expression of positioning; and the way you know whether positioning is good is whether good messaging naturally flows from it. So it’s natural to conflate the two. But let’s focus for once on positioning itself.
I think positioning boils down to:
- Product category, even though product categorizations are never precise.
- Orientation, along multiple attributes.* Hence positionings are more complex than vendors commonly realize.
- (Optionally, but it’s a common option) Target customer group.
When positioning is framed that way, we can say that the primary goals of messaging are to communicate, emphasize or try to change aspects of your positioning.
*I used to say “dimensions” instead of “attributes” — but most likely the attributes aren’t all orthogonal to each other and also aren’t all measured on a continuous scale.
The modern concept of “positioning” was formulated and popularized by Jack Trout, starting in the 1960s, and can be stated as (filling) a “location in the customer’s mind”. In practice, a Trout positioning combines a product category with a single-attribute orientation such as “safe”, “powerful”, or “fun”. But I think that’s too simple for B2B or technology contexts.
I like the Geoffrey Moore formulation better, in which he offers a positioning template:
For (target customers)
Who (have the following problem)
Our product is a (describe the product or solution)
That provides (cite the breakthrough capability).
Unlike (reference competition)
Our product/solution (describe the key point of competitive differentiation)
But while those are all good questions — compare them to my own strategy worksheet — Moore’s version is flawed too; in conflating positioning and messaging, he oversimplifies them both.
What people — evidently including Trout and Moore — often overlook is that every product in a category is positioned along the same set of attributes, starting with those found on evaluation checklists. If any (sufficiently visible) competitor in a category claims to be strong in an attribute, then every other product in the category will be rated according to that attribute too.
For example, every analytic RDBMS is positioned by prospects and influencers, whether or not the vendor wishes it to be, according to whether it’s MPP (and in what sense), what kinds of concurrent workloads it handles, which SQL it does or doesn’t execute, how well it compresses, whether it has a true-columnar option and so on and so forth. Further and more important, each analytic RDBMS is positioned along summary attributes such as “enterprise-proven”, “handles large databases”, “ease of administration” and the like. B2B technology products are positioned not only by their strengths, but by their competitive weaknesses as well.
Specific principles I rely on when working with clients include:
- Your uniqueness claims should actually be true. If you say “Our big differentiation is D”, and your audience doesn’t think D is differentiating — then where are you positioned?
- Position in terms of summary attributes. People sometimes buy DBMS because they’re fast. They rarely buy them, however, because there’s a good optimizer; rather, a good optimizer is evidence that a DBMS is well-engineered and fast.
- Category names shouldn’t make a misleading first impression. By “misleading” I don’t necessarily mean “dishonest”; I’m just referring to what people’s natural assumptions and expectations will be. For example:
- “Metadata” means several different things; hence it confuses people; hence vendors have learned not to use it in category names.
- “Relational” evokes RDBMS so strongly that any other use of the word should probably be avoided.
- Leave a path to walk back. “Our X is amazingly good for segment Y” lets you later say “Now it’s great for Z as well.” But “We’re entirely focused on segment Y” — while it can be a powerful story — puts you in a trap you may not escape later on.
Above all — don’t bother saying things nobody will care about. That principle — which gets violated many times each day — is central to messaging and positioning alike.