How to Position Your Product in a Crowded Market
If you’ve launched more than one product, you probably know what it feels like to make a big launch announcement that doesn’t go as planned.
This thing that you’ve been pouring your life into for months is met with a few congratulations from friends, and then mostly silence.
On the flip side, maybe you launched, and a lot of people were excited. You got some articles written about you, lots of tweets, and some encouraging emails. After the initial buzz faded, the sales dried up.
I’ve launched products to an insane amount of excitement, and to none at all. There can be a bunch of reasons why products fail, but many times it is because of positioning.
This is an area that a lot of product developers have a hard time with, because it falls under the “marketing” category. Think of it more as a description of your first principles, or a “reason why you are doing this in the first place.”
Positioning your product can be the difference between success and failure.
Positioning is not what you think it is.
Positioning is not your slogan, or what you say your product is. It’s not a clever way to convince someone to try out your product.
Positioning is what your customer thinks of your product. I read somewhere that if you trip your customer and whisper your brand in their ear, your position is what they think about before they hit the ground.
How is this position created? There’s a lot of confusion about this one.
Let’s clear up what positioning is, and isn’t, then look at some examples.
By the way, most of the information in this article is coming from the book [Positioning](https://www.amazon.com/dp/B006B7LQ90/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?encoding=UTF8&btkr=1) by Al Ries and Jack Trout. I’d highly recommend picking it up._
3 critical positioning concepts
There are 3 critical principles of positioning, you must keep these in mind when creating your product position.
1. Positions are like rungs on a ladder.
The order of the rungs is determined by the customer, not you. You can’t take the same rung as someone else. For example, Coke is the first rung for cola, Pepsi is the second.
If you think of your position as rungs on a ladder, it’s clear that you can’t occupy the same space as another product. I learned this releasing Holler Box.
My strategy was to take a small piece of a large pie, namely the popup plugin market. The reason I failed was because the rungs on the “popup plugin” ladder were already taken. It’s extremely difficult to move someone off their rung and take their place, which I learned the hard way. What I should have done was find a different ladder. We’ll talk about that more later on.
2. A position has to exist in the customer’s mind.
For example, you can be the safest car in America, but not the most innovative. Innovative car is not a position that exists in a customer’s mind, that is jargon. Jargon is useless in the real world, safety is not.
You need to tie your brand to something that the customer has a neural connection to, not make up a new one. Sometimes companies can invent this position, but it’s not easy. Paypal did it with real time digital payments. Facebook did it with social media. Those categories may not have existed prior, but they still tied into the real human needs of value exchange and relationship building.
3. Your position must be one thing that is simple and clear.
You can’t be the best ecommerce platform for retail stores with over 50 locations and at-home-mom embroidery shops. Pick one.
You should limit your brand. That’s the essence of branding. Your brand has to stand for something both simple and narrow in the mind. - Positioning
It’s also way easier to do marketing to an audience that has a conference, just go to the conference.
The cool thing here is that the target is not the market. Even though soda commercials target teenagers, their market is everyone. If they advertised to everyone, they would get no one. If you advertise your product as the best for events, it’s not just conference organizers that will use it. Churches and schools will use it too.
This concept gets more clear when we look at some examples. First, let’s look at bad positioning. (There’s plenty of those!)
Bad Positioning Examples
The best membership plugin on the market.
Why it’s bad
“Best” is up to the customer, you saying it has no effect on changing their mind. You don’t get to be the best just by saying it, you have to earn that position by proving it to the customer.
Also, this tells us nothing about what the product actually stands for. Is it for paywalls on news sites, or premium courses in an LMS? Does it specialize in drip content, or is it super simple for beginners? We have nothing to grasp onto, nowhere to put this in our mind.
The leader in global innovation
Why it’s bad
This is just c-suite nonsense. What does that even mean? Obviously this tells us nothing of substance, therefore there is no place in our mind for it.
A real-time communication app for distributed teams.
Why it’s bad
This is not a bad position, the problem is that it’s already taken. HipChat started this trend, then Slack usurped them.
You can’t use a position that already exists. Other companies, like Ryver, have tried. I don’t know how Ryver is doing, but I don’t know anyone that uses anything other than Slack.
A Personal Example
I released a product called Holler Box. It started out as an idea for a fake chat plugin, then I figured I might as well add more features. Because more is better, right?
Holler Box tried to be 10 different things, including the best ecommerce popup plugin, a popup plugin for people who hate popups, and a couple others. In the end, it had little success.
When you try to be everything, you wind up being nothing. - Positioning
Good Positioning Examples
A good position just feels right. It matches a connection we already have in the world, and makes it easy for us to put it, neatly folded, into a box. Here are some examples of companies that are getting it right.
Superhuman – fast, advanced Gmail alternative
Superhuman is a productivity tool that is for advanced email users. This is not your Grandma’s email client, and in fact they probably wouldn’t let your Grandma use it.
Superhuman is invite only since 2016, and they actually reject people who they don’t think are a good fit. They have a specific customer in mind, and they are not compromising their position.
Stripe – payments for developers
I’m a long-time customer of Stripe, and they are crushing it. I don’t even know what their official position is, but in my mind it’s: online payments for developers that don’t suck.
The fact that I don’t know what they say about their position is important. It’s because a position is not determined by what the company says, it’s what I think of them as their customer. Their position is the box I put them in in my mind after interacting with them and using their product.
Stripe succeeded partly because the competition (Paypal) was so archaic, but also because they did an amazing job creating a wonderful product.
7up – the uncola
7up was up against 2 behemoths in the cola world, Coke and Pepsi. They couldn’t just come out as “the clear cola,” the rung for cola was already taken in the customer’s mind.
Instead, they decided to climb a different ladder. By advertising as the “uncola,” they used The Law of the Opposite, which states:
A company should leverage the leader’s strength into a weakness. - 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing
Pagely – Managed WordPress Hosting
When Pagely started many years ago, they offered something new: managed WordPress hosting. They charged $14.98/mo, which was offensively high at the time.
Founder Josh Strebel told me he received lots of angry emails for daring to charge more than $9/mo for hosting. Now many new companies have entered the managed WordPress hosting space, but Pagely was first. Now their cheapest plan is $199/mo, and they have lots of people paying them thousands.
Pagely climbed their own ladder. In the book “The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing,” this is known as the Law of Leadership. “It’s better to be first than it is to be better.”
AppPresser sold 5 figures in the first 3 weeks, and has grown ever since. That’s never happened to me before, and may never happen again. We have solidified our place as the #1 provider for mobile apps with WordPress.
The reason for our success was being first in the mind. We weren’t the first to do mobile apps with WordPress, but we were the first product in that space that took that position.
If we had launched as a mobile app builder for everyone, and listed WordPress as just another integration, I’m convinced we would have failed. It was because of our strong position in WordPress that we succeeded.
How to Find Your Position
Here are some strategies to find your product position.
Define what you are against.
Pagely was against cheap, crappy hosting. They embraced WordPress, and made it their mission to configure their servers specifically for it.
Embrace second place.
If you’re not the market leader, that’s ok. Embrace your position as a strength and advertise it.
Sometimes the market leader is really big, and that means they are entrenched in old traditions, and slow to change. You can capitalize on this by advertising that you are small, nimble, and customer focused.
Avis did this with rental cars: “Avis is only No. 2 in rent-a-cars, so why go with us? We try harder.”
Find a different ladder.
Instead of going up against the market leaders, tread your own path.
7up did this as the uncola, and Stripe went after developers instead of trying to be for everyone. Instead of creating the next ecommerce plugin for WordPress, GiveWP created a donation platform for non-profits. It may seem strange to only go after one market segment, but that’s the whole point. Their are successful precisely because they only went after one segment, not despite it.
Easier said than done, but the first brand to occupy the spot is almost impossible to usurp later.
Be consistent and persistent.
It takes a long time to dig into a position, don’t expect it to click right away. You have to keep fighting the good fight, knowing that you will one day reap the rewards.
Avoid these mistakes
Copying the leaders.
A sure sign of a bad position is when a developer makes a product because their code is better, then copies the leader’s marketing. They think they will succeed because their product is “way better” in their minds, they just have to get the same customers their competitor has to look at it.
This never works.
Copying is a losing game, you can’t occupy the same space as the leader. Find a different space in your customer’s mind.
Being more than one thing.
When Apple released the Mac, they targeted creative types. If they had advertised as a new computer for the everyday workplace, and a great computer for creatives, they would have failed.
Think about it, would you have bought a Mac if it was advertised as a computer for normal business professionals? No. It’s positioned as a computer for creatives, that’s why if you walk around at a tech conference you see almost all Apple computers.
You can’t be everything to everyone, pick a lane and stay in it.
Focusing on you, not your customer.
Our problem is that we are so focused on our own products and companies that it’s hard to see it through fresh eyes.
We start talking about how we have this feature and that feature, and man it is cool that we integrate this 3rd party API that was so complex. That stuff is fun for us, but it’s inside baseball to everyone else.
Our customers have real problems that need solutions, they don’t care about our API integrations. Focus on them.
Volvo stands for safety. Not fancy design, leather interiors, price, or anything else. Safety.
Apple’s famous slogan is “think different.” Not RAM and SSDs and all the other stuff that make up a computer, but a way of thinking about design and hardware in general.
Walmart stands for low prices. This is a difficult position to retain, because it becomes a race to the bottom. Somehow they have done it incredibly well for a long time.
So many products have bad positions, but this is an opportunity for you. Positioning is how you can make your product stand out in a crowded field.
It’s helpful to think of your position as a rung on a ladder in a customer’s mind.
You can’t be on the same rung as someone else, and you can only have 1 thing on that rung. It can be a word like safety, or a concept like think different.
You need to have patience, because a position takes time to sink in. Define your position and be consistent, and maybe you’ll climb the ladder faster than anyone else.
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