The first client I ever helped through their brand positioning had all the elements of a brand. They had a visual identity, a tagline, a values statement – the whole shebang. But they still struggled to stand out from their competitors.
Some of the client’s messaging talked about their years of experience, some talked about their big-name customers, some talked about their array of services.
But their competitors had been in business longer, and everyone had big-name clients. The extensive service menu left their messaging vague and confusing – it tried to talk to everyone, so it didn’t say anything useful to anyone.
They had the elements of a brand, but they had neglected their brand positioning. They hadn’t committed to just who they wanted to be for their customers.
“Brand positioning matters because the brands that are top of mind tend to generate more revenue, charge a premium price, have more qualified leads, have higher close rates and shorter sales cycles, and are even able to attract and retain better talent,” said Jason Vana, founder of branding agency SHFT.
If we were going to get clear on what my client’s messaging should be – and make it stick – we had to find their position.
What does brand positioning mean?
Here’s a fun little quirk of the human brain – it loves putting things in boxes. We teach babies to sort objects by color and shape – red squares in this pile, blue triangles in that one. Grocery stores are categorized by food types (produce, meat, dairy) or common uses (peanut butter in the bread aisle, granola bars with the cereal).
Your brain also categorizes brands. If I say “fast food restaurant,” “laundry detergent,” or “cell phone,” you probably imagine one specific brand – like McDonald’s, Tide, or iPhone.
That brand in the top spot worked hard to make sure when you think about that category, you think about them. They targeted people like you with the right messaging in the right formats at the right times and at the right frequency to cement their spot in your mind.
That doesn’t mean all is lost if you’re playing in a space with massive, well-established brands. Our brains like sorting things so much, each category has subcategories. If you can’t be king of the mountain, you might still be king of the hill.
For example, maybe Tide is the default brand when you think of laundry detergent. Now think of eco-friendly laundry detergent. Is it still Tide? Or maybe Mrs. Meyers?
Let’s try another. When I say “fast food with fresh veggies” do you still think of McDonald’s? Or is it Subway?
Brand positioning by category vs. niche
Mary Keough, head of marketing at Map My Customers, advises companies to choose between two basic brand positioning strategies: create a category or carve out a niche.
Creating a category means putting a new, empty box in your customers’ minds and then being the first to fill it. Loom is a great example.
Loom is, functionally, a screen recorder. It launched into a market where there were a lot of screen recorders. Rather than positioning itself on features or benefits, Loom positioned itself on a point of view – that remote team communication is hard and asynchronous video messaging makes it easy.
By zeroing in on a narrow use case (business) and audience (remote teams) Loom created a new box in customers’ minds. There were lots of apps in the screen recorder box. But just one in the video messaging for business box. (H/T to Harry Dry for this brilliant example.)
But be warned – creating a category is not easy. Or cheap.
“Creating a category requires supreme creative talent and a decent budget,” Mary cautioned. “It requires massive education, time, and patience. You’ll most certainly have to pay to distribute content. You’ll also need a scrappy team led by a visionary marketing leader and killer creative talent.”
Most small and medium businesses just don’t have the budget or talent to invest in creating a whole new category. And that’s OK! Because you can still position yourself as the best option in a specific vertical. And as they say, “the riches are in the niches.”
“Owning a niche means selecting a customer segment you already serve well and going all-in on this segment in your marketing,” Mary said. “The most difficult part about owning a niche is commitment. Your entire team needs to buy in, and it won’t be easy. You’ll essentially ‘ignore’ every other customer segment to own one. But if you can make it seem like you’re the best or only option for that niche, your growth will skyrocket.”
Freshbooks is an example of niche positioning. They’re in the business accounting software category. But rather than target all businesses, they’ve zeroed in to become known as the accounting software for freelancers.
Find your point of differentiation
You can differentiate on things besides customer segment, too. The fastest way to find your brand position is to identify what the competition isn’t doing – and then do it.
Loom realized no one was talking about using screen recordings for remote work teams.
Freshbooks realized available accounting software was leaving out companies of one.
Subway recognized that conventional fast food ignored people who wanted to eat healthy and fast.
Jason recalled developing a brand positioning strategy for a small business going head-to-head against an international brand with a seven-figure marketing budget. There was no way they were going to steal the category away. But during the research phase of the project, Jason’s team discovered a weakness in the giant’s armor.
“They were slow to respond to customer inquiries,” he said. “Like two to three days, even a week, slow. So the first differentiated thing we did was put a chat on our client’s website and commit to responding to inquiries within 30 minutes.”
Next, they replaced traditional sales reps with application specialists. They could answer customers’ technical questions about the product – and close the sale.
“That business quickly became the brand that cared about prospective customers and wanted to help,” Jason said. “Doing so allowed them to steal away market share from their competitor and become the preferred vendor for their ICP.”
Choosing a position for my client followed a similar path. We made a spreadsheet of competitor messaging and looked for areas of differentiation. We pored over customer feedback and industry trends. Eventually, a theme emerged.
Customers worried about spending six or seven figures on a solution that would be obsolete before it wore out. That was a concern my client took serious pains to address, while it didn’t appear in the competitor messaging at all.
Et voila – we had our brand position. They were the forward thinkers providing solutions for tomorrow’s challenges as well as today’s. With that position clear, they could build all their messaging, offers, and campaigns around “futureproofing.”
You can’t see the mountain while you’re climbing it
One of the biggest barriers small and medium businesses face when building their brands is the curse of knowledge. You’re just so darn close to your own business you can’t objectively see its position in the customer’s mind in relation to other businesses.
It’s also tough for a lot of people – founders especially – to conduct their own customer research. There’s a hidden bias that can prompt you to ask leading questions or to filter answers to hear what you expect to hear.
So if you need a hand clearing the cobwebs and establishing a clear, defensible, marketable position, let’s chat. I know a network of smart, creative folks who specialize in this stuff, so we can get you over whatever particular hurdle is getting in your way.