The Semantic Soup that is Marketing: Positioning


To illustrate this concept, consider the picture of the hobo (is that politically incorrect?) taken in Pitt Street Mall, Sydney.


Positioning has nothing to do with location (Pitt Street) but everything with the puppy on his lap. The sign actually explains why he and his dog are on the street. All bums are poor and destitute by definition and it is hard for a beggar to elicit a response from the (cynical) passing crowds based on a positioning of ‘I am down and out and you are well-off’ – because that is how every hobo would position themselves. This homeless person has easily and very succinctly positioned himself as someone who has a ‘heart’. This effectively negates many of the standard thought patterns most people would have about the homeless. And even better, not only positions himself as someone with a heart, he also very effectively taps into the additional target market of people who wouldn’t support a homeless person, but would gladly dip into their wallet for a destitute dog.


The value proposition is still the same as that of every other homeless person in that it is aimed at appealing to our sense of guilt (emotional value), but he has managed to position himself differently in how people think about beggars.


It is probably important to remember that Ries & Trout’s original idea with ‘positioning’ was about trying to capture a space in the customer’s mind. They also then proceed to give examples of positioning to illustrate the concept; and these examples are all single word examples (Volvo = safety.)


I accept and agree with the principle that positioning is an attempt to articulate and describe the space in the customers in the customers mind, but don’t accept that Volvo = Safety is a good example of positioning. I would rather describe ‘safety’ as a value proposition (see next post).


Positioning has obvious ‘spatial’ connotations and therefore positioning requires at least two coordinates if you want to successfully describe a ‘position’. Personally I use a perceptual map to develop a positioning statement. Perceptual maps have two axes (x and y) and positioning a product/ offer is strategically one of the most important marketing activities you could possibly devote time and resources too.


Before the notion of ‘Blue Ocean’ strategies were developed, I have been referring to that similar, uncontested space as ‘white space’. Most marketers will instinctively understand what is meant by white space and marketing nirvana is to have you product positioned in the mind of the customer in such a way that it is surrounded by white space.


From a consumer psychology perspective it would mean that your offer is the only possibility in the ‘evoked set’ of considerations; or if not the only one, then at least a very dominant one.


The key to success is to choose the two axes wisely and to illustrate the point, consider the Apple iPod and how it is positioned itself differently to other MP3 players.


Traditionally mobile music players (dating back to the original Discman) competed on the perceptual map defined by Physical Size (x-axis) and Capacity (y-axis). It was a very crowded space because everybody competed for the same (red ocean) space: physically small + large capacity.


Apple re-defined the perceptual map because they changed the game by creating a new positioning map. They could do this because Steve Jobs has an intuitive understanding of what customers want (probably not because they were smart, rational marketers). They created a positioning map for the iPod with an x-axis being Design and Music Quality. (Some may argue that since most competitors have caught up on music quality, they have again re-created the playing field by changing at least one dimension by making access to music simple, more affordable and huge.)


Making it relevant to retail is not too hard. Most retailers choose Price as one of the dimensions. In my view, there could not be a sillier thing to do unless you aim to be a category killer or mass merchant of some description.


Examples of smaller, specialty stores that have positioned themselves differently are:


Dusk: Intimate and Unusual/Exotic


Boost Juice: Healthy and Vibrantly Young


The million dollar question is of course how one goes about to define the two axes that constitute the perceptual positioning map.


In my experience there are two options:


Pick any two dimensions that customers would value. This means if you get it right you have the opportunity to make the rules.


Or…


Pick one dimension that is a consumption value and the other as a competitive advantage. (This allows you to position your product in the customer’s mind relative to the competition.)


Positioning is therefore the marketing tool that is used to answer Question 3 posed above:


How do I want the customer to think about my product/offer/solution?


Positioning is the marketing tool that is used to define the space in the customer’s mind when they consider our offer.