Brand positioning is the process of establishing your brand as the best choice for your target buyers compared to your competitive alternatives. Positioning answers these crucial questions:
What are you selling, and to whom?
Who are you the better solution for, and why?
Building your brand and positioning your brand are two different practices. In this guide, we’ll be talking about how to position your brand in your market so that your target buyers see you as the leader. But first, let’s take a step back and consider where this concept comes from. Positioning was first introduced back in the 1980s with Al Ries and Jack Trout’s book Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind.
The authors argued that companies would need to contrast their own strengths and weaknesses with their competitors to stand out and be seen as a leader in customers’ eyes. They wrote, “Positioning is not what you do to a product. Positioning is what you do to the mind of a prospect.” So it’s really about the place you occupy in your customers’ minds. ?
This might sound simple in theory, but positioning is a lot more complex in practice. Many companies aren’t sure how to go about positioning their brand in the market. But before we get into the how of brand positioning, let’s look at why it matters.
Brand helps you stand out within crowded & competitive markets
The B2B SaaS market is ridiculously overcrowded. We say that so often it’s almost become a cliché, but it’s true. Buyers today are facing information overload: They don’t know who to trust, or what they actually need. You might be familiar with Scott Brinker’s Martech 5,000 slide, which shows the vast amount of marketing software companies out there that modern buyers have to choose from. The slide was last updated in 2018 to include nearly 7,000 products.
The good news: Where there is competition there are buyers. And buyers mean money and an opportunity to achieve hypergrowth. But how can you stand out in such a competitive market?
Enter brand positioning. You can’t simply enter a crowded market and copy what everyone else is doing. In today’s world of infinite supply, you only have one choice to compete: Build an authentic brand and successfully position your brand in the market. It’s our job as marketers to help customers understand what our product does, how we’re different, and why they should care (all in a matter of seconds), which is at the very heart of positioning.
Positioning in the wrong market category can break your brand
All products exist in market categories, and almost any product can be positioned in multiple ones. It’s important to note here that market and category are two different things. Consider Salesforce as an example: CRM is a market, while cloud-based sales automation is a category. And light beer is a market, while imported light beer is a category.
Even if you have the best product out there, positioning in the wrong category can ruin your brand. How? It can set you in direct competition with a market leader that has more product features, a bigger budget, and a ton more customers than you do—meaning you wouldn’t stand a chance to win your target buyers over. When you choose to compete in the right market category, however, your target buyers can easily grasp why your product is the best choice for them. Let’s say you have a CRM tool and some of your features especially appeal to real estate agents.
Companies can no longer differentiate on features. In a world of infinite supply, BRAND is the only true marketing advantage.”
— David Cancel, CEO at Drift
If you position your product as a CRM tool for real estate agents, you’re not competing with the CRM giants—instead, you’re serving a niche group of people who will trust your product to solve their unique problems. Ultimately, you want to set the right context around your brand to make your value clear.
Brand is the foundation of all marketing and sales activities
The best brands out there are built on the foundation of successful positioning. It points you in the right direction for all strategic and tactical marketing and sales activities. Your positioning is the backbone holding together your brand messaging. You simply can’t connect with your audience and create content that converts unless you know who you’re speaking to and what makes you different.
Any damn fool can put on a price reduction, but it takes brains an perseverance to create a brand”
— David Ogilvy
For example, let’s say you’ve built a group chat tool, but after going to market, you got feedback, updated your product, and realized your solution is best positioned as a messaging platform for businesses.
All your messaging—whether your product page, sales copy, or a campaign plan—now needs to speak to the value your target buyers care about. Why? You’ll create a stronger connection in their minds and help them understand how your product will work for them, ease their specific pain points, and achieve success.
Brand Positioning Objectives
What goals does positioning your brand help you accomplish?
Differentiate your brand
Buyers need to see your brand as unique compared to everyone else. By making your differentiators clear, you can stand out among the sea of competitors. As April Dunford, Market Strategy & Positioning Expert and author of Obviously Awesome: How to Nail Product Positioning So Customers Get It, Buy It, Love It, says, “Strong positioning helps make why you’re special, or your awesomeness obvious, to the customers that are most likely to buy from you.” Buyers will always wonder “Why should I choose you?” and you want the answer to be clear as day.
Be relevant to the right people
Simply being different from your competitors isn’t enough. Buyers also need to see your brand as relevant to their needs. Positioning your brand in a narrow niche helps buyers clearly understand your value since you can get into specific industry terminology and double down on details that are only relevant to this target audience. And the people who don’t understand what you’re talking about or aren’t interested probably wouldn’t be right-fit leads anyway.
Improve customer loyalty
Successful positioning doesn’t just help with acquiring new customers—it also helps with customer retention. By taking the time to deliberately position your brand, you set the right customer expectations and build trust. If you fail to meet those expectations, your customers won’t stick around. But if you do, they’ll continue to trust you and remain loyal to your brand for many years to come.
B2B Buying Secrets
We asked 20 marketing and sales leaders at large technology companies a simple question: how do you buy?
How exactly do you create strong brand positioning? Here’s a step-by-step process you can follow:
1. Define your ideal customer profile
Who are your ideal buyers? What big problem do they need help solving? Why do you matter to them? Positioning your brand is about solving your ideal customer’s problem.
So to get started, the first step is to define your ideal customer profile (ICP). An ICP is “a clear, common, objective definition of who the ideal buyers and users of your product are.” You can create an ICP based on real customer data if you have it. If not, you can create an ICP based on characteristics like technographics, behavioral indicators, or anything else relevant for your business.
2. Conduct customer research (and analyze the results)
After identifying your ideal customers, you want to hop on the phone and talk to these people to understand the problems they face, their buying process, and how you can make your product work for them. To successfully position your brand and grow your business, it’s crucial to talk to your customers on a regular basis. In fact, companies that invest in customer research can grow 2-3 times faster than those who don’t.
If you’re launching a product and don’t have any customers yet, talk to people who represent your ideal buyer. Back in the early days at Drift, for example, we spoke to as many product marketers as possible before we launched. We discovered first-hand what product marketers find valuable, which informed our go-to-market strategy.
3. Identify your competitive alternatives
What would your customers use if your brand didn’t exist? Aim to truly understand the comparison your ideal buyers are making when considering your brand. Here at Drift, we know people might be evaluating us vs. Intercom, so we broke down the biggest differences between Drift and Intercom to help people find the right product that will help them have more conversations.
During this step, don’t just list competing companies here, but consider all the other options out there that could solve your customers’ problems. You’ll likely gain a lot of insights from your customer research. For example, if you have a reporting automation tool, a competing alternative might simply be Excel.
4. Understand what sets you apart
What features and capabilities do you have that your competitive alternatives don’t? What makes you different from the other options you’re being compared to? What makes people consider your product as a “must-have?” Analyze and compare your competitive alternatives and determine what makes you truly unique.
Culture is not a game of nostalgia. Culture is a tool. It’s an instrument you use to drive a business to scale. You have to constantly design and redesign culture for each additional level up that the organization makes.”
— Miguel McKelvey, Co-founder and Chief Culture Officer at WeWork
One way to understand what sets you apart is by conducting a product/market fit survey where you get feedback from people who have used your product. Ask “How would you feel if you could no longer use [product name]?” You can learn a lot from the people who consider your product a “must-have.” Your follow-up survey questions can include why they consider it a “must-have,” who they think would benefit most from your product, and the key benefit they derive from it.
5. Pinpoint the key values you offer your target audience
Translate your unique features and capabilities into the value it brings your customers. You can group the different key values that come up into different themes. For example, let’s say you have a medical practice management system. Instead of listing all your top notch features like appointment scheduling, management reports, and a reminder system, focus on how these features help your customers: they can free up their time to better care for patients.
6. Determine who cares the most about the value you’re offering
Who within your target market cares the most about your product’s core values? Once you zero in on this specific group, you can start doing segmentation based on what you discover. Going back to the medical practice management system example: Maybe practice managers care the most about freeing up their time since they have hectic schedules and want to simplify their day-to-day work.
7. Decide the market you intend to win
In this final step, you want to decide on the right context for your product or service, which will make it easy for your target audience to understand your value. This is no easy decision. Many companies worry that focusing on a hyper-specific market will be too limiting. After all, targeting a niche market means fewer potential buyers. But it also helps you double down on your marketing resources more effectively.
3 Different Ways to Position Your Brand
Here are three different ways to strategically position your brand depending on the market situation:
1. Focus on a segment in an existing market
Are you entering an existing market with a clear leader? Trying to overtake the leader isn’t the best idea, as doing so is incredibly difficult. Instead, you can aim to understand what makes your product a better fit for a sub-segment within this market. Ask yourself:
How can you serve them better than the market leader does?
What’s the one role that your product best serves?
Here at Drift, for example, we didn’t start off by going after people in SaaS marketing and sales—that’s way too broad in our crowded market. Instead, we initially went after product marketers. Our aim was to get inside the minds of product marketers and understand how we could make Drift work for them.
2. Focus on a segment in a niche, emerging market
Are you entering a niche, emerging market without a clear leader? Attempting to become the market leader is also incredibly challenging since all your competitors are likely trying to do the same. You can again aim to win a sub-segment of the niche market, where there will be much less competition.
3. Focus on the problem when creating a new category
If your product is so niche that no market really exists for it, you might have to create a completely new category. You can also choose to create your own category rather than compete in a crowded one. But this is no easy task since it means customers aren’t yet aware of the problem you’re trying to solve for them. In this case, you have to start with marketing the problem rather than the solution. In other words, you need to start by creating awareness and demand.
You actually want competitors to start showing up because without competition, you have no category—they legitimize it. With all the effort you put into establishing the category, it’ll be pretty hard for newcomers to overtake you as the market leader.
Brand Positioning Examples
What does positioning your brand look like in practice? Here are a few examples of both B2C and B2B brands that are experts at positioning:
One of our favourite positioning strategy examples comes from Salesforce. To differentiate themselves in the existing market of on-premise CRMs, they created a new category: cloud-based CRMs. To get people interested in this category, Salesforce started the No Software movement.
People were already frustrated with the clunky software and annual contracts that come with on-premise software, so it wasn’t difficult to get them to join the movement—Salesforce offered them a much more flexible way of buying and using a CRM.
New Balance differentiates itself by not just selling sneakers like everyone else, but by selling classic sneakers. They found their niche and connected with their audience to stand apart from big names like Nike and Adidas. New Balance has always stayed true to its brand values, such as making shoes in the U.S., and giving back.
Evernote is an example of a product that can be positioned in several different ways. With features like taking notes, making lists, bookmarking pages, which ones should they highlight? Evernote has stood out among the sea of productivity tools through clear and consistent messaging that focuses on the benefits—not features—to the user.
Having been around since 2007, Evernote refreshed their brand because “The demands on people’s attention have changed. The ways they use our products have changed. And our brand no longer reflected the company it was built for.” They got back to the “why” of their product and asked themselves if what they were doing was distinct in and out of their category. Now, they aim to help customers “focus on what matters most.”
It’s hard to talk about brand positioning without mentioning Apple. In fact, Apple is our SaaS role model because they have the three key ingredients for building a company of the future:
The best products
The best service
The best brand
Apple’s products are different from all others on the market. They’ve always focused on the value of their products over features, and as a premium brand, they don’t get into a price war with others. Positioned as a lifestyle product focused on quality, Apple has brand affinity like almost no other company. They’re one of the most valuable and recognized brands across the globe.
While MailChimp used to exist exclusively in the email marketing space, they recently repositioned their brand to enter a larger market: the marketing automation space. They now aim to be a one-stop shop for a small business’s marketing needs. MailChimp updated their website copy from only focusing on sending better emails to instead focusing on growing your business.
Even with these changes, however, MailChimp continues to use benefit-driven messaging and remains consistent with what differentiates their brand: Being human. It’s a great example of a brand that evolved its product without changing its core values.
Wealthsimple is an online investment management service catered specifically to millenials. They position themselves as a simple solution apart from the investing world that feels overwhelming, complex, and risky to younger generations especially.
Wealthsimple keeps their website copy clear and straightforward, encouraging their audience to “Get rich slow.” Their 2017 commercial “Mad World” (below) truly encapsulates their promise to help make the mad world of finances more approachable.
Here at Drift, we spent a good chunk of time growing the conversational marketing category. We decided to bet on 1:1 conversations at a time when everyone else was obsessing about marketing automation, essentially treating people as leads instead of people.
Most companies were forgetting that conversations drive business, so we considered our only job as marketers to drive conversations. We spent time educating people about conversational marketing to help them understand why it matters. And within a few months, people were also using the term on their own.
But creating and owning this category wasn’t enough—we also needed to start a movement. Our cause became known as the No Forms movement (yup, we took a page from Salesforce’s book). We were able to get people interested in the category first and then our product because we had a shared enemy: Poor user experience. (We talk more about how we grew our business in our book This Won’t Scale, which we’ll ship straight to your door for free.)
How to Create a Brand Positioning Map
Think of your brand as having a unique location on a map along with your competitors. The business decisions you make will affect your location on that map. A brand positioning map, also called a brand perceptual map, is a visual representation of your brand’s competitive position based on chosen attributes. Creating one helps you:
Better understand your customers’ perceptions of you and your competitors
Get a summary of your competitors’ positioning strategies
Discover insights about your industry through market research
Spot any gaps in the market and gain a competitive edge
Here’s how to go about creating a brand positioning map:
Narrow down the attributes that your target buyers value, and select two to start. You’ll want to create multiple brand positioning maps, but each one will include two attributes for the axis labels. Depending on your product or service, there’s a wide range of attributes you can pick from. A few examples include:
Basic quality vs. high quality
Narrow range of services vs. high range of services
Convenient vs. awkward
Simple vs. complex
Basic customer service vs. excellent customer service
Self-service vs. full service
Innovative vs. conservative
Basic vs. luxury
Draw two axes to represent these two attributes. Let’s consider an example to show how brand positioning maps work: the video conferencing market.
When we started in 2010, we just had one building, a vision for a brand, and conviction that there was an entrepreneurial spirit that was being underserved.”
— Adam Neumann, Co-founder and CEO at WeWork
Now start placing your closest competitors on the map, including 4-6 to start. People might have different opinions about where on the map certain brands should be placed, and that’s fine. The idea is to get an overall sense of your competitors’ positioning. Consider where your brand fits on the map. Where would you place it?
Create more brand positioning maps based on different attributes. Doing so allows you to see how your brand compares to your competitors through different lenses. Note which brands are more competitive in specific areas over the others.
One quick disclaimer: While creating a brand positioning map is a useful exercise to better understand your market, you don’t want to obsess over your competition. Instead, you want to focus on your customers and gather as many insights from them as possible. After all, that’s where your competitive advantage really comes from.
How to Create a Brand Positioning Statement
A brand positioning statement communicates your brand’s unique value to your target buyers in one to two sentences. It’s an internal exercise that helps get everyone at your company on the same page, which is crucial since positioning will never stick unless everyone is on the same page.
It’s important to note that when doing this exercise, you might feel that you should know the answers to these questions right away. But the reality is that positioning your brand is hard work, and crafting your positioning statement is a result of that work.
Stick to the basics when crafting a positioning statement. Simply aim to answer these three questions, focusing on your product benefits rather than features:
Who is this product for?
What does this product do?
Why is this product different?
You won’t find positioning statements on a company’s website, but here are a couple examples based on what we know about the companies.
Salesforce: Salesforce is the world’s #1 CRM platform for big and small companies to manage sales, marketing, and service all in one central location. Salesforce is built with our customers in mind, meaning it’s intuitive, personalized, and built to grow with your business.
You need to get to the future, ahead of your customers, and be ready to greet them when they arrive.”
— Mark Benioff
Apple: Apple provides the most innovative technology for individuals who want the best personal computers and mobile devices. Apple holds itself to the highest standards and ensures all products are accessible and make the least environmental impact.
Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”
— Steve Jobs
If you want a bit more guidance, you can also follow this framework from Actifio CMO Mike Troiano. Fill out each bullet point, and treat it like a Mad Lib to create your positioning statement:
Target: Your target buyers
Segment: The segment of people within your target audience that find your product’s value especially appealing
Brand: Your company name
Category: A competitive frame for the buyer
Distinction: What sets you apart from the competition
Proof: The evidence that backs up your distinction
Then plug your answers into this positioning statement formula:
“For target who are segment, brand provides the category with distinction because proof.”
Brand positioning is a sum of many components, but at the heart of it, it’s about who you are, what makes your brand different, and why anyone should care.
Positioning your brand all starts with understanding your ideal buyers and how you solve their problem.
At the end of the day, your competitive advantage comes from truly knowing your customers.
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