Positioning – The Little Big Thing Your Startup Should Care About

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When a marketplace gets crowded, the heat goes up. At this stage, winning depends less on the features of your product and more on your strategy.

It’s unusual to hear people at start-ups talk about marketing. It’s usually about the technology, product features etc. Unlike the usual impression; marketing is more than the ability to use certain tools and platforms. It’s highly tactical.

When all levels up, it’s your ability to take strategic marketing steps that determines your rising or falling.

In this post, I’ll be writing about an important part of your products’ marketing strategy–Positioning.

The Mind is Where the Battle is

The Nigerian tech space is getting interesting. One would expect that since Nigeria is a growing market, there is enough room for everyone.

Wrong.

There is a concept in cognitive psychology called channel capacity. This refers to the capacity of the brain to store/recall certain information. Our brain, on the average, is wired to store about 6-7 categories/bits of information before most people start making mistakes in recalling.

The mind is like a ladder with slots. In the average human-mind, there are the main products, then the also-rans. Some of us are too lazy to even store any information about these also-rans.

You can try it yourself. List all the search engines you know. Let me guess — Google, Yahoo, Bing and Ask? Great. But there are others actively in the search-engine business – Aol, DuckDuckGo, Yandex, Baidu, Naver and Blekko. Perhaps there are more? Nobody cares.

Al Reis once said Consumers are like chickens – they are comfortable with a pecking order everyone knows and are used to.

Why You Must Not Be an Also-Ran

When the battle is lost and won, the winner takes all. The winner in a category tends to rule that category for a long time.

In market place, the hardest, smartest battles are fought in the minds of the prospects. These battles are also the most rewarding and equally devastating.

History has proven that the winning brand usually has twice as much of the market share than the next one in the same category.

Take the search engines. Google accounts for about 65-70% of worldwide searches. (a smart dude called Eli Schwartz  at Search Engine Land went through a load of analytics and said it had to be about 80-90%. I believe him).

Yahoo has about 8%, Bing has about 6 %. The others split the rest. Scan the landscape, where the category is mature. The winner usually takes all – SMSlive247, LindaIkejiBlog etc

You want the main space. Trust me, you really want it.

When Products Are at Loggerheads

In a growing market, it is usual to have two or more brands at loggerheads over the rulership of a category. It’s a lot like we have right now in quite a number of categories in Nigeria. This period of uncertainty is the most crucial.

When the mind of the prospect is not yet made up is when your efforts matter the most. It is then you need to fight the hardest

This is because, no matter how long two or more  brands run head to head, one brand will eventually topple the other, gain the upper hand and dominate that category for years and years to come.

History is awash with examples. Harvard and Yale? Facebook and MySpace? Hotmail-Gmail (Yes, there was a time those two, along with Yahoo mail were at loggerheads)

Evernote and Springpad? It doesn’t matter how long the battle rages, after a while, one rules the drove and the other becomes an also ran (along with all its slimy downsides)

How To Get Into The Mind

First, it’s important to note that getting into the mind requires you seeing things from the viewpoint of the prospect. It’s outside-In thinking.

Secondly, it’s a battle for the mind.

There are different ways to get into the mind:

– “Get there the firstest, the mostest”:

As Jack Trout rightly put it – The easiest way is to get into the mind, is to get there first.

Now being first to market or claiming to be first doesn’t automatically mean you’ll own the prospect’s mind. It’s who puts in the most effort.

What was the first Telco in Nigeria? No, it wasn’t MTN, but they got into the mind the “mostest”.

However there is a clause to this tactic.

– Stay there and grow stronger:

The tech startup space is rather volatile. It is littered with the carcasses of start-ups that died premature deaths.

If your product sucks, positioning won’t help you. If you decide to  hibernate while the soldiers go to war. Positioning won’t help you either.

Who would have thought MySpace would be beaten by Facebook? But the guys at Facebook were in the middle of the market, getting better, refining their product, while the guys at MySpace drank coffee and peered at charts from their shiny suits.

I’m sure the guys at MySpace (ran by Newscorps) laughed off the efforts of the little kids from Harvard. (Ha! Who is laughing now, huh? But I digress).

Now if you can’t be first, you’ll end up being second. Or third. Or fourth. Second is not as good as first, but is way better than third. And it goes on. Each step down the number is a step closer to insignificance.

– Establish a strong alternative position:

What if you didn’t get into the mind first? Another way to win is to find an alternative position.

This is a delicate science that involves scrutinizing your market, your competition and looking inward. Then answering the question- what place do you want to fill? Take the Taxi App scene with its many players. Eazy-Taxi was the first Taxi app to get into our mind. The generic,  taxi app.

Then came a slew of other taxi apps. Then came Uber. “Others ” are still arriving.

But Uber isn’t just another taxi app- it appeals to a certain customer segment. It’s a lifestyle brand, cool and urbane. Position defined, position claimed. They got into the mind, first, for that category.

Any other taxi app that wants to get into the mind has to fill a space otherwise they will, inevitably, fall into the trap of the also-rans. Funding or “backing” remains inconsequential.

Not getting into the prospects’ mind and dominating a position means you get dropped into the widening, sucking pool of also-rans. Your product inevitably gets doomed to years of struggling for significance whilst shelling out one futile promotion and pedestrian marketing tactic after the next.

Again, just take a look at the social networks. I once came across an article with a title like this-“Facebook Dominance Forces Rival Networks to Go Niche”.

It’s not about being forced; it’s about making a smart move.

People knew Facebook as the social network. You had to be ready to fight bloody hard to unseat Facebook.  However, the thing with Facebook was that they were getting better every day. They weren’t resting on their oars- like MySpace did.

To enter that market, you, the cute little rabbit with all your dreams, had to be ready to fight a fast moving bear. (quite different from the hibernating one).

A better way to win would be to simply create an alternative position and rule.

And so came Linkedin- social network for professionals, Twitter- Extra short Updates, Instagram- Pictures, SnapChat. Expand after that, maybe, but start with a strong position.

Google Plus? – Meh, the average prospect’s mind still can’t place it. Even Google can’t break this rule.

Perhaps your field is digital media. You most likely won’t make it as another solo gossip blogger. You may want to wake up from your dreams of defeating the dark kingdom ruled by a dumb god who doesn’t deserve it, to the bright, sweaty streets of reality.

Look for another space to fill- a space where there are uncertainties about leadership. There are different spaces, your sex space (target audience), the price space, class space. Find the right position to exploit.

Of course finding an alternative position is a delicate science. You don’t want to choose an alternative position so unique that’s it’s in the desert in terms of returns.

– Reposition the other brand:

Repositioning the leader entails doing or saying something that makes people change their mind about the competition.

Classic example: Apple. They changed everyone’s mind when no one thought about it. From their very first iconic ad, they created the space. Other PCs became regular, and uncool. Theirs is the different.

Truth is, before that ad, Apple was almost bankrupt. But once they were able to reposition the competition, sales soared.

Let me give you a classic example from Al Ries and Jack Trout’s book. Positioning, the battle for your mind.

For a long time Aspirin ruled the analgesic market. Then Tylenol made their classic, hallelujah-inducing manoeuvre with a single ad.

The Tylenol ad read like this-

For the millions who should not take aspirin, if your stomach is easily upset… or you have an ulcer…or you suffer from asthma, allergies, or iron-deficiency anaemia, it would make good sense to check with your doctor before you take aspirin.

Aspirin can irritate the stomach lining,” continued the Tylenol ad, “Trigger asthmatic or allergic reactions, because small amounts of hidden gastrointestinal bleeding.”

“Fortunately, there is Tylenol…”

Busted. Sales of Tylenol soared.

Life’s not fair; you are allowed to burst your competitor’s bubble. (you do not have to be as explicit as Tylenol though).

However, before you race down that path, do understand that it’s also a subtle science. It’s a mind game you have to get right. It’s not about your breathing down the competition’s throat. The battle is for the mind of the prospects. And the mind is a fickle little thing.

Disclaimer: The term of positioning is not originally mine. It was first articulated by David Ogilvy in his 1972 article where he outlined the 38 points for creating “advertising that sells. The first on the list was a point Mr. Ogilvy called “the most important decision.” Then he went on to say, “The results of your campaign depend less on how well you write your advertising than on how your product is positioned.” (I say, the result of your product launch and campaigns depends less and less on your backing and funding. It depends more on your product positioning) Years later Al Reis, Jack Trout and host of other modern marketers have written about and successfully practised this strategy. You should too.

Josephine Stevens is the Chief Digital Strategist at Giga Lagos.

Photo Credit: mkarco via Compfight cc

4 Comments

  • Lovely piece, enjoyed reading it.

    Just for clarification, LinkedIn was there a year before Facebook but it has always been niche based.

    Also I am of the opinion that it should be emphasized that one of the key ways to get into peoples minds is to simply deliver exceptionally on what you promise. Ensure your customers are more than satisfied with your offering and you will get a sweet position in their minds.

  • Sophy says:

    Very intelligent analysis! The richest man in World’s history, John D. Rockefeller (and Yes! he still is) took first in providing ‘light’ to the world through kerosene but Thomas Edison changed the whole game by introducing electricity; our kerosene seller wanted to use the Tylenol style on Edison but he almost shot himself in the leg, the world was too wowed with seeing a brighter ‘light in a hanging glass’ to be swayed back to buying kerosene. Electricity took over! Rockefeller, out of fear of going down into the pit of insignificance found other uses for his crude oil aside from kerosene. Again, he became first in Gasoline, DPK, AGO, Diesel and almost a century later he is still leading. Ever heard of Mobil, Chevron, ExxonMobil? lol
    Its all about positioning finally. Thumbs up Josephine! Love this post to bits!

  • Donfelix Odoh says:

    This goes in tandem with an answer i gave someone when i was writing promo copies for a new startup, the person asked me ‘isn’t so, so and so startup doing the same thing already? then i answered ‘yes, same value propositions, but different delivery process’.

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