Conviction is the Intangible in a Successful Positioning Process

  • Written By: Lawson Abinanti
  • Published: March 21 2007

Conviction is an important intangible that can make or break your positioning strategy. You begin to develop conviction through research on your customer, competition, and channel. But that's not enough to give you the conviction you need to stand up to powerful political forces in your company who may shoot holes even in your most compelling positioning statement.

Complete conviction in your work comes from a positioning process that includes an evaluation criterion. An evaluation criterion gives you a simple mechanism to determine that one statement is good and another is not so good. All you have to do is answer the following questions about your positioning statement:

  • Is it important? Does it address your target's most pressing problem?
  • Is it believable? Does it "ring true" by referencing existing market conditions?
  • Is it usable? Does it work well in any marketing medium?
  • Is it unique? Are you the only one making this claim that meets all the other criteria? Does it differentiate you from your competitors?

The Importance of an Evaluation Criterion

An evaluation criterion improves your work throughout the positioning process. For example, during your first brainstorming session, you need to begin at the right starting point, or it will take forever to "cross the finish line" (agree on a positioning statement). Those involved are free to suggest any positioning statement they want. You'll hit the "bull's-eye" (the statement that works best) sooner if brainstorming ideas address your target buyer's most pressing problem. Reject those ideas that do not.

But we're jumping ahead in the process. Before you put together a team to develop a message strategy, a lot of research needs to be completed and documented. Successful positioning requires a thorough understanding of your customers, your competition, and your channel (that is, how you sell—either direct or through partners and value-added resellers [VARs]). You need to be able to answer the following questions before you start to develop a positioning statement and message strategy for your product or service:

  1. What pressing problem does your product solve for your prospective customer?
  2. How is your prospect solving that problem today?
  3. What specific benefit does your product deliver?
  4. Why is your product better than the current solution and competitive alternatives?
  5. What makes your product unique in a way that is relevant to your prospect?
  6. Can you communicate this difference in a way that sets your product apart from the competition?

Conviction Comes from Knowledge

Besides customer concerns, other psychographics, such as industry and technology trends, can affect your message strategy. So can demographics such as titles, standard industrial classification (SIC) codes, and company size. The more you know about your target buyer, the more confidence and conviction you'll have in the effectiveness of your proposed positioning strategy.

Differentiation is critical to successful positioning of your product. You can often discover how a competitor is positioned by analyzing its print advertisements and web site. A positioning statement—the idea or theme behind all of your competitors' marketing communications—usually appears in the first paragraph of an advertisement or in a prominent position on the home page of your competitor's web site. Becoming familiar with competitors' messages in other marketing communications, such as direct marketing pieces, brochures, press announcements, and trade show materials is a good idea. See if these messages have consistency and continuity. You'll be more confident about your work by recognizing the realities of your competitors.

A Rationale for Your Conviction

Now that you've done your research, create a rationale document that captures all the knowledge about your product's strengths and weaknesses, target market, market pressures, channel challenges, competition, etc. Eventually, the rationale document will include an assessment of your message strategy that consists of a positioning statement and three to four supporting benefit statements.

Let's assume your team has converged on a good draft message strategy. The positioning statement is unique, important, believable, and usable. It's twelve words or less (not including the product title), and through creating samples, you know it adapts to marketing mediums such as print ads, brochures, public relations, direct mail pieces, e-mail blasts, the web site, your trade show booth, etc. You've got conviction about your work, and you are ready to see what the rest of the company thinks of it.

Your positioning process should include both informal and formal feedback loops with stakeholders such as sales, channel members, marketing, public relations, product marketing, and management. Provide them with the draft message strategy, a rationale document that includes an analysis of the message strategy using the criteria, and sample applications of the message strategy.

The Way to Know Who's Right

Get ready for inevitable challenges to your work, because when it comes to positioning your product or service, everyone has an opinion. So who's right? With no criterion to judge alternative ideas, a cynical answer might be the person with the most political capital. Instead, even management's ideas can be rejected or given further consideration with this simple test and explanation: A good positioning statement needs to be important, believable, and unique, or your target audience will ignore your marketing efforts.

Just remember, there's always potential to improve your work by considering different, compelling alternatives. Be willing to discover an even better position at any time in the process. Even at the end. This is called belief with an open mind.

PowerPoint for the Powerful

When I was director of product marketing for Navision in Vedbaek, Denmark, the final step in our positioning process was a presentation to members of the executive management team. The team could approve the message strategy, suggest modifications, request that we do more field testing, or send us back to the drawing board.

Each product manager's presentation consisted of twelve to fifteen PowerPoint slides that explained the positioning process, summarized the research, and rationalized the proposed positioning strategy. The presentations followed the same outline, and were intended to give senior management confidence in the product manager's work. The presentations started with an assessment of the target market, target audience, and key buyer concerns. Then they provided answers to three fundamental questions we had asked in the beginning:

  1. What problem does this product solve?
  2. How are people solving the problem today?
  3. Why is our product a better solution?

An assessment of the competition followed, with an analysis of its advertisements, web sites, and other marketing materials. This analysis resulted in a positioning statement for each competitor. Each one was placed on a quadrant, or perception map. Management could then see positioning opportunities not claimed by others—the territories still open for us to claim.

Finally, the product managers explained the last step they took in the positioning process by answering the following questions about their products:

  1. What is it (that is, the product's main feature and the product category it is classified under)?
  2. What does it do (that is, the product's advantage and description)?
  3. What does it deliver (that is, the product's main benefit)?

Often, the product's main benefit seems so basic that nobody bothers to do the spadework needed to dig down below the obvious to the true foundation that builds a solid, unassailable positioning strategy. What the product delivers—the key benefit attuned to the needs of the customer—is typically very close to the right position.

At this point, the product managers introduced their proposed positioning statements and support points. Of course, an evaluation followed, assessing each positioning statement. Was it unique, believable, and usable? Was it concise enough to be remembered? Did it have meaning to the target market, and could it be used in a variety of marketing situations?

Make Them Earn Your Advocacy

During the positioning process, I worked closely with each positioning team, which was led by the product manager and included a writer and several product managers from key countries like the United States, Germany, Spain, and the United Kingdom. In addition to being a coach, my challenge to the product managers was that I had to support and approve the management presentation. They had to convince me before they got to go to the brass. We all understood that this was intended to be more than a dress rehearsal. I needed to be a strong advocate to stand with the product manager when the inevitable criticisms would come from the management team. Thanks to the evaluation criterion, we always went into the presentations with conviction about our work.

The management presentations were challenging and fun. Almost every question, comment, or objection was answered by referring back to the facts gathered and summarized in the presentation. The product team also had the opportunity to tap into the knowledge and experience of management. The process had also psychologically prepared the product managers. Just as they were never afraid to defend their positions, they were also prepared to discover a better position, if one appeared. Preparation had typically been so thorough, and the product managers so sure of their work—they had conviction—that almost every positioning strategy was approved in a single meeting.

Of course, some of these presentations went more smoothly than others. One in particular stood out. We could always count on the vice president (VP) of sales to challenge our work. In this case, he was particularly vociferous, tossing out one challenge after the other for more than forty-five minutes. Each challenge was handled adeptly by the product manager, who clearly had confidence in her work. Finally, the VP of sales gave in, and the product manager got her approval. As she left, she walked by the VP and patted him on the shoulder as if to say, "Good try. Next time, have more conviction when you decide to challenge me."

Dead on Arrival without Conviction

VPs win more challenges like this one than they lose. That's why the best positioning strategy may not win if it is not presented with conviction. Conviction comes from following a process; knowing you have gathered the critical facts; getting extensive input and feedback; and using criteria to evaluate your options.

Without a formal positioning process that includes an evaluation criterion, it's hard to have conviction, and your proposed positioning strategy could be "dead on arrival," meaning it could be rejected before it has even had a chance to be considered. You're likely to give in and try something different every time someone challenges your strategy. That's why many companies end up with muddled positioning strategies for their products or services. They jump from one concept to the next, with no way of judging or defending the latest one. Don't let this happen to you. Adopt a positioning process that includes an evaluation criterion—and have conviction in your work.

About the Author

Lawson Abinanti is co-founder of Messages that Matter, a consulting firm that helps B2B software companies create compelling message strategies to build awareness and demand. Abinanti has held strategic marketing positions with several B2B software companies, including Navision, Applix, TM1 Software, and Timeline. He is a journalist by trade, and has more than fifteen years of executive management experience in the software industry. Abinanti can be reached at, or by telephone at (425) 688-0104.

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