Winning your market - with "dumb" questions

Positioning Part 3: Why we should love dumb questions

Part 2 was about the choices to consider when formulating your campaign positioning—now we’ll see why those initial choices are probably wrong.

IT Marketing Guy - Marketing Campaign Committee

Over the years, I've learned to love the uninformed viewpoint. At TEC, we call this unbiased (and yes, refreshingly ignorant) perspective the tourist’s view. We worship the “innocent bystander”—the guy who asks the dumb questions. Because he’s often the only genius left in the room—the one not tainted by endless research, deliberations, or contrived, clever twists of phrase. He’s the guy that brings into question all the hard work of campaign committees, experts, and executives with this simple exclamation; “I don’t get it.” Bless his soul, because if we listen to him, he might save us. His name is often Larry.

“He’s the only genius left in the room”

A devout follower of the “tourist view church of salvation” was Tom, my business partner and friend at Magus Communications, our corporate communications firm. He annoyed the *&*^#!! out of me by sometimes valuing the advice of visiting bicycle couriers over mine. What the heck do they know about this? Exactly.

Are you connecting (at all) with your target audience?

Back at the newspaper in 1982: The real estate developer was targeting middle-income potential home buyers within commuting distance to the city—seemed like a perfect fit with our reader demographics. Was his advertising connecting with his target? Apparently not.

Back then, as is my practice now, I looked for evidence of a fatal disconnect between what the advertiser wished to achieve and how well he was positioned to achieve it. Was it like a drunk hillbilly trying to score a date with Halle Berry—a mismatch in style and substance, maybe? Or was the promotion focused too much on the "what" and missing the critical "why"? Any such disconnect leads to, well, a disconnect between you and your audience—never a good thing.

"Like a drunk hillbilly trying to score a date with Halle Berry"

Now, I got to play the tourist—I qualified because I knew nothing about the project or the advertiser. All I knew is that it wasn't working. Looking at their ads, the problem, if not the solution seemed pretty clear—there was NO positioning; nothing in the message to spark the imagination of home hunters. Note that I use the word imagination. It’s the imagination that we as marketers are trying to reach and influence. We are trying to present messages and images that mean something to our intended markets. This concept is piled into an almighty, catch-all mantra I call the “what’s in it for me factor.” As in—where is it?

"If I wanted to buy a home—this place would be last on the list"

I didn't get it—but worse than that, the ad left me with feeling that if I was ever in the market for a home—this place would be last on the list. Why is that? If the ad had no positioning, how come I formed such a strong opinion? The lack of positioning creates an opening in the imagination for a possible negative impression based on information available at the time. I call this a positioning vacuum, where any piece of available information can be erroneously interpreted and sucked into the role of representing your position—and in this case the representation wasn't very attractive.

We're from Stupid-ville

Picture this jewel: A full page ad entitled “Single Family Homes”, with a photo of a house (no trees) partially constructed. I don’t want to offend the residents of the small town the project was in, but let’s just say the name could be confused with “Stupid-ville”. And because of the positioning vacuum, the only concrete piece of information in the ads became the default position—you get to live in Stupid-ville. Variations of this concept had been running in the newspaper for months—and as mentioned (in Part 1), the advertiser was threatening to pull the plug.

“The advertiser was threatening to pull the plug”

So, what’s the problem? Doesn’t everyone want to live in Stupid-ville—where there are no trees—in a house that looks like the builder ran out of nails?

Even if there was a depraved niche market with a hankering to live in such a bleak community, does the heading “Single Family Homes” sell them? Why not “Bored with civilization? Live an authentic retro lifestyle surrounded by mud and bugs—in a unique barren wasteland!” OK—where do I sign up? At least I’m being sold by a “what’s in it for me” factor—escaping civilization.

Finding a winning position

I decided to drive up to Stupid-ville to see if there was any way I could create some kind of a positioning for the project, and perhaps, leave the unflattering name of the town out of the campaign—or at least bury it. The housing development itself looked like so many we see—they had cut down all the trees to make room for roads and easier access for construction. Give it 5 or 10 years and it starts to look like a place you might want to raise your kids. In the meantime, however, it’s reminiscent of those science magazine illustrations of a pock-marked, far away planet. Buyers have to have a strong imagination—or you have to give it to them.

"They need a strong imagination—or you have to give it to them"

Driving around in the gravel and mud, a street name catches my eye; Sunshine Lake Road. That sounds appealing. Turns out there’s a lake not too far from the development—something not mentioned in the current ads. Hmm, could we have found our positioning?

Fortunately for the advertiser, he was desperate enough to try anything—like changing the name and by extension—the positioning of his project. Potential home buyers wouldn’t have to imagine muttering "Stupid-ville" when asked where they reside—because now they would be living in a dream community called "Sunshine Lake Estates".

An enticing name is a key component when marketing a community, but how do we complete this picture? We also need a strong positioning “promise” to get the imagination spinning—and, of course, the goods to back it up.

Promoting the position with a strong promise

The positioning transformation was relatively simple and (ironically) used the secluded location as a main selling point:

"Live the country life close to the city in
Sunshine Lake Estates"

The photos of half-finished homes were dropped in favor of illustrations of completed homes in an attractive neighborhood—buyers didn’t have to imagine it. And a further positioning (affordable) along with a sense of urgency was conveyed by the tag line:

"Choice locations still available for your affordable dream home"

It didn’t much matter that the lake was a good distance from the development—the idea of living in a peaceful lakeside community close to the city—was powerful enough to send people to project in droves.

Good positioning has legs

This wouldn’t be a good positioning story without a happy ending—and we’ve got one. The new ads generated a substantial amount of qualified traffic. And with the developer investing in more detailed mock-ups to complete the “country life” positioning—the project quickly sold out. From there, new phases were added and sold—continually tapping a deep well of families wanting to break free from the hustle of the city and live the dream. And today, there are many more who are proud to say they live in Sunshine Lake Estates.

Imagining an ideal scenario

The experience with the real estate campaign taught me the importance of dropping all pre-conceptions about a project before creating a campaign. We want to imagine what’s required to sell—ignoring, for the moment what’s being presented as facts. Paying undue attention to “facts” can sometimes shackle our ability to find the right solution. Don’t worry about how it can be done, just start with imagine if.

"Don’t worry about how it can be done"

Our ideal, imagined, scenario, becomes our intended positioning—now, let’s see how close we can get to making it a reality. If we understand (and trust) the power of this ideal positioning, it makes it much easier to overcome the usual obstacles—“we can’t do it,” “we’ve never done that,” “the client won’t go for it,” etc. Obstacles can miraculously disappear when faced with a compelling route to victory.

The art of creating perception

The Sunshine Lake Estates story is a great illustration of the power of successful positioning. The facts of the real estate project did not change—same houses in the same place. The perception of the project in the minds of buyers changed COMPLETELY—thanks to successful positioning.

Next, we will explore how to use positioning to sell IT products and services through e-mail campaigns, white papers, case studies, web sites, landing pages, sales calls, and more.

Next post: Positioning Part 4: “What’s in it for Me?”
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