Use Product Positioning to Distinguish Yourself in a Crowded Market


Okay, so you’re an artist entrepreneur. You have an idea to sell something that will solve a problem. You look at your market and say, “Are there enough people with this problem to sustain my business, and can I reach them?” Then you take a closer look at that potential pool of customers, talk to people, do research, and find the one or two niche segments that would go ape shit for your product. 

What’s next? 

Well, here’s the rub: even if you do find an audience for your work, the market is probably saturated beyond belief. What follows is one of the most crucial steps any business can take: product positioning. There are a lot of things that can make or break your business, but few carry more weight than how you frame your business and position yourself within the context of your market and competition. 

Surprisingly, positioning has very little to do with your product, and instead focuses on what’s going on inside your customer’s head. It’s about the reaction that your product will elicit. It has nothing to do with your features and everything to do with your customer’s worldview. When they look at your industry or competition, what do they see? How will they feel? 

Now, as a small business, you probably don’t have the budget for elaborate market research to dive into the psyche of your potential customers. You’re going to be running mostly on intuition. And that’s okay. There’s still plenty you can do in terms of positioning. For starters, the OG gurus of product positioning, Al Ries and Jack Trout, have plenty of advice on the matter. Here’s our interpretation in a nutshell: 

  1. Being first to market is great, but not essential. In the face of stiff competition, you can still steal market share by positioning your product in a way that no one else has bothered to do yet. Ries and Trout give the famous example of Avis: they were struggling against Hertz until they repositioned: “Avis is only #2 in rent-a-cars, so why go with us? We try harder.” That kind of positioning was incredibly brave as a brand. In a sense, they made themselves vulnerable, but they also took advantage of what the customer already knew. Avis knew that most consumers considered Hertz to be the industry leader - the most well-known brand. So instead of saying “we’re better” or simply pretending the market leader didn’t exist, they essentially reframed the argument within the customer’s mind and said, “The market leader doesn’t care about you as much as we do. They’re complacent in their success.” In this Slate article, Seth Stevenson refers to this as ‘judo marketing’ - using your competition’s strengths against them. Brilliant. 
  2. Trying to appeal to everyone is a fruitless endeavor. Instead, find gaps in your industry, needs that have yet to be fulfilled correctly, and other subtle areas of opportunity. Once you find some unoccupied space, position your product to fill the void. Volkswagen is a good example, who in an epic repositioning effort coined the slogan “Think small.” Were they the first small car? Certainly not. But they were the first to broadcast it proudly and frame that sentiment in a positive, rebellious light. It wasn’t just about the physical size of the car; it was more about rejecting the big industry titans that ruled the car industry. This strategy created an inherent social movement behind their brand. Volkswagen was now representing much more than a car. Their new positioning gave them a movement. 
  3. Think your product is already framed correctly? Then try reframing the competition. This is much different than simply comparing yourself to the competition and getting into a pissing contest about features or credentials. Reframing the competition means rebranding them in a way that serves your interests and allows you to steal market share. How? By showing consumers that although they may be using a competitor, that brand hasn’t told them the whole story. Maybe the brand is using unnatural ingredients, or lying to you about the sourcing of their product. Perhaps they've been telling you they do one thing when in fact, behind the scenes, they’re doing something else entirely. It might seem a little devious to go after the competition in this way, but if the argument is honest, then it’s fair game. This is a dog-eat-dog free market after all.

So what does this mean in terms of your messaging? 

Before we get there, have you defined your customer segments and picked one or two niche segments to go after? Have you considered what they love, and just as importantly, what they hate? And have you asked all of the other important questions about your audience? Only then will you have enough fabric to work with in terms of creating your message and positioning your product to fit a certain worldview. 

To put it simply, positioning is the key to cutting through the deafening noise that your customers are subjected to online every day. Ries and Trout cited ‘information overload’ as the basis for their argument, and mind you, that was in the 70s and 80s. Four decades later, the barrage of information experienced back then pales in comparison to that of the present. So it’s harder than ever to cut through the noise, which, in turn, makes product positioning more important than ever.

With that said, let's throw out some rapid fire ideas for positioning that might get your wheels turning: 

  • Who do you want to steal market share from? Several competitors? Just one?  
  • Are you certain that you're competing with who you think you are? (Think of the milkshake example.) Is there a new market which you should be appealing to? 
  • How can you defy convention? What is engrained in your prospects' minds about your industry, or the product or service you're providing? What do they expect? 
  • If you're a photographer, and someone says "photographer" to your ideal customer, who will they think of? 
  • What trends are happening in your industry? How can you reject or capitalize on them? 
  • What would honestly surprise your customer? What could you say that might stop an overactive scrolling thumb right in its tracks? 
  • Are you creating your positioning around your product, or vice versa? 
  • Is there anything that might be considered rebellious about your product? 
  • How can you be vulnerable in front of prospects (remember the Avis example), and how might this resonate with the current marketplace? 
  • Instead of just being a writer, or a designer, or a developer, how can you be the writer, designer, or developer for people with a certain style? 

That's all for now. We hope this helps you to start thinking about your messaging in a new and exciting way!