Category Archives: Storytelling

What is positioning?

Positioning is important for every organization. Yet there is no consensus on what the term means.

Among positioning experts, Michael Porter talks about strategic advantage, Seth Godin talks about purple cows, and Clotaire Rapaille talks about tapping into enduring cultural archetypes. Are we really all discussing the same thing?

Here is a simple description that I use to align teams and viewpoints:

Positioning defines how external audiences see a company or product relative to its competitors.

In practice, positioning answers three questions:

  1. Where are we in the competitive landscape?
  2. What is the nature of our offering?
  3. How are we situated in stakeholders’ minds?

Let’s look at each of these questions one by one.

1. Where are we in the competitive landscape?

This is a pure business strategy question.

Answering it involves:

  • Quantifying the Total Addressable Market (TAM) and each pertinent category and customer segment
  • Assessing the company’s absolute and relative presence within those categories and segments
  • Acknowledging disruptive trends that could change the boundaries or dynamics of the relevant categories
  • Assessing the strengths and potential trajectories of known competitors in the market
  • Defining a strategy for maintaining and expanding our beachhead
  • Ensuring we’ve segmented the market in a way that’s rational and aligned with investor and analyst perspectives and our own business goals

There are many potential formats for drawing competitive maps, including spider and bubble diagrams, 2×2 grids, and more nuanced, data-rich analyses. The primary audience for these maps is internal, since organizations typically don’t want to share their game plan with the outside world, except in closed-door meetings with trusted partners such as analysts, key clients, board members, and large investors. Once finalized, these maps of where-we-are and where-we’re-going directly inform the strategic plan, product roadmap, and any M&A strategy.

Competitive maps can either expose or obscure important business risks. These risks tend to occur in predictable patterns. Here are some specific risks that I look for:

  • We don’t know what category we’re in.
  • We understand product categories but not customer categories.
  • Our category is dominated by larger players with whom we can’t compete.
  • Our category is shrinking.
  • There is no real category—we’re a feature or fad.
  • We don’t have a clear distribution strategy to maintain our position.
  • We are optimizing for distribution partners who will eventually squeeze us out.
  • Our market segmentation doesn’t acknowledge critical risks, disruptive trends, or indirect competitors.
  • We lack internal alignment to maximize our preferred position.
  • We lack full understanding of regional barriers to entry and critical success factors.

One facilitation tool I use to surface and resolve gotchas like these is the Eat Big Fish framework that I shared in an earlier post. This is an admittedly crude tool, but it quickly forces companies to articulate the specific categories they are leading. Baked into the tool is the idea that every company must eventually become the leader of its core category.

At the end of this exercise, an organization will have:

  • a bespoke, comprehensive view of the competitive landscape
  • a defensible point of view regarding its placement and relative size within that space
  • the existing or emergent category (or niche) it wants to lead
  • the investment strategy to protect the current position and expand to its desired future position
  • the measurable share of market it wants to own over a specified time period

This is the best possible foundation for a solid and scalable marketing plan.

But a visual depiction of our place in the market doesn’t by itself answer how an organization should tell its story to the outside world. For that we need to turn to the next question…

2. What is the nature of our offering?

This is a pure a marketing strategy question.

The answer typically comes in the form of a “positioning statement.” There is a template for creating these that’s widely known and often taught, and it reads something like a Mad Lib:

For [insert Target Market], the [insert Brand] is the [insert Point of Differentiation] among all [insert Frame of Reference] because [insert Reason to Believe].

I’m going to break ranks with some fellow marketers and say that I hate this template. I have two problems with it. First, many companies try to use it as a starting point to excite and engage customers, and at that it fails miserably. Second, I have never seen a company actually use this template to write their external copy.

Notice that organizations often do use something along these lines in their PR boilerplate, as Nike does here:

NIKE, Inc., based near Beaverton, Oregon, is the world’s leading designer, marketer and distributor of authentic athletic footwear, apparel, equipment and accessories for a wide variety of sports and fitness activities.

But that lick of copy is about a zillionth as exciting and memorable as a typical Nike ad:

Also note that the Nike positioning statement omits both the Reason to Believe and the Target Market. That’s fairly standard, in part because most companies have multiple Target Markets and Reasons to Believe.

My own, more open-ended formula for creating an external positioning statement is as follows:

Describe the company/product in a way that’s clear, relevant, different, and better for a broad range of likely audiences.

That’s it. Good positioning statements that meet these criteria, like the Nike one above, help companies describe themselves in an intentional, ownable way. They are invaluable in aligning internal teams, investors, partners, and press. For consumers, customers, and populations served, they are also useful, albeit just one tool in the toolbox.

Crafting a good positioning statement is often hard work. A writing challenge that comes up frequently is what I call “the noun problem.” It’s usually a bit of a stumper to pick the single word to best describe the nature of an organization or product, and the category we perceive ourselves to be in, to the degree we currently want to share that information with the outside world. For example:

  • Is Nike a sportswear company?
  • Is Apple a consumer electronics company?
  • Is Facebook a digital lifestyles company?
  • Is the nonprofit you work for a catalyst, a service provider, an incubator, or something else?

Each word could send an audience down a very different path.

Many companies try at some point to duck this challenge by writing a positioning statement that avoids referring to themselves as a noun. This usually ends up sounding evasive, like an unplanned birds-and-the-bees conversation with a young child: “Well, it’s what happens when…”

At the end of this exercise, a company will have a thoughtful, effective way to describe itself to a general or unknown external audience.

But that one sentence doesn’t give us everything we need to capture the hearts and minds of our target customers. For that, we must turn to our third question…

3. How are we situated in stakeholders’ minds?

This is a pure brand strategy question.

In order to position ourselves effectively in our customers’ minds, we can’t just chant the words we want them to remember… we must design our experiences carefully across our entire marketing mix, and ensure that all the interactions our employees have with the outside world reinforce a singular and positive impression.

Credit: Neutron, LLC

A good tagline helps, but words simply reinforce or influence the overall customer impression—they don’t create it on their own. Notice that most taglines make no sense out of context: imagine “Think Different” on a Lenovo computer or “Just Do It” on a can of spaghetti sauce. Brand strategy is about creating the right context, not just finding the right words.

I’ve described the craft of brand building in a separate post. One new point I want to make is that brand positioning tends to require a different procedure as companies grow and evolve.

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There are three major stages to consider:

New market entrant
If you are a niche player or new market entrant, just lead with your primary user value proposition—the specific emotional or functional benefit you provide. If you’re small or new, you want people to understand your unique value quickly, without too much poetry or a time-consuming set-up.

Some well-funded, category-creating companies skip this stage.

Category challenger
As you move into a “challenger brand” position, taking on your local market leader, you must amplify your distinctive difference. Here’s when it makes sense to lead with a Big Idea, one that’s a bit provocative, maybe even a slow-get.

Salesforce did this well with their famous no-software icon. Snap is doing this now when they call themselves a “camera company.”

Category leader
Once you’re the market leader, you will want to trumpet the fact that you’re king of the mountain, perhaps while beginning to assert an even broader aspiration—i.e., becoming a challenger once again.
That’s my short and sweet introduction to positioning. If you’re interested in further reading, I recommend the works of Michael Porter, Clayton Christensen, Steve Blank, and strategy+business magazine (for market positioning) and Al Ries, Jack Trout, Seth Godin, George Lakoff, and Clotaire Rapaille (for brand positioning).

You can also sign up for The Next Us newsletter, where I regularly share ideas related to business and personal transformation.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you. Which of the three positioning questions above is your organization struggling with? What specific challenges are you facing?

Becoming #1, part two

Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner write:

“When we open a cookbook, we completely put aside—and expect the author to put aside—the kind of question that leads to the heart of certain philosophic and religious traditions. Is it possible to talk about cooking? Do eggs really exist? Is food something about which knowledge is possible? Can anyone else ever tell us anything true about cooking? These questions may lead to enlightenment or satori; they do not lead to satisfying dinners.” (Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose)

And later:

In [nonclassic self-conscious styles], the writer’s chief, if unstated, concern is to escape being convicted of philosophical naïveté about his own enterprise.”

Just a heads-up: today I am serving satori, not dinner.

I. How can everyone be the best?

I asserted in my last post that every organization, in every space, is forced to describe itself as the best at what it does.

Something about this is clearly bananas.

First of all, the notion that everyone is the best defies basic logic. It’s as delusional as saying that in Lake Wobegone, all the students are above-average.

If every company is #1, then none has any meaningful competition. Yet venture capitalists, who tend to know a thing or two, advise entrepreneurs all the time to acknowledge their broader competitive environment:

“[E]verybody has competition. There’s never been a company with no competition, even if the competition is the old way of doing something. I want to know exactly what your competition is, and that will help me judge how you fit into the whole operation.” (David Rose, How to Pitch to a VC)

If smart people behind closed doors acknowledge their competition all the time, why should it be any different in the magical world of marketing?

Or is modern marketing in fact just a propaganda machine of “it’s toasted” alternative facts, the kind should make any concerned global citizen or clear-headed businessperson run screaming from the room?

To some extent, clearly yes.

Something is very wrong, even broken, in how organizations communicate and the economic, social, political, and technological contexts in which they do so.

II. Diving into the wreck

I recently experienced a version of this decadence, this brokenness, in Venice when I visited the tedious yet captivating Damien Hirst exhibit Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable. The campy, overwrought premise of this exhibit is that Hirst has recovered ancient artifacts from the bottom of the sea… all of which turn out to be anachronistic totems of contemporary consumer culture. Each image has been exaggerated with allusions to ancient mythology and the imminent effects of climate change.

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It’s impossible not to look, be overwhelmed, want to vomit, and take a selfie all at once. I commend Hirst for a bit of truth-telling and buzz generation, and at the same time, I personally felt ill after having spent twenty-something euros to see this. That’s the unbelievable wreck of modern consumerism for you.

But hating on consumerism, or marketing, or capitalism is easy. It doesn’t change the fact that major segments of our economy run, for better or for worse, on capturing attention. We all work for organizations that either we believe in or at least pay our bills. We want them to market themselves well.

So, if we suspend our horror for a moment and pretend that what we care about is not changing the world order, but making sure our own amazing, well-intentioned, bill-paying organization succeeds, then it would be good to start by looking at how successful organizations actually do market themselves. And if we do, we’ll notice that what I asserted previously is correct: successful companies always position themselves as superior to their competition.

This is almost banal if you stop to think about it, but if you need proof, look around at the products you use every day, and see how they market themselves. Or imagine as a thought experiment what it would be like if companies did acknowledge, directly or indirectly, an inferior market position:

  • Diptyque: When you can’t find the candle you really want, there’s Diptyque.
  • Devialet: Bigger, better, and pricier than Bose!
  • Wal-mart: We love you more than Amazon!
  • Starbucks: Not the coffee you want, but the coffee you deserve.

Even with a different list of companies, and more realistic taglines, this would never happen. We’ve long outgrown a time when Avis, or any company, could say “We try harder because we’re #2.” Instead we’ve shifted into what Milan Kundera might call a “kitsch” universe, where #2 simply does not exist.

III. The map is not the terrain

The notion that every company is #1, or should say so regardless of the facts, might provoke outrage if we believe that competitive spaces have firm boundaries and clear, objective leaders. But that idea is pretty bananas, too.

Any competitive “space” or map thereof is an abstraction, a metaphor:

  • A comprehensive view of all the players in a category must still rely on subjective judgments about who gets included and who doesn’t.
  • Snapshot assessments can show current realities but do not capture historical or future trends.
  • Theoretically independent assessments can be biased by pay-to-play influencers.
  • New technological innovations can rewrite category boundaries in a blink.

My point is: there is no perfect map. Even if we could somehow analyze and incorporate every datum, drawing convincing category boundaries and then determining the “leader” would still require interpretation.

We could make our maps better and better, but they would still be metaphors because human thought is inherently metaphoric. It’s metaphors all the way down.

The Eat Big Fish map tool that I introduced in my previous post is one such metaphor, and it’s admittedly crude. Its value is not that it’s true, but that it’s useful. It’s useful specifically to someone trying to *do* marketing. A head of M&A looking at long-term external trends or an entrepreneur seeking the next big untapped opportunity would want a different kind of map. But in any complex human endeavor, it helps to have multiple tools at our disposal. Dani Rodrik made the following comments about economics, but I think his insights also apply to business and marketing strategy:

“Rather than a single, specific model, economics encompasses a collection of models. The discipline advances by expanding its library of models and by improving the mapping between these models and the real world. The diversity of models in economics is the necessary counterpart to the flexibility of the social world. Different social settings require different models. Economists are unlikely ever to uncover universal, general-purpose models.” (Economics Rules: The Rights and Wrongs of the Dismal Science)

IV. Deep blue sea

I want to end this post by ruminating on something that fascinates me: the fact that aquatic metaphors, specifically, are very powerful.

Personally, I have always loved and feared the sea. One of my earliest memories involves seeing Orca at age four, in the beach town of Stone Harbor, New Jersey. Understandably, this memory would make the wide ocean, and big fish lurking underneath, powerful images for me.

But water is an evocative metaphor and sense memory for everyone. Our bodies are mostly liquid, and we’re programmed biologically to relax at the sound of the tide. It seems like half the movies I’ve seen recently—Moonlight, Julieta, A Bigger Splash, Stranger by the Lake, It Follows—use water to represent birth and death, baptism and violence, womb and dissolution.

Eating the Big Fish is a memorable title and memorable concept. The even more popular business book Blue Ocean Strategy that came out a few years later uses similar imagery to make similar points. In both these books, oceans serve as ready analogies for “competitive environments” because they are first and foremost spatial metaphors—i.e., oceans have boundaries. Yet they also bring up rich associations that are visual, kinesthetic, auditory, historical, and sensual. The Hirst exhibit is a reminder of how seductive those associations in fact are.

As a thought experiment, try re-writing the basic argument of either Eating the Big Fish or Blue Ocean Strategy without their aquatic metaphors. Can you come up with something equally succinct and memorable? It’s quite challenging.

But just because a metaphor is expressive doesn’t mean it makes any logical sense. If you start picking apart the Eat Big Fish metaphor, it quickly collapses. Are freshwater piranha eating saltwater sharks? Or if sharks are eating whales, won’t those sharks then go extinct through lack of a food source? The Blue Ocean Strategy metaphor falls apart just as quickly if you start to analyze it (though it did inspire an awesomely catchy song).

We could search for better metaphors, but we will never get it perfectly right. Every metaphor, every map, every business framework, and every word is flawed. All we can do is keep trying to communicate, invoking one flawed paradigm after another, tweaking them as we go.

As Flaubert wrote:

“Language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.”

Or Isaac Newton:

“I don’t know what I may seem to the world, but as to myself, I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”


Our default way of experiencing the world is through stories.

Whether they come from the latest Good Wife episode, the companies we purchase from, or the theater of our minds, stories are safe-to-consume simulations about how things were, are, will be, or could be.

I love stories, and they can do many good things:

  • They entertain us.
  • They help us contemplate what we would do in unfamiliar situations.
  • They help us act.
  • They make abstract concepts relatable and human.
  • The create order out of apparent disorder.
  • They bind communities together.
  • They make us smarter by either challenging or reinforcing our existing ideas.
  • They sharpen our pattern recognition skills.
  • They help us restore self-control.

That said, even the best stories lie. They replace reality with an edited version. And sometimes even, they’re dead wrong. Resilient individuals and organizations therefore balance storytelling with unstorytelling.

Here’s how to do that:

  • Use stories to time travel, but always come back to the here and now. The brain has two modes: our “narrative circuitry” which essentially turns all incoming data into a story and “direct experience” which takes in sensory data without an interpretive filter. The narrative circuit is our automatic mode and takes less energy to run, which means that we have to deliberately focus if we want to savor the moment we’re having, or pick up on details that don’t fit our pre-conceived stories. The two modes engage different regions of the brain, but by creating rituals for switching between them, over time we’ll be able to pause and reflect more easily before we’re caught up in a story.
  • When push comes to shove, choose reality over a story. We all make the mistake of applying our narrative circuitry to not just our external reality, but our internal one as well. We turn ourselves into a story. From earliest childhood, we are building a narrative about how the world works and how we fit into it. Over time, these stories become self-reinforcing—we typically do not give up our essential narratives about ourselves, and directly experience who we are without overlay, except under extreme duress. In her wonderful book Wired for Story, Lisa Cron points out that novels feel unsatisfying if the protagonist has a big epiphany without going through hell to get there. Life is often like that too.

Luckily, there are shortcuts: practices like Byron Katie’s The Work can help us recognize flaws in our personal narratives before they become a crisis. Like scientists, we can lower our thresholds for noticing that an existing story isn’t working out. We can also choose to act congruently with a new story even before we’re ready to give up the old one.

One book, one idea: The Caryatids

The Caryatids coverBruce Sterling’s The Caryatids is one of the most delightful and educational near-future sci-fi novels to come out in the past few years, sharing company with Rainbows End, Makers, Little Brother, Daemon, and World Made by Hand. Set in 2065, it’s essentially the fictional version of Sterling’s earlier and excellent Tomorrow Now, where all the forecasts of that earlier book come to pass and hybridize. It’s dizzying and smart. And, although I often recommend it for its business relevance, it’s also a cracking good read.

One of my favorite details from the book: in the world of The Caryatids, the nation-state has collapsed except for China, and the world has divided itself into two mega-tribes: the hippie collectivist Acquis and the optimistic, capitalist Dispensation. The latter is epitomized by the ex-husband of one of the novel’s heroines, who arrives at an ecological recovery operation in Croatia and says without a trace of irony, “I’m from Hollywood, I’m here to help you!”

The Acquis/Dispensation polarity throughout the book delights me, in part because the future of the nation-state is one of my passion topics. (In addition to Sterling’s writing, check out Dmitry Orlov, Dani Rodrik, and Jacques Barzun.) But the uneasy conflict between the Acquis and Dispensation is also just absurd enough to help me see many real world, current dualisms in a new light: mainstream vs. fringe innovation, old buildings vs. new ideas, the Marina vs. the Mission, Power vs. Love. The truth is neither camp gets it all right or sees itself clearly—we never can. Despite their different value judgments, ideological convictions, and self-protective stories, ultimately they need each other.

An implicit and hopeful message of The Caryatids is that even though things might be going to hell in a hand basket, the world is a lot weirder and more fun once you really engage with it. That’s good advice.

Location and dislocation — March 2011 gathering

The Next Us hosted a gathering at Fabric8 in March with three terrific speakers: Chris Carlsson (local San Francisco historian, author, and co-founder of CounterPULSE), Abby Falik (founder and CEO of Global Citizen Year), and Chip Grant (founder and artistic director of Urban Opera).

The theme of the event was “Location and dislocation.” I know for me, it can be all too easy at times to disappear into my head or computer screen and forget where I am. And of course, it’s useful to be able to cultivate inner stability regardless what life throws at you. But the three speakers at our March gathering had a different kind of wisdom that comes from a deep and felt sense of place.

As expected, I learned a lot at this event, and not just from the speakers, but from the many conversations that bubbled up before and after the talks.

Chris Carlsson:

Abby Falik:

Chip Grant: