Obviously Awesome – Book Notes and Summary

Obviously Awesome is a positioning methodology by well-known positioning expert April Dunford. Dunford’s book has made the rounds recently as the go-to positioning process, especially for tech companies, though her positioning exercise can be applied to almost every industry.

If you’ve tried doing any sort of positioning work before and found it frustrating or useless, April Dunford’s book contains some invaluable lessons and an easy-to-follow methodology that you can use to build up stronger positioning for whatever you’re working on.

This summary is really just the most actionable parts of the book for me. I would strongly recommend buying and reading the whole thing, as Dunford includes templates and case studies that really bring these tips to life.

What is positioning?

Positioning impacts everything we do in sales and marketing. Every tactic has to start with an understanding of where you are positioned in the market.

Dunford defines positioning as “the act of deliberately defining how you are the best at something that a defined market cares a lot about.” It’s not about writing clever copy or making fancy visuals, it’s about being clear and persuasive.

This affects several areas of marketing: 

  • ABM requires you to understand who your best customers are and what they look like.
  • Content marketing requires you to understand the unique value and differentiators you bring to the market.
  • Growth is about identifying best-fit customers and selling to them.

Failing at positioning has a ripple effect across all other areas of the business. Putting a bigger budget into marketing or switching up tactics and tools can’t make up for poor positioning. By contrast, great positioning makes everything else easier. It lets you move along with the forces of the market, rather than against it. 

Positioning has its own positioning problem. Most people think it’s just messaging. Others think everything in marketing is positioning. 

Dunford says that positioning is context setting for products. When people encounter a new product, they try to gather clues as to how they should think about it. If you position your product correctly, you’re making it easy for people to understand your value

How to Tell if You Have Weak Positioning

  1. Your current customers love you, but new prospects can’t figure out what you’re selling.
    1. If you’re spending more time explaining what you are than moving sales conversations forward, that’s a sign of a positioning problem. If prospects can’t understand what you do, they will make assumptions and position you for you. If there’s a disconnect between what happy current customers see in you and what new prospects see, you need to rethink your positioning.
  2. Your company has long sales cycles and low close rates, and you’re losing deals to competitors.
    1. Are prospects seriously evaluating the product only to drop out right before the deal closes? Great positioning attracts best-fit customers and allows you to move deals along. Poor positioning means sales teams have to waste time explaining what you do, losing deals in the process. 
  3. You have high customer churn.
    1. Do you have high churn? Are customers constantly asking for new features that have nothing to do with your product roadmap? Weak positioning + strong marketing/sales= high churn.
  4. You’re under price pressure.
    1. Do customers and prospects complain about your pricing? If so, they might feel like you’re charging a premium for something they can get for cheaper. Weakly positioned products fail to ward off comparisons to competitors. Clear positioning shows that you are a leader in your market. 

The Five (Plus One) Components of Effective Positioning

Dunford hates the traditional positioning statement, and recommends against using it.

For (your target buyers), (your offering) is a (your category) which provides (core benefits) unlike (your competitors) which provide (competitors’ benefits). 

The problem is that this assumes you know all of the answers and can fill in the blanks. It reinforces the status quo of your positioning. It’s not actionable – no one ever refers to this thing.

Dunford prefers a model that has five core components plus an optional one:

  1. Competitive alternatives. What would your target customers do if your product didn’t exist?
  2. Unique attributes. What features and capabilities do you have that your competitors don’t?
  3. Value and proof of value. What are the benefits those features enable for your customers? How can you prove it?
  4. Target market characteristics. What are the characteristics of a group of buyers that make them really care about what you offer?
  5. Market category. What is the market you describe yourself as being a part of?
  6. Trends (optional). What market trends do your customers understand that can help you make your product more relevant right now?

The components are strongly interconnected, and it seems like they can be tackled in any order, but Dunford has a suggested order:

The rest of the book is how Dunford ties all of these components together in an actionable process.

The 10-Step Positioning Process

Step 1:  Understand the Customers Who Love Your Product

Who are the customers who are most happy with your product? What makes them so happy to work with you? This helps you figure out what makes you valuable, who values you the most, and why. This is where positioning starts.

You shouldn’t try to survey all of your customers – that will likely not reveal any useful patterns. If you focus only on what unites your base of truly happy customers, you can focus your marketing, sales, customer success, and product efforts on companies with similar characteristics.

Start by making a list of your best customers. They’re the ones that bought quickly, immediately understood your value, write you reviews, serve as compelling case studies, and refer new business to you. If you don’t have any customers yet, or none that are truly happy, you’ll struggle to get started on firm positioning. In this case, it’s better to keep your positioning loose. 

What if you want to start with your product, not your customers? This is a bad idea. If you start by laying out your unique features, you are unwittingly comparing yourself to your competitors. The problem with this is that we see our competitors much differently than our customers do. We watch our competitors closely, but our customers almost never do. They care about solving their problems, not competitive battles.

Should you try to position your company, product, or both at the same time? Most startups start with a single product. For example, Salesforce had only a CRM for 10 years. If you have a single product, positioning your product and company is more or less the same task. If you’ve already tried positioning your product and brand separately, Dunford recommends focusing on the product. Customers don’t care about the separation, especially if you only have one product. 

If you have multiple products, company and product position are separate but interlinked things. If each product is completely standalone, you can position them separately. If they are complementary, you have to use company branding as a blanket positioning scheme to help customers understand why they should consider multiple offerings from you. If you have a portfolio of products, you should focus your positioning on the ones that bring in the most revenue, and pursue a land and expand strategy with your other products. 

Step 2: Form a Positioning Team

Positioning works best when a cross-functional team drives the process. Each department interacts with customers at different stages of the journey. Marketing, sales, customer success, and product/engineering all have unique perspectives that can help understand the best-fit customers across the journey.

Assembling a team exposes the different assumptions each department makes about the product value and market. You need to meet to get those assumptions into the open. Anyone who is responsible for a particular product must drive positioning. Positioning isn’t just marketing , it’s about business strategy. Everyone who owns the strategy must be present or you risk your positioning not being fully adopted. Marketing can’t own positioning any more than it can own the entire business strategy.

Positioning impacts every department’s core tasks, such as:

  • Marketing – messaging, targeting, campaign development.
  • Sales/Business Development – segmentation and account strategy
  • Customer Success – Onboarding and account expansion
  • Product/Engineering – Product roadmaps, prioritization.

Leaders from these teams must be involved in developing and executing the positioning. You need buy-in from every group.

Step 3: Align Your Positioning Vocabulary and Let Go of Your Positioning Baggage

To find new ways to position our product, we have to let go of the old ways of thinking about it. We need to develop a common positioning vocabulary.

Get everyone on the same page about what positioning is, what components make up your position, and how market maturity and the competitive landscape can impact your positioning. The goal is to find the best positioning to help you win. It’s hard to do that if you’re stuck doing what you’ve always done.

Most products can be many different things to many buyers. Arm & Hammer started selling baking soda for baking. The business grew, but was disrupted in the 1970’s by packaged food, which led to a decline in home baking. Arm & Hammer knew that some consumers were already using baking soda to control odors in their refrigerator. Arm & Hammer succeeded by abandoning its positioning as a baking product and focusing on being part of the odor control market.

The lesson: You need to be willing to let go of your old positioning if it doesn’t serve you anymore. Your customers don’t care how your product has evolved, and they don’t know about the history of it. You need to position for now.

We create confusion in the market when there’s a disconnect between understanding our product as creators and understanding it as customers. 

Start by looking for where your history appears in your current positioning. Is your current market the one you identified when you initially created the product? How have your terminology and features changed? It’s important to get the team to agree that the customers the product was created for may not be who you want to go after now.

Step 4: List Your True Competitive Alternatives

Customers don’t always see our competitors as we do. That’s important because it is the customers’ opinions that matter most.

As product creators, we naturally want to look at our product’s features to determine our market, and then try to build context around that. We should avoid that and look at our product features as a customer would instead. 

“The features of our product and the value they provide are only unique, interesting, and valuable when a customer perceives them in relation to alternatives.”

The foundation of positioning is the problem your customers are trying to solve and how they perceive your offering compared to other ways of solving the problem. We shouldn’t start by simply asking customers or prospects about their problems because they’re often not good at talking about them in a way that gives product creators and marketers a good base to make decisions from. 

Dunford was trying to position a database product. Customers kept saying they just wanted to run fast queries and get knowledge from a large database quickly. She asked what they would use if her company’s database didn’t exist, and they all said BI tools and data warehouses. 

Understanding the problem isn’t enough. You need to understand how customers perceive your strengths and weaknesses via the alternatives to which they compare you. Customers tend to group solutions into categories, but asking about problems doesn’t always reveal categories.

To create a position that truly highlights your unique strengths, you need to understand your real competitors to solving your customers’ problems. “Understand what a customer might replace you with in order to understand how they categorize your solution.”

Ask your best customers what they would do if you didn’t exist. Their answer isn’t always a direct competitor. It could be “use a spreadsheet,” or “hire interns.” In many cases, the answer is “do nothing.” They either don’t realize they have a problem, or they are just stuck with the status quo.

How would your best fit customers answer that question? Name what alternatives they would say, and rank them in order of most common to least common. Focus on the most common.

Cluster those alternatives. One group might “do it manually.” Another might use spreadsheets. Grouping the alternatives moves you to the next step.

Step 5: Isolate Your Unique Attributes or Features

Strong positioning will revolve around what makes you the best. Once you know your best-fit customers’ most common competitive alternatives, you have to isolate what makes you different and better.

Start by listing all of the capabilities you have that the alternatives do not. List everything even if you aren’t certain of its value or if some customers would actually see it as a negative. Ask your best customers why they chose you. Some of your unique attributes might seem like a negative in certain cases. 

Dunford gives the example of a software company that was the only one in its space that required a professional services team to set up the software. The head of sales thought that was a negative because it takes longer for customers to get started. The head of customer service said it was a positive because some customers wanted a high touch service. Just list everything.

“Your opinion of your own strengths is irrelevant without proof.”

Don’t make the mistake of listing features that are difficult to prove or are more of a benefit. “We provide great customer service,” or “We’re easy to use,” are bad for the purpose of the exercise. Focus on the characteristics that drive those core benefits, and features where you can provide objective facts and definitive proof. Every company says they have a great product and customer service. If you have great customer service, though, how can you prove that? How can you prove your product is easy to use?

You can prove customer service by showing ticket response times, service rep certifications, etc. That sort of thing is proof, not just vague statements.

Testimonials, quotes, case studies, awards, third-party reviews, etc. are also great proof points to help you stand out in a crowded market.

Be broad and creative with your unique attributes. What proprietary processes, expertise, distribution channels, service models, partnerships, or technology do you have? Don’t just look at product features, look at what makes your whole offering unique.

Focus on “consideration” rather than “retention.” You want to focus your positioning on people who are thinking of buying your product. Retention is a separate ballgame, and while positioning is part of retention (customers who feel like they didn’t get what they signed up for will churn), it’s important to focus on helping new customers make decisions.

Step 6: Map the Attributes to Value Themes

Attributes are a starting point – customers care most about what those attributes can do for them. “15-megapixel camera” is an attribute. “Sharper images” is a value.

Features enable benefits, which should be translated into the value they provide. Features can have multiple value points, and combinations of features can also have value.

  • Feature: Something your product does or has
  • Benefit: What the feature enables for users
  • Value: How the feature maps to the goal the user is trying to achieve

For example, if you offer “one click reports” as a feature, the benefit would be “fast and easy report generation.” The value is that users can make decisions based on up-to-date data. 

Dunford writes that sometimes technical people struggle moving through the feature > benefit > value chain. They present features as if they’re self-evidently valuable. Some phonemakers will tout the number of megapixels the camera on the phone has. Consumers can generally assume more megapixels is better, but phonemakers would be better served by talking about better image quality. 

Don’t leave your customers’ understanding of your value to chance. What do your benefits mean for customers? For example, if your benefit is “fast response times for customer support requests,” take that a step further. What can your customers do when you offer fast customer support that they couldn’t do with slow support? It might seem self-evident, but don’t leave it to chance.

Once you have mapped value to benefits and features, cluster your value into themes. To group your value points, take the perspective of the customer. Which points would they naturally relate? Group the attributes that provide similar/overlapping value into clusters. Look for patterns and aim to narrow your list down to 1-4 value clusters. 

This isn’t just about making a list, it’s about honing in on the most critical aspects of your offering that makes you worth considering.

Step 7: Determine Who Cares a Lot

Which customers care about the value of your attributes relative to the alternatives? It’s important to remember that you might have unique attributes and value, but not all customers will care about that value in the same way. For example, if you have a solution that reduces manual data entry for accounting, customers that do a lot of manual data entry will value that more than those who don’t.

This is called segmentation. Most marketing courses teach segmentation as if everyone worked at a massive consumer-facing company. They’re overly focused on demographics. Dunford says we need to think deeper than demographics and firmographics. 

Actionable segmentation should capture an individual’s or company’s easily identifiable characteristics that make them care about what you offer. Segments can include combinations of other solutions/brands they use, their business models, etc. 

Best-fit customers are easy to sell to and retain. Too broad a focus will dilute your messaging and spread your resources too thin. Lukewarm customers will jump ship if they find something cheaper or if another company offers a competing solution to yours that has some other features. Your best customers, on the other hand, understood what you brought to the table immediately, they didn’t argue about price, volunteered as case studies, and most of all, don’t churn.

You want to spend your marketing dollars and efforts on the prospects that are most like the latter.

Start by narrowly targeting your best-fit prospects to meet immediate sales goals. You can always expand your targeting later. 

Your positioning will evolve as your product and market does. Essentially, you always have to ask, “Who cares the most and why?”

A segment can be defined by narrowing down the set of buyers you want to target. If you sell “SEO software,” narrow it down to “SEO software for bloggers.” If you sell golf clubs, your ideal segment might be “golf clubs for people with back problems.”

A segment needs to meet two criteria:

  1. It should be big enough to meet the goals of your business
  2. It needs to have important, specific, and unmet needs that are common to the segment.

If you sell those golf clubs, you need to determine if the market for golf clubs for people with back problems is large enough to reach your goals, and if your product has something unique that serves the unmet needs of this segment.

Step 8: Find a Market Frame of Reference that Puts Your Strengths at the Center and Determine How to Position It

Finding a market frame is important, and in this case, a “market” has to be something that already exists in consumers’ minds. Positioning your offering in a market will trigger a set of assumptions consumers will make about you. These assumptions have to do with the competitors, features, and pricing consumers will compare your product to. If you choose the right frame, you’ll be at an advantage since consumers will think about you positively in regards to those aspects.

Some ways to find your ideal market frame of reference that makes your value obvious:

  • Isolate your key features and their value and ask yourself what types of products typically have those features? What category do they belong to? What kinds of customers care about them?
  • Look at adjacent markets to the one you originally positioned yourself in. Are any of them more aligned with your value? Do they allow you to accentuate your product’s strengths?
  • Ask your customers. This might help you get more insight into what they value most about your offering, which can be used to position yourself. Be careful, though, customers aren’t necessarily experts on positioning, and they’ll likely be limited in their thinking by how they relate to your product in their daily lives.

Dunford gives three approaches to choosing a market. At a high level, your choices are to create a new market, or enter an existing market to either win the entire thing or just a subset of it. These are the three approaches:

  1. Head to Head: Positioning to win an existing market
    • You are competing against established players in a well-defined market.
    • Customers are generally educated about the solutions that exist in the market, and understand the purchase criteria. You don’t have to explain to prospects what the market is all about or try to sell them on it.
    • You accept the current way the category is defined, as well as customers’ purchase criteria. Not trying to change the game, just win it. 
    • The advantage here is that you don’t need to convince people that the category needs to exist – you benefit from the assumptions they already have.
    • Make sure this market already exists or is emerging quickly enough for you to reach your business goals.
    • Take note of competition. If there is a strong leader – or multiple strong competitors – in the market, going head to head for their market share could be tough. You will constantly have to prove you’re the best according to the commonly accepted buying criteria.
    • For this strategy to work, you need to constantly reinforce that your way of thinking about the market is best. Show you understand their buying criteria and 
    • When to use the head-to-head style:
      • If you’re already a leader in your market and the way people buy favors your unique value.
    • You shouldn’t use it if you’re a small business or startup. Not worth trying to unseat the market leader right off the bat.
      • The exceptions to this are if the category is well-defined but lacks an undisputed leader, or if you have groundbreaking technology/model that will disrupt the major incumbents.
  1. Positioning to win a subsegment of an existing market
  • This refers to a positioning approach of going into an existing market and trying to get a foothold by focusing on a specific subsegment. You’re trying to grab a small piece of the market where the rules are a bit different, rather than going for the widest customer base possible.
  • You should be calling out the fact that some of the buying requirements of the subsegment aren’t being met by the category leader. Don’t try to change the purchase criteria of the whole market. You have to accentuate the differentiators you have so the customers that care the most will be willing to relax some of their other buying criteria to get what you offer.
  • You get the advantage of a well-defined category without trying to compete directly with more well-resourced competitors.
  • You get to be super specific in your messaging and value prop. Ruthlessly weed out the non-ideal buyers by focusing on the ones who will love your offering. If you do it right, word of mouth accelerates naturally. 
  • Once you get traction, you can expand to other segments.
  • When to use this style:
    • Category must be well-defined, but you aren’t the leader. A vague category will mean a vague subsegment.
    • There needs to be clearly identifiable groups of customers with unique needs that aren’t being served by the market leaders.
    • You should be able to easily create a list of prospective buyers. 
    • Your offering should be able to meet the special requirements of your subsegment much more than the category leader. You can’t be an incremental improvement, otherwise people will stick with the status quo. You need to clearly communicate that you understand their specific problems and show how you have solved them.
    • Start by educating the subsegment about how the general purpose solution is failing them, offer proof points that there is a value gap between the leader and what you bring to the table, while also showing how you at least meet expectations for the other buying criteria.
  1. Creating a New Game (Position to win a market you create)
  • This style should only be used if you truly cannot fit your solution into any existing market category. If you did, you would fail to put the focus on your core differentiators and unique features.
  • You aren’t just capturing existing demand, you are creating new demand.
    • This style is viable when some external forces influence what is important for your target market. 
      • Economic impacts, political forces, new technologies
  • A new category typically emerges when an enabling technology, a shift in customer preferences, and a supporting ecosystem come together at once.
  • This style involves the most “teaching” for the market. 
    • Why does this new category deserve to exist at all?
    • Why is the problem unique?
    • Why do existing solutions fall short?
    • How should potential buyers evaluate solutions in this new category?
  • To create a new category, you need to prove you are unarguably different and new over anything else that already exists.
    • Competitors may claim you are just a subset of what they offer.
    • You need to prove beyond all doubt that your offering isn’t just a feature, but a totally new thing.
    • Timing is key – why hasn’t this existed before? Why is now the time? What has made this new category necessary?
  • Category creation is about selling the market on the problem first, not the solution.
    • If a whole category doesn’t exist, it means customers are likely unaware of their problem. 
    • They don’t understand the value they can unlock with this new solution.
  • Success in creating a new category means that you create a market that is specifically geared to your strengths and weaknesses.
    • You get to set the boundaries of the market and decide what’s important. 
    • It’s a long-term effort that requires consistency. It takes time to prove the value and educate the market and drive awareness. 
    • How can you defend yourself as a category leader?

Step 9: Layer on a Trend (But be Careful)

Once you have your market context, you can look for ways to layer on a trend to help buyers understand why your solution is important right now. If you can find the intersection between your product’s strengths, your market context, and a trend, you can build some powerful positioning.

You don’t absolutely need to layer in a trend if you position yourself well in a market context. If a current trend reinforces your value and make you seem more current and relevant, that can help you even if your product is fundamentally “boring.”

The trend you choose should absolutely reinforce your positioning. As Dunford writes, “It’s always better to be a little boring than completely baffling.” If you lean to heavily toward using a trend to position yourself at the expense of your market, you might look cool, but customers will be unclear on how you help them solve problems. 

Trends should have a clear link to your product and how it solves real problems. If that’s not doable, skip the trend.

Step 10: Capture Your Positioning So It Can Be Shared

Once you have clear positioning, you need to keep it in a form that can be shared across an org. The document should breakdown all components of your positioning and how they interact. Dunford has some templates for doing just that on her website: www.aprildunford.com

Putting Positioning Into Play

  • Translate your positioning into a sales story. Define how your sales team would pitch the product. You don’t need the exact copy for a presentation, but you should have the outline of a sales story. Start with defining the problem your product solves, show how people try to solve that problem today (status quo) and why current solutions are failing them, show them what a perfect world would look like. That’s when you can introduce your category and product’s value. 
  • Craft messaging. This should be documented and use the same framework as the sales story.
  • Product roadmap. A change in positioning can change the product roadmap, as well as pricing.
  • Track positioning over time. Check on your positioning and determine if a major market or business change would necessitate a change in your positioning. New competitors will require you to position against them.

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