Positioning Your Startup is Vital — Here’s How to Nail It
When Arielle Jackson started to develop the marketing and communications plan around Cover (the Android app quickly snapped up by Twitter), she brought a lot of firepower to the job. During her nearly nine years at Google, she managed product marketing for Gmail, Docs, Calendar and Voice. She then moved on to Square, where she led go-to-market plans for new hardware products like the Square Stand. At Cover, she put everything she learned to work to help make the product uniquely valuable. Today, she does the same as an advisor to multiple startups.
What’s surprising for many people, she says, is that marketing is actually highly tactical. There are frameworks and distinct steps founders can take to define what their company is doing, why it’s important, and why — above all the noise — people should listen to them.
In this exclusive interview, Jackson shares exercises entrepreneurs can use to nail their product positioning, develop the right assets (including a name that strikes the right chord), and make a stunning first impression on the market — whether they’re launching a new feature or an entire company.
How to Position Your Business
At its core, positioning is a statement. It’s a sentence or two that clearly defines the problem you're setting out to solve and why your solution is compelling. Your positioning statement should remain internal, but it’s critical to everything that follows: Aligning teams, hiring the right people, developing the best product, communicating the value of your work — the list goes on. It all starts with positioning.
“You need to position your product in the mind of your user,” says Jackson. “And that requires taking your potential users into account, assessing the product’s strengths and weaknesses, and considering your competition. There are so many products out there, and people are busy. You have to know who you are.”
You can't be everything to everyone, but you can be something great for someone.
So what does a positioning statement look like? A lot of good advice is contained in the foundational marketing guide Positioning, Jackson recommends. But in particular, she cites a formula she learned from former Google Head of Marketing and Communications Christopher Escher when she was an associate product marketing manager:
For (target customer)
Who (statement of need or opportunity),
(Product name) is a (product category)
That (statement of key benefit).
Unlike (competing alternative)
(Product name)(statement of primary differentiation).
Using this framework, you can explain your product or service in as plain of English as possible. This requires some pre-work. Answering the following questions can help you get to a concrete statement:
- What’s different about the way your product/service works?
- Why do you do what you do?
- What is your broadest circle of prospective customers? Start with something like “Android users” or “people without cars,” and then try to get more specific, ending up with a profile of an individual model user.
- What pain points are these customers experiencing? Be as clear and specific as possible. What emotions do customers associate with these pain points?
- What other companies solve similar problems? Don’t just list your competitors but also their strengths and weaknesses compared to what you’re doing.
- Avoid all buzzwords. If there’s one word that describes your positioning statement, it should be “human.”
With these factors accounted for, positioning statements can be written for all kinds of companies. Amazon’s early positioning statement is a prime sample:
For World Wide Web users
Who enjoy books,
Amazon is a retail bookseller
That provides instant access to over 1.1 million books.
Unlike traditional book retailers,
Amazon provides a combination of extraordinary convenience, low prices and comprehensive selection.
To give an example outside of technology, Harley-Davidson publicly shared their positioning statement:
The only motorcycle manufacturer
That makes big, loud motorcycles
For macho guys (and “macho wannabes”)
Mostly in the United States
Who want to join a gang of cowboys
In an era of decreasing personal freedom.
As you can see, the format can be flexible as long as you've addressed the key components. The goal isn’t to use this statement verbatim in your marketing or advertising, but to get people inside the company excited and on the same page about why your idea is special and going to help people attain something they want.
Some people mix up taglines and positioning statements, but taglines serve a much different purpose: They're externally-facing catch phrases or slogans that are in line with your positioning. As an example, one of Harley's taglines is: “American by birth. Rebel by choice.” It wraps up a lot of the same ideas in a neater, more concise package.
“As a rule, it’s always an advantage to be first in your market, because you’re memorable. If you can be first and best that’s great — but that’s also really hard, and it’s okay if you’re not,” says Jackson. “Positioning statements help you create the right message for the right person at the right time.”
This is especially relevant if you’re launching in a crowded space, or if there’s a clear incumbent. Having a strong positioning statement can differentiate you as a premium offering, or a discount offering, or as the perfect product for a certain segment of customers. NyQuil, as the book Positioning explains, succeeded by billing itself as a cough syrup to be used by cold-sufferers specifically at night.
Nailing down your positioning from the beginning makes everything else easier.
In Jackson’s opinion, having your positioning down is even more important than having a name for your company. That name, and eventually all of your messaging, website copy, branding, and even product features can all spring from your positioning.
“A question everyone hears and asks a lot is: ‘Is this on brand? Are we making an on-brand decision?’” she says. “If you have a strong positioning statement that everyone believes in, that’s the best guide for answering those questions. Is the decision you’re making in service to the customers you’ve identified? Does it strengthen the ways you’re different from your competitors? It’s all more clear cut.”
On top of that, a well-expressed position can be an incredible asset in fundraising conversations, so it shouldn’t be postponed, Jackson says. “I think if you actually include your positioning statement in your pitch deck, people would be impressed with the clarity of thought."
In terms of what comes first, product or positioning, Jackson suggests that the two should grow up side-by-side.
“You can’t start positioning before you generally know what you’re building, but I think it does inform the product and vice versa,” she says.
With Cover, the founders knew that they wanted to build a context-aware layer that would replace the standard Android lock screen and leverage capabilities on Android not available on iOS or other platforms. But that was about it.
“We knew some of the basic functionality but not exactly what it would look like,” says Jackson. “Once we had nailed the positioning, it became more clear what features we’d need to build to win over Android users who had tons of apps. It also really shaped the whole website, including the ‘about us’ page and the way we talked to prospective candidates.”
One step that many companies skip is seriously evaluating their competition while drafting their positioning. This is a mistake, Jackson says. “It’s critical that you understand how you fit in your space where competitors are operating. Often, drawing the comparison can be really helpful in explaining your product or service. When the first ever car came out, it was advertised as the horseless carriage — and that explained something that could have been impossible to grasp in a way that was compelling for people.”
People understand what's new and different by comparing it to something they already know.
But this type of language may only appeal to a specific audience. Saying that you are “like Uber for X” is probably only relevant to a narrow, tech-savvy sliver of the populace. While Jackson recommends having one overarching positioning statement for your company or product, she acknowledges that you may eventually want to tweak it as you try to appeal to different demographics.
“You may be positioned one way for an audience of San Francisco yuppies and another way for a major national campaign, but you always want to have that one dominant statement that everything rolls up to,” she says. Identifying what is broken and generally how your company or product is solving it shouldn’t be a moving target.
If you have a hard time writing a positioning statement that fits the framework above, there might be something wrong with your product. Especially if you can’t clearly define your target market or explain how you’re doing something distinguishable from others, you should back up and do that homework. “If you have a compelling product that people actually need, you should be able to write a decent positioning statement. If you’re struggling, that’s a sign," Jackson says.
How to Name Your Company
One of the biggest challenges young startups face is picking a name that reflects the qualities they want to project, sticks with customers, and allows them to snag a slick domain and social media handles. Seems like an almost impossible feat, and Jackson has seen a number of companies get stumped when it comes to choosing a name. Today, she has a system for breaking down this roadblock.
There are three routes you can take when it comes to naming:
- Descriptive: Fairly explicit about what your business is and does. Examples include Whole Foods, Toys "R" Us and PayPal.
- Suggestive: Evokes or suggests what your business or product is about, often via metaphor. Examples include Amazon, which suggests a giant river/huge selection, and Mint, where money is created.
- Fanciful: Has nothing directly to do with your company’s offering. Examples include Adobe and Apple.
“A good way to see the difference here is to look at web browsers,” says Jackson. “Internet Explorer is about as descriptive as you can get. Safari is suggestive, connoting this idea of exploration, and then you have FireFox, which has absolutely nothing to do with the internet.”
While fanciful names risk being too obscure or complicated, they do come with some advantages: They can be more memorable, and it can be easier to get the trademark, domains and handles. You just have to be willing to do more work marketing your product or service. “You have to be prepared to do a lot of explaining and marketing to get mindshare and really forge the association between your name and your business. Alternatively, a descriptive or suggestive name will do some of your positioning work for you,” she says.
According to Jackson, you should also ask yourself the following questions as you decide which one of these roads to go down:
- What are the names of related or competitors' companies or products? You want to build differentiation into your name. Especially if you are launching into a space like online payments, you may want to steer clear of the word “pay,” because many companies have the word “pay” in their names, and it will be too hard for customers to remember you.
- What brand values do you want to communicate? These might include words like simplicity, security, etc.
- Do you need the exact domain name to be available or can you get away with a verb-noun combination like many other companies have tried? Examples include squareup.com for Square, trycaviar.com for Caviar, and meetearnest.com for lending startup Earnest. These can work.
Guidelines help, but when it comes to actually sitting down and doing the work of brainstorming, naming can still seem like a staggering task. When this is the case, Jackson advises founders to go back to their positioning statement.
“First, create three buckets for descriptive, suggestive and fanciful names. Let yourself be open to all three,” she says. “You don’t know if you’ll happen upon a name you’ll fall in love with.”
Second, take your written-out positioning statement and break it into nouns and verbs. For every meaningful word you can isolate, create a full list of synonyms. “Go to thesaurus.com and just capture them all. Make a huge list,” Jackson says. “Once you have this list, you can try all kinds of different combinations.” She suggests working through this list of options:
Real words: Repurposed words (Examples: Apple, Gain, Square)
Compounds: Two words fused together (Salesforce, Facebook)
Blends: Part of one word combined with part of another (Pinterest, Microsoft)
Affixes: Tack something on like -er or -ly (Blogger, Contently)
Truncations: Shorten a word or concept (Cisco is a clipped version of San Francisco)
Other languages: Words that mean or suggest what you want to convey in other languages (Reebok, Asana)
“You want to do this exercise in a group,” Jackson says. “A lot of times founders do this alone, or just with their co-founder. That can be a good starting point, but you definitely want to bring in your other employees and even friends and family. Create your short list of options and then see how they resonate with a variety of people.”
After this brainstorm, you need to look at your priorities when it comes to naming your company. In most cases, this is how your ranking should look (for practical and creative reasons):
1. Trademark and domain availability
3. Reflection of your key messaging
4. Sound and ease of pronunciation (more important than you might think)
5. Appearance (literally, how pleasing or logical is it to the eye?)
6. Length (a two-syllable word can be preferable because it’s not too long but more distinctive than a single syllable)
Some of these sound elementary, but are actually critical to the success of your name. “People often don’t think of things like, is this easy to spell? Does it feel natural in your mouth when you say it?” She points to used furniture marketplace Move Loot as an example. While the name might sound like a tongue-twister at first, the rhyming is actually easy to both say and remember.
Lastly, be careful when using working or code names in case you get too attached. It’s easy to get stuck on one name even if it’s not ideal. To prevent this from happening, choose a crazy interim name that you know definitely won’t work or isn’t available, Jackson advises.
How to Pull Together Branded Assets
To create a comprehensive brand, you need a logo, landing page, video, etc., and all that starts with something called a creative brief.
In a short amount of time and space, you can provide all of the information you need to define the look and feel of a whole company or an individual feature or product (even something as small as a new banner ad) — whatever you’re developing or announcing.
“A creative brief is really a documented guide to creative work. You can use it to develop the assets you need to go to market,” says Jackson. “Some people don’t think you need to write it down — that you can simply have a kickoff meeting with a creative agency or your in-house creative team and leave it at that. But in my experience, it’s really helpful to write it down. Not only does it help the people you may be working with, but it helps you further internalize how you want to talk about and express things.”
Entrepreneurs working on a smaller budget may need to do all the creative work themselves or with a small number of contractors. Creative briefs are equally helpful in these cases as when working with big agencies.
In some sense, this brief is prescriptive: You can define targets — the types of people you want to reach, how many, and the assets you hope to get out of the process (a logo, website, tagline, video, etc.) But you don’t want it to be overly explicit in what it’s asking for, Jackson says. You want to leave room for play and inspiration.
A creative brief should be just that — brief.
“You should keep your creative brief to one or two pages — I’ve literally heard of agencies that won’t accept one that is more than a page,” she says. “As directly as possible, you want to communicate the background on your product, what you're trying to do with it, your perspective on timing and budget, and also what the competitive space looks like.”
A comprehensive creative brief has the following components:
- Background: Your company or product name, a quick description of what it does and the value it creates, and a rough launch plan.
- Audience: Your target audience should be defined both by the demographics you are going after and a profile of your model customer (more on this later).
- Positioning: Your positioning statement with no frills.
- Competitive audit: A list of 5 to 10 companies that are playing in the same space, with your main competitor highlighted. You may also include single sentence descriptions of how they overlap with you and your business.
- Messaging: The key takeaways you want your audience to internalize about your product or company. This may also include your tagline if you have one (more on developing messaging below).
- Current perception: If you’re already in the market, how do people see you? What feelings do you produce in people? Try to be as objective as possible, including whether you want to change this perception.
- Brand attributes: A list of adjectives that you feel accurately describe the personality of your company.
- Inspiration: Any examples of brands, logos, verbiage, websites or advertising that you like. Explain very quickly what you like about them and/or what aspects you might like to see incorporated into your own creative work (clean font, an abstract logo, etc.). This can help provide some early direction.
- Deliverables: Do you just want a logo? Or a full brand identity with fonts, colors and brand guidelines? A website? A video? Define what you want to get out of the process, even if you’re running it on your own.
- Delivery date: Set a firm deadline for both concepts and final deliverables so you know you’re on track. Make sure the people doing the work agree to this timeline.
- Budget: Especially important if you’re working with external help, either a contractor, agency or creative firm. Do your best to stick to it.
- Sign off: Make it clear who has the authority to review and approve different deliverables. The buck should stop with one person.
“A lot of times you won’t see competitors or inspirations included in creative briefs because clients assume that agencies will go out and do that kind of research themselves, but if you think about it, you could save the time and money it will take for them to do that simply by including them in your brief,” says Jackson. “You want to see at least preliminary results as soon as you can.”
Clearly identifying your audience and model customer can also help expedite things. “Your target audience is a broad concept of who you want to go after with your product or service,” says Jackson. “If you’re talking about ZipCar for example, it’ll be something like ‘urban people who don’t own cars.’ This is still pretty broad.”
There’s a lot of benefit to boiling this larger group down to a single, well-drawn individual.
Paint a picture of your perfect user. If you've done everything right, they should be a slam dunk.
“In the UX world, people often talk about ‘personas’ in this way,” says Jackson. “You literally say, ‘Meet Sally, she’s 31, lives in San Francisco and cares about the environment. She used to own a Prius but the cost of maintenance was too high, so she donated it and now relies on ZipCar to get out of the city on weekends.’ You want whoever is receiving your creative brief to feel like they know exactly who this person is and what they're motivated by.”
This doesn’t mean that the company or product will only appeal to people like Sally, but it will give it an edge with the wider audience that resembles Sally, she says. “You can start to ask questions like, okay so if this is our audience, how do we get in front of them? How do we get them to remember us? How do we draw them in?”
How to Prepare for Launch
Launches and campaigns all require key messaging that touches on these questions and explains more about why people should care. To arrive at clean, simple messaging that makes your point loud and clear, you should rely on two acronyms:
SOCO (Single Overriding Communications Objective): Whether you’re developing a brand identity or campaign work or a video, you want to be able to articulate the one most important thing you want the work to communicate. Just one thing. Know it by heart.
SOCA (Single Overriding Communications Avoidance): The complete opposite of your SOCO, this is the one thing that is the most important for you to avoid communicating. What is the one message, weakness, problem or liability that you absolutely don’t want users or the press to hear? Everyone who may be talking about your product for your company should have your SOCA firmly in mind.
A good example of a SOCO is an early line used by Dropbox: “It just works.” It relays all of the simplicity, security and user ease that the brand wants to project, and it's easy for people to repeat over and over again.
A good example of a SOCA may be the idea that you’re just like every other cloud security solution. When Jackson was working on Cover, it was very important that the service didn’t seem like it would get in the way or interfere with the way Android users wanted to use their apps. Accordingly, the company’s messaging largely emphasized how it would make life more convenient for these users.
Your other key messages should orbit around your SOCO. For example, if you’re giving an interview to a reporter, most of your responses to whatever questions they ask should bridge back to that one objective or idea that you want people to remember.
Jackson recommends compiling all of your messaging — including answers to all possible questions you could get about your company or product — into one communications document. At Google, every product had its own corresponding comms doc that anyone on relevant internal teams could dip into to learn how to talk about the product, who it was for, and why it was useful or important.
“Before you launch anything, you want to crowd-source as many questions as you can from people you know and trust. Put all of them and your best answers to them in the doc,” says Jackson.
“Then, every time you get a question you weren't prepared for, add it to the doc, even after launch. It should be a living document that is constantly evolving and becoming more refined.”
The goal isn’t to memorize everything in your communications document before heading into interviews, it’s simply a study guide, she says. You should review it so many times that you can hit all of the points without sounding rehearsed. You should be able to organically move from topic to topic as you field questions. This is how you’ll be able to stay nimble in interviews or presentations.
“At the end of all of this, you want to feel completely comfortable with the brand, the product, and how you talk about it,” Jackson says. “It all starts with nailing down your positioning. Everything stems from that. If you’ve done it right, you'll be able to tell everyone why what you’re doing matters in a way that will make them listen and respond.”