The formula to position modern companies: Care more, be an expert


Dave Prince

6 min read

There’s probably never been an easier time in history to start a company.Take just about any industry, choose your poison and go, the barriers are low.

Industry is teeming with competition, there are many players in the game who are just one degree of separation from the competition or to put it bluntly — undifferentiated. Many in the market have the right ‘look and feel’ at first glance. But here’s the thing, you can’t take glancing to the bank.

Depth is the stuff we’re looking for. Especially when we want to get the job done. We can’t be taking risks spending the hard earned on those who are not subject experts, the retailer without story and the car manufacturer without environmental values. The risk we want to take is on the company who clearly says: We make this stuff for this type of person.

Attention from customers has its origins in something much deeper — that’s called positioning, a term that has a rigid seriousness to it but might be better explained in this way;

We care a lot about this thing, we’ve centred our business existence around this thing. We care about it, do you care about it?

That’s positioning. In startup companies, that core ‘thing’ usually comes from the founder who rallies other employees around the mission. In more seasoned businesses, you can trace the position back over time to the founding team, carried forward by people who are attracted to the company not simply for the salary but for the mission (side note, if you want a great hiring filter, positioning does a fine job of this).

So how do you create a winning position?

Positioning a company is not an easy task because psychology, science, art and timing need to collide to make something truly special. On the up-side there is a formula that can put you on the right track to sorting out your positioning;

Mission (why) + differentiated approach + core customer + deep expertise = Positioning

In isolation, any one of these 4 factors can help you take a position in the market, however by combining all four together you create a more robust and defensible stand in your area of commerce. Let’s dig in a little further;

Mission might be expressed as your why. ‘Finding your why’ has been written about extensively, what’s been less understood is how this might be achieved in a company setting. You want to avoid democratising positioning because it’s that old chestnut of too many cooks in the kitchen. The positioning of the company should either rest with the leader or leadership group otherwise, the process becomes too convoluted, too broad and oops we did it again, undifferentiated. Figuring out your purpose dominoes the next part of the formula.

differentiated approach means a different way of doing business.The more ways you can dream up of doing things differently, the stronger your market position becomes. We want to be deliberate and intentional about these differences which should always be anchored in providing more value to the customer. Avoid being different for the sake of it, if little value is to be gained from the difference, then go back to the drawing board. There are literally 100’s of ways to create contrast in your brand. The process, product, customer service, environment, people, tech and identity form the baseline to start the conversation.

When you undertake this exercise, your core customer should be at the centre of this positioning equation. If you are just about to launch, be as specific and clear about who the target might be and stress test the assumptions. Mature companies will most likely have a broad spectrum of clients, this can serve as both an advantage and a dragnet. The observation is that many companies find it difficult to let go of customers, it seems wasteful and counterproductive to revenue goals, cutting the cord might just be the best thing you will do. Start by writing down most of your clients or customer types;

  • Group clients or customers in categories based on common themes

  • Think about customers you had fun working alongside

  • Who provides the best ROI

  • Are there case studies that have a likeness to them

The goal is to line up your core customer with the other aspects of the formula.

Dilbert the comic was created by an office worker who could draw a little and had a sense of humour. Any one of these differences would not have made Dilbert a success but by leveraging a combination of these skills, Adam Scott created deep expertise for a particular audience.

Expertise can also come in the form of depth. You say no to most opportunities for the very purpose of being able to provide very deep, precise skills to a specific audience. This in itself can be a foundation for positioning.

Positioning seems like an obvious and essential business fundamental but so many companies lack the clear intention and dedication required to make the market notice you. We often find ourselves seduced by new opportunities that don’t really align or employees with new skills that lead us down a path away from our core mission or worse, we are still trying to be friends with everyone — chasing the entire market. If you find your company has stumbled (revenue slouching, retention of customer and employees charting south) it’s time to come back to the core of your model or explore new positioning that reflects where you need to go.