The Ultimate Positioning: No Competitors

By | August 9, 2012
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Tim WilliamsFollowing is a guest post by Tim Williams (@TimWilliamsICG). Tim leads Ignition Consulting Group and is author of the books “Take a Stand for Your Brand” and “Positioning for Professionals.”

When you think of your firm as a brand, would you rather be moderately appealing to a large group of prospects, or intensely appealing to a select group of prospects? Most business people would say the latter. But most often, their business strategies center on the former.

In life and business, our natural tendency is to go broad instead of narrow, to want the most and the biggest. Diversification feels safer and smarter.

The problem is that if your approach is to “keep your options open” and “not limit yourself,” then you actually don’t have a strategy. By definition, having a strategy means deciding to do one thing over another.

What Are You Really Selling?

Especially in service businesses, success means determining the areas in which you intend to be excellent and less-than-excellent. (Just the phrase “less-than-excellent” bothers most professionals who somehow believe that it’s possible to be excellent in everything).  

Defining what you’re really selling is the essence of your value proposition. The answer is not nearly as obvious as it seems. Harvard’s Ted Levitt, known for his work in marketing theory, would teach his students that “nobody buys a 3/4-inch drill. They buy the expectation of a 3/4-inch hole.”

Unfortunately, most positioning strategies are based not on inimitable points of difference, but on easily copied points of parity. This is because the leaders of David Ricardothe firm simply haven’t devoted the time and attention necessary to understand how their brands create value. They simply assume that trying hard and “being your best” are the keys to success.

The English economist David Ricardo is credited with saying, “Profits are not made by differential cleverness, but by differential stupidity.” What he meant was that most business executives simply don’t make the effort to think through what actually may be obvious differences in their business model and value proposition.  

If You Have Admirers, You’ll Also Have Detractors

Because most businesses would rather be liked than disliked, loved instead of hated, they are extremely reluctant to say or do anything that would cause anybody not to like them. But of course, the very nature of a positioning strategy is that your firm is right for some people but not all people. Successful brands are able to plot their position on the spectrum of love and hate. To be on either side of the spectrum is desirable; to be in the middle is death.

Said another way, the brands with the strongest supporters also have the strongest opponents: Microsoft, The New York Times, the Miami Heat. This means you should stop worrying about being pleasing and start thinking about how you can be polarizing—not necessarily in a negative way, but in a way that clearly sends the signal “We’re not for everyone.”  Being lovable doesn’t get you loved. What gets you loved is standing for something.  

The ultimate value proposition is to create a new category that has no competitors at all. Imagine how much success you could have in a category of one.