The Definitions of Positioning

To understand messaging, you have to understand positioning. To understand positioning, or any term, you have to define it by how it’s used

A quick note: the actual definition(s) of positioning are about 3/4 of the way down this rather long article (1200 words). Feel free to skip ahead! I first wanted to set up the definitions with some thoughts and examples of why to define important concepts.

Another note, because I often forget this—you don’t necessarily write because you have ideas. You write to get ideas.

This is true for writing a definition.

I obsess over definitions because they are how you describe ideas. The word is just the vehicle the idea rides in.

I’d wager that 99% of you use the idea of “active listening” in your work, maybe on a day-to-day basis. It’s an essential tool for two-way sync’ing complex information, requirements, ideas.

But do you have a definition of active listening in your head without your having written it down in your own words? Probably not. Probably you’re borrowing someone else’s definition of the idea of the word and, more importantly, the idea.

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Sidebar on defining terms in politics. Last week, political YouTubers debated whether a famous young politician was “corrupt.”

The first said, Look at what she did; she is corrupt.

The second said, No, that’s absurd. She’s never taken any money. Where’s your evidence? 

To which the first replied: Corruption doesn’t necessarily mean taking money. I looked it up and the dictionary defines ‘corrupt’ as comprising behavior in exchange for money or personal gain. That’s the point—she’s corrupted by personal gain.

The first then elaborated on the definition of corrupt, adding his own layer of definition. Of course, in doing so, he was reading from a script he’d written.

In other words, he articulated a unique definition to layer on top of “the dictionary” definition of a word. Why? Because corruption is an important concept in the work of a political analyst.

And through this definition writing process, he understood better what the idea meant, as did his audience.

I don’t know if this approach will get you a million YouTube subscribers, but I still think is a good model to follow.

BTW, he was challenged by his counterpartwho challenges you to define your terms, ie, your ideas?

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Let’s say you work for a CRM implementation and consulting agency, and your boss asks you to define “Marketing CRM” for an upcoming presentation. In a lazy state of mind, you go:

“Uhh.. a CRM software product for marketing”.

Or you do what we all learned in school, stuff your thinking with filler and fluff to make it seem more valid by virtue of word count:

“A CRM product that is designed to facilitate integrated, targeted marketing strategy and services.

Unfortunately, however, that sounds like 1000 other lame definitions of Marketing CRM. But there’s a solution to that problem.

First, take some time to sit down and write as much as you can on the subject, so that you come up with good questions, such as:

  • Who is this definition for? What type of clients? What type of partners or other members of our ‘audience’?
  • What definition do they currently work with, and what’s wrong with it?
  • How do our competitors define this term? What’s right or
  • \wrong with their definition?

Answers to the questions will form the ideas that flesh out your definition. Now cut out the filler and fluff. Editing is thinking. You may now end up with some sharp, useful thinking that inspires people to engage with you.

BTW, who is your boss and what does she want? We all have one, in one form or another.

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So anyway.

Now that we’ve talked about the value of defining key concepts, let’s define the one that probably matters the most to most of you: positioning.

Maybe your business, product, or organization is already well-positioned. But is positioning just a “status”? Or is it a status, a mindset, and a series of ongoing projects and processes?

Are your clients better positioned after they engage with your products and services? Can you tell them why they will be, or how to be?

B Lab, the organization that certifies and curates the B Corp community has always had good positioning, in all three senses of the word that I define at the end of this essay. (That’s why I got my prior firm “B Corps certified” 12 years ago.) But do its “Certified B Corps” members have great positioning? Or at least leverage their B Corps status in a way that improves their positioning? 

To the extent they don’t, I think a widespread misunderstanding of what the term means is partially to blame.

I’ve read most books about positioning, including the original by Al Ries. I’ve listened to podcasts on the subject and read articles. I feel that there’s often something missing, though.

Firstly, what is “the” dictionary definition of positioning? Your definition shouldn’t contradict (or ignore) those of the language authorities. Instead, it should layer a shade of meaning on top of the shades of meaning they already provide.

So let’s look at the premier English-language dictionary, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

Like other traditional dictionaries, the OED offers a good general definition of positioning (“putting a person or thing in a certain position”).

But its definition in the context of marketing is dated:

The identification of a product, service, or business as belonging to a particular market sector

This definition is a little incomplete, even when it comes to consumer goods.

And it’s way off in the world of B2B or complex and high-value B2C/B2P marketing.

In the latter world, the term positioning has three definitions because it is used in three separate ways; the first way is the de facto definition of positioning:

  1. Perception. How a particular audience perceives your brand as opposed to alternatives. Perception includes how the audience thinks about it, feels about it, talks about it, and even engages with it financially or otherwise. This is the actual positioning of your brand vs. the desired positioning.
  2. Strategy. The strategic activity of deciding on the desired audience(s) and positioning of your brand. This is an iterative and nonlinear process since desirable positioning frequently changes in response to market changes, including audience changes.
    Note that there’s no such thing as a single “positioning decision”; there’s only a positioning mindset and process. It is a semi-objective decision-making process to the extent that it hinges on basic market economics, as opposed to say, personal taste. That said, there’s some gut instinct at play in positioning strategy as well. But it’s circular, not linear.

  3. Creative Expression. Orchestrating the transition from actual to desired positioning with creative work—ideas, words, images, sounds, or experience. This is related to, if not identical to, Messaging, Content Marketing in Thought Leadership format, and Design Thinking.

The first definition is, again, the real thing—the most important and central definition.

The second definition is what creative services consultants and agencies sell, mostly. The third definition is what they should sell. Or at least it’s how they should frame what they sell.

Have a great weekend, define what matters (: