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3 years ago
27 May 2011
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On Being the Best

What are you doing better than anyone else? What is your differentiation? When marketing a startup, these two things may be further from each other than you’d expect.

My experience in marketing started with a dip in the deep end as an intern with Trout & Partners. Jack Trout’s core marketing ideas are differentiation, positioning and marketing warfare. Fleshed out in at least a dozen books since the early 80s, these are marketing principles that are essential for a startup entrepreneur to understand. Talk about having a USP is the oft-used shorthand for the combined idea of a positionable differentiation, but it makes sense to look at the concepts separately.

Differentiation and positioning are strongly related. Differentiation is what makes you unique, it is your edge, how you differ (obviously). You can differentiate based on your technology, your experience, your niche market or your location. Features, benefits, quality, distribution can all be sources of differentiation. While it can be obvious to you how you are different from others, you still need to communicate your difference in order for it to work.

And how do you make it work? You need to position your difference in the mind of your target user or customer. This is a fancy way of saying that whoever you are marketing to must understand and remember your differentiation. And this the crux of the matter. 

A great example in positioning comes from one of Trout’s books. Who was the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic? Easy. Charles Lindbergh. He was the first – possibly the strongest positioning you can have. First will never be taken away from you. First-mover advantage is partly based on this, too. While copycats may come along quickly with cooler features or cheaper prices, users and customers still put some value on the first to the game. The value may not be anything else than being able to think that you are going with the original, the inventor, the first, because it occupies a natural place in our thinking. Not many of us remember who the second person to fly the Atlantic solo was.

But we remember the third person easily! How come? Because it was Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. In terms of positioning, she is in a difference category. And she is first in that category. Therefore, if you can’t win in your category, make your own. 

Positioning can be explained in terms of psychology. We think in terms of representation. What is that person or company about? This is the most important thing in any elevator pitch. It has to stick. You want the person hearing it being able to recite it exactly the next day, regardless of how many they’d heard. 

Positioning is often safest done quantitatively. Being the fastest, cheapest or biggest can all work. Having the most responsive customer service can be a clear source of positioning. Solving a new problem is a way of making a new category; solving an old problem in a new way can also be this, as long as it novel enough. Identification with people or symbols in the right context can also work: this is why athletes are paid huge sums to wear a brand. Going for a niche is somehow the easiest way to position a copycat, by the way. “We are like Groupon, but for X” was heard too often some time ago still. Of course, there are genuine entrepreneurial opportunities and genuine positionings to be found in the right niches.

How about being the best? Qualitative differentiation is really, really difficult. Qualitative differentiation basically only works if you are overwhelmingly better than the competition (or substitution), and usually at that point you are doing something so different that you don’t have to differentiate based on quality. You might be the best, but how can you prove it?

Can you give better product recommendations, for example? How do your customers know that? Unless you can prove a measurable difference to customer behaviour or conversion rates for example, you don’t have a differentiation that you can position. Are you the best programmer in your choice language? Are you the funniest comedian? How do we know that? Quality is problematic to position.

You should find any other way to position yourself and your startup. 

Sometimes, being the best translates directly into the best technology – or technique: it is possible that no-one will ever be as good at what they do as Alex Honnold is at what he does. Climbing the northwest face of Half Dome in Yosemite without any safety equipment is pure technique. And quite a bit of nuttiness. But that is what makes him the best, heroically, crazily the best. Being the best is a matter of quality. Impeccable, consistent, single-minded quality. Luckily, if the fall seems all too real, there are other ways to position yourself.

Mikko Järvenpää, Marketing Geek, HackFwd


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