1. Positioning
Josh Grau
Josh Grau
Master Practitioner

Positioning to Win

Going through a positioning process in early innings of a company’s life not only creates better alignment at the top, but it also helps guide better decisions about the types of people to hire, what initiatives to prioritize, and where to allocate budget. 

Josh Grau
Josh Grau
Master Practitioner
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1.1 Figuring Out Your Company DNA
Josh Grau
Josh Grau
Master Practitioner

Josh Grau
Josh Grau
Master Practitioner

Figuring Out Your Company DNA

It’s every founder’s dream: building the next great brand. So to achieve that all you have to do is create the best product or service and market the hell out of it, right?


Not really.


Every company can claim they have the best widget, but that in no way ensures success. No matter how creative and emotion-triggering the messaging, those efforts will be for naught if you don’t focus on branding’s less-sexy—but arguably more important—sibling: positioning. In my time leading marketing and branding at YouTube, Twitter, Wealthfront, and now as the Chief Brand Officer at Next, I've learned just how important positioning is. And how often it's overlooked at early-stage companies.


Positioning, simply put, is defining who you are as a company and why you matter. Determining the answer to those questions (aka developing your own positioning statement) should be an early exercise that every founder takes part in with his or her leadership team—well ahead of any efforts you put into coming up with a catchy, emotionally-charged slogan.


Think of your company as your house and positioning as its foundation. The custom paint, the Juliet balcony, the terracotta roof—that’s all branding, which gives your business important curb appeal. But if your foundation is uneven—or worse: nonexistent!—even the most beautiful structure on top will crumble.


So what should the foundation be composed of? It consists of understanding a number of critical variables, including your business’s category, your customers (specifically, who they are and what their pain points are), and your competition. By going through this process you’ll have an understanding of your differentiated role and relevance in a given market. In other words, you’ll answer those two important positioning questions: who you are and why you matter.


However, a positioning exercise isn’t something you go through once then put it into a drawer to collect dust. The boundaries of a given market are constantly changing, and your positioning will undoubtedly need a refresh to maintain relevance. Think of nailing down your positioning as smart seismic retrofitting to ensure your company can take on new market conditions and disruptors (due to new competition, new technology, new consumer preferences, new regulations, etc.) on solid ground.


One of the premier gurus on positioning, Andy Cunningham, believes how you position yourself is based on your “corporate DNA”. She posits that, just as people are distinct from each other due to their unique DNA makeup, companies (made up of people!) are distinguishable in a similar way. According to Andy, there are three types of companies in the world, each with their own unique “DNA”: mothers, mechanics, and missionaries. Mothers are customer-oriented companies, mechanics are product-oriented, and missionaries are concept-oriented companies. Here are a few examples:


  • Nordstrom’s is a classic example of a “mother”. From their lenient, hassle-free return policy to small details like walking your bagged purchase around the counter to you (versus just handing it across), they are all about the customer experience.
  • Microsoft is a classic example of a “mechanic”, technology-oriented and consistently focused on building the best products, features and updates. However, Walmart, while known for their friendly in-store staff (and thus easily miscategorized as a “mother”), are also a mechanic. Their long-standing, number one goal is ensuring everyday low prices, and they have become a case study in masterful supply chain management by moving massive volumes of inventory with incredibly efficient operations.
  • Meanwhile, while Tesla builds exceptional products, they are really a missionary brand, due in large part to their over-the-top founder and CEO, Elon Musk, but importantly, because of their groundbreaking innovation that has forever disrupted the automotive industry.


Now, just because you’re a mother company doesn’t mean you don’t care about products or aren’t building the next great concept (and likewise for mechanics and missionaries). It just means that being customer-centric is your primary DNA type. And over time that DNA-type can change, which means a repositioning (or, to acknowledge the other metaphor, a seismic retrofitting) is in order. At my current company, Yext, we repositioned in early 2019 from a mechanic/product-focused company, offering a primary search listings product that serviced few key industries, to a missionary/concept-focused search experience cloud company, with the ability to transform businesses across every industry.  

The decision to reposition wasn’t driven solely by our CEO. In fact, it shouldn’t be just one person who develops your company’s positioning; rather, it should be a collective exercise with key stakeholders across various areas of your company. Having different opinions on who you are and why you matter is perfectly natural -- healthy, even.


In fact, in my last course on positioning for Unusual Academy we took early-stage founders through a simple exercise to determine their DNA type.


Download the Get to Aha! DNA test here and try it for yourself.


In a few instances, co-founders of the same startup went through the exercise during our Academy and declared different DNA types for their company. Does that mean they shouldn’t work together or that their business is doomed? Absolutely not! If anything, it gave them the starting point for a more nuanced discussion. However, ideally there should be at least 60% alignment among the group, and 100% buy-in after that before moving on to the next step.


Determining your company’s DNA and genotype can help you and your founding team determine whether you’re customer-focused, product-focused, or concept focused and help you focus on the right direction for you to go into your particular market.

Tool
Worksheet
Get to Aha! DNA Test
Get to Aha! DNA Test
Link to Tool

Test to discover your brand's DNA

1.2 Understanding Your Audience
Josh Grau
Josh Grau
Master Practitioner

Josh Grau
Josh Grau
Master Practitioner

Understanding Your Audience

Now that you have taken a closer look at your category, it’s time to understand who your target audience is. Understanding the problems your user (or customer) is trying to solve and what job they have hired you for is imperative so you can refine the solutions you build, as well as how you message them to your audience. You want to help your user become the hero of his/her own story, and your solution is the secret weapon that will enable them to prevail. But the only way to glean these insights is to step outside and have a conversation. So prior to moving forward with your messaging, try to execute at least one live customer interview. The goal is to uncover insights that are fresh, actionable, and enable you to get to know your user(s) better. The questions should be open ended -- but be sure not to lead the witness! And remember -- they should be talking much more than you!


Download our customer interview guide here.


One way to think about your relationship to your audience is identifying “the job” that the customer has hired you to do. Using the information you gathered in the customer interview, put yourself in the customer’s shoes and fill in the blanks:



The User’s Journey


Now that you understand why your customer has selected you, it’s important to build a complete story of that user’s journey toward seeking out and choosing your company (Later, you’ll use many of these interviews to develop a composite user story):



Now that you’ve aligned on your core as an organization and gotten in touch with who your audience is, it’s time to activate by building out your company story in two ways: the elevator story and the brand story. Together these will act as your playbook as you begin to build the next great brand and communicate its benefits and unique qualities to the world.


You might think the best brands are the ones that are the most creative, but in reality it’s the ones that are most consistent in terms of their messaging. To help you stay on track, refer to the following marketing architecture checklist and elevator/brand story exercise. The checklist can help you stay on track when it comes to your messaging, which is particularly important as you begin investing into owned, earned, and paid channels.


Going through a positioning process in early innings of a company’s life not only creates better alignment at the top, but it also helps guide better decisions about the types of people to hire, what initiatives to prioritize, and where to allocate budget.


And that’s the kind of solid foundation that will build the next billion-dollar brand.

Tool
Guide
Customer Interview Guide
Customer Interview Guide
Link to Tool

Guide for interviewing customers 

Tool
Worksheet
Brand Story Exercise
Brand Story Exercise
Link to Tool

Messaging checklist and exercise to build your own brand story

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