04026 Pride, Denial, and Product Positioning

For Product Managers who are have not been through the product positioning exercise a few times, the greatest difficulty about it may not be the effort itself but what you need to do in order to be ready for it. That’s because in order to position your product well against the competition, you need to get past the all-too-natural pride and denial about your own product to a point where you can be accurate and objective about it and its rivals.

Crafting the positioning of a product is an art unto itself. But what holds so many people back is that they can’t even get to a mental clean slate from which to start their positioning effort. It’s human nature to develop a very subjective loyalty to your own product, and you tend to become blind to your product’s faults and fiercely defensive against competitors.

Read on below for some tips to help you wipe that slate clean so that you’re in the right place to do a good job at evaluating your product, your competition, and figuring out where to place your product so that it stands in the best light possible.


Like a Presidential Debate

The campaign for President of the United States, along with the positioning messages that each candidate has crafted, has me thinking a lot about how you can succeed, and how you can fail, at product positioning. The debates are the culmination of this, and it looks like they will play the determining role in who wins the election.

During the campaign, the world has seen George Bush defend established positions without brooking any criticism or doubt. It’s a common reaction to defend your position against all criticism and against all odds. Yet regardless of your political sympathies, you can’t help but recognize the value of coming clean about a painful reality before you can really address it. Bush risks losing credibility if he refuses to cede even an inch in the face of justified criticism.

The same is true for you and the product that you champion. Before you can take a clear-eyed look at its flaws – in order to correct them – you have to let go of the defensiveness.

Them’s Fighting Words

If you want to be able to develop a position for your product that touts your strengths and makes up for your weaknesses, you have to understand what those weaknesses are. That means actually listening to criticism and failings when a prospect or customer tells you about them.

When you hear a critical comment, or just discover a problem with your product on your own, don’t let it raise your hackles. Mentally count to 10. Take a deep breath before you respond. Then ask questions or dig deeper for details. The key is to realize that if you’re busy fighting the idea that there’s a problem, you can’t pay attention to whether there really is a problem, and what it is, so that you can figure out how to fix it later on.

Pride of Ownership

We all have pride of ownership in the company where we work and its products. The sales support professionals who demo your product are no exception. It’s very hard for them to hear criticism of the product that they are showing. But if you can coach the sales support staff to let go of their pride and truly listen to the negative comments, you’ll accomplish two things:

  • the presenters, by listening more carefully, may fully understand the prospect’s objection and be able to counter if effectively by objectively demonstrating an appropriate compensating capability.
  • the sales support reps can become an important source of information on how the product is perceived in the marketplace, including its weaknesses.

With better input on product weaknesses, you are armed with the information you need to position the product to compete more effectively.

Cheerleading vs. Denial

While you want to eliminate denial when you look at your product and its competition, you will unfortunately not benefit by turning negative on your own product.

You’ll be ready to formulate an objective position if you think of yourself as a cheerleader, standing on the sidelines and cheering the product on through wins and losses. Your aim is to remain positive, but you are not required to pretend that your product hasn’t lost a match when it in fact has.

Be ready to listen to the problems and the flaws and the stumbles. But you must still be ready to provide moral support to the product.

Never Underestimate the Competition

Another combination of pride and denial that is deadly to objectively understanding the product strengths and weaknesses is underestimating the competition. We would all prefer to discount the competition. “They’re unethical.” “Oh, they’re just lying when they say that.” “They’re trying to hide the fact that their product isn’t nearly as good.” It’s all too easy to think that way.

But if you want to give your competition a run for their money, you have to start by given them credit for what they deserve. Think long and hard before discounting anything about them: their business model, management team, alliances, product architecture, or sales force.

Only when you recognize your competition’s strengths for what they really are can you figure out how to compensate for them in the product positioning.

Positioning Is About Competing

As often happens with technology companies, the marketing message tends to get caught up in technical product capabilities as opposed to what really counts (like the business benefit). For product positioning, what really counts is not to have a unique position, but to have a position that makes you appear uniquely better than your competitors.

So to start developing the positioning, sweep away the long list of advantages that focus on product features and cool things that the product does. Out of all the capabilities, choose the ones that make you look better than the competition.

You don’t need to focus on the “me-too” features in your basic statement about the product, though you will need to include them in your demos and more detailed descriptions. But they’re not the highlights of your message.

Tout Your Strengths

Take a step back from the many good things you appreciate about your product and find the ones that are competitive strengths. These are those capabilities that you have that your competition, or the majority of your competition, doesn’t have. Ideally, you can find strengths that only your product has. But this has to be an objective determination. Don’t let wishful thinking cause you to devise strengths that aren’t really credible. Don’t lead with strengths that every other vendor touts.

Attack Their Weaknesses

Take a look across all the competition and find the unique weaknesses in each product. (If you find something that is a weakness in all the products except yours, that’s not their weakness, it’s a strength of your own product.)

These weaknesses can be mentioned – being careful not to target a specific competitor too closely – as a list of issues that you see people struggling with when they use similar products to yours.

Fighting a Backstabber

Okay, so we all tend to accuse the competition of being unethical. It’s that loyalty thing again. But what if they really are backstabbers? Then you’ve got a thorny problem. It’s like when you found out in high school that one of your best friends was saying terrible things about you behind your back, and lots of people believed them. You have to take the high ground. If you stoop to their level, you can’t win.

For a backstabbing competitor, let them dig their own grave. But while you wait for them to do that, you can help make sure the digging gets a little boost. Formulate a product position that includes painting a picture of your company as ethical, or trustworthy, or whatever character trait you feel best goes counter to your competitor’s bad behavior. Then, when a prospect listens to your competitor badmouth you, you’ve planted a little seed of doubt that makes them scrutinize those negative opinions more closely.

“Trust Me, I Never Lie”

Of course, it’s not exactly easy to depict yourself as truthful – at least not directly. Would you trust a stranger who came up and told you to trust him because he never lies? Neither would I.

What you’re going to have to do is weave in words about ethics and trust into your conversation as you position your company, but keep them somewhat indirect. For example: “Well, I think it’s stretching the truth a little bit to say x.” “Instead of saying x, I think it would be more truthful to say y.”

I’ve noticed that people who never lie almost never use the word “lie.” And people who use the word “lie” a lot seem to be challenged when it comes to being truthful. Why is it that lying is so often on their mind, even if it’s to deny that they’re doing it?

Here’s hoping your competition accuses you of lying. They’ll only look bad in the end.

Hopefully, if you do have the misfortune to have an unethical competitor, sooner or later prospects catch them at their own game.

And I Thought Marketing Was All Heart

Here I thought that Marketing, including positioning and presenting a company and a product, was all heart, understanding the feelings that drive people, bind them to you, and motivate them to buy. But it turns out product positioning involves seeing things in a logical, analytical, critical, even cynical light – and shining that light on your own product as much as on the competition. And getting to that logical place is the first major step to successfully positioning your product.

— Jacques Murphy, Product Management Challenges


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