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Stand out or blend in: Founders’ guide to positioning and messaging

March 11, 2024
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Understanding how to effectively position and message your product or service can be the difference between blending in and standing out.

Recently, we had the privilege of hosting a workshop with Vassilena Valchanova, a seasoned expert in marketing strategy, content marketing, and brand messaging. Vassi shared her wisdom with our portfolio founders, offering a treasure trove of insights on how to carve out a unique space in the market for their products. 

Here’s a distilled guide to help early-stage founders navigate the nuances of positioning and brand messaging.

The spectrum of brand communication

At the outset, Vassi draws a conceptual spectrum: positioning, the internal compass of your brand, anchors one end, defining your product’s market fit, customer identification, competitive landscape, and unique value proposition. The other end is occupied by copywriting, the external expression that makes your brand’s voice resonate in the marketplace. Bridging these two is messaging, a crucial intermediary translating your internal positioning into external narratives that connect with your audience.

What positioning is (not)?

At its core, positioning is a strategic exercise that aims to answer all foundational questions of your company. This exercise culminates in a crystallized understanding and strategy that then influences every marketing decision you make.

“Positioning is all about where your product fits in the market. From the market category you're in and your direct competitors, to the customers that fit your type of solution and the differentiators that you have which bring unique value to those customers.”
Vassilena Valchanova

A common mix up arises between positioning and messaging, yet they serve distinct purposes. Messaging is the articulation of your positioning, it’s about crafting what you wish to communicate to your audience. It dives into the specifics – the themes you explore, the key points you assert, and the mark you aim to leave on your customers’ minds post-interaction. Messaging is the conduit through which your positioning is conveyed, bridging the conceptual with the tangible, culminating in the copywriting that your audience engages with.

To breathe life into these concepts, let’s consider the comparison between Microsoft Teams and Slack, specifically in the communication and collaboration tools vertical.

Microsoft Teams targets businesses that require a comprehensive suite of productivity tools. It appeals to organizations looking for a unified platform, handling not just messaging and collaboration, but also video conferencing, file storage, and office productivity. Its positioning strategy emphasizes integration, security, and productivity for businesses of all sizes.

Slack, on the other hand, started as a messaging app focused on creating a more organized and accessible way for teams to communicate. It then repositioned as a collaboration hub rather than just a messaging app. To differentiate itself in a crowded market, Slack focused on developing integration capabilities and transforming the way teams communicate. 

In this comparison, the distinction in positioning between Microsoft Teams and Slack influences their product development, marketing strategies, and customer engagement efforts. Positioning, therefore, is not just about the message on your landing page, it’s about shaping your entire approach to market presence and customer engagement.

Positioning strategies

Vassi recommends using two main positioning strategies: competitive positioning and contextual positioning.

“In essence, you can either try to disrupt the status quo and say there's a better way of doing things, or you can say “We're going to fit in the process you're already familiar and satisfied with, but we’re going to add additional value or propose a more productive way of doing things.”
Vassilena Valchanova
  • Competitive Positioning: Here, you position your startup as a disruptor, challenging the status quo with a better solution. Think of how companies like Loom, Slack, and Zoom have redefined their respective domains.
  • Contextual Positioning: This strategy involves fitting your solution into existing customer workflows, enhancing value without disruption. Calendly and SparkToro are prime examples, offering solutions that seamlessly integrate into and enrich current processes.

The process unveiled

Positioning is not a guessing game but a methodical process. You can start by identifying your current or desired customers and understanding the alternatives they might consider. Then pinpoint your unique features and capabilities, distinguishing between what sets you apart and what’s considered table stakes in your industry. Connect these features to the tangible value they offer, laying the groundwork for compelling messaging that speaks directly to your customers’ needs and desires.

“One of the main issues that I see with companies is that from the get-go, they want to have a very broad positioning that can accommodate a lot of the future ICP segments or potential use cases. Rather than doing that, I suggest updating your positioning let's say every 6 months or even 3 months in some very dynamic categories”.
Vassilena Valchanova

However, if:

  • New prospects can’t figure out what you are selling. 
  • You have long sales cycles and low close rates. 
  • You experience high customer churn. 
  • Customers have “weird” feature requests.
  • People genuinely complain prices are too high. 

Then you are probably facing a positioning issue and should go back to the process above. 

And remember – positioning isn’t static. It evolves with time and requires constant attention and adaptation as your startup grows and the market landscape shifts. 

The art of message mining

“There are a few different ways to do messaging research, but there is one commonality among all of them. Whenever you're thinking about messaging research, it's essentially stealing the language that your customers are already using and putting that to work.”
Vassilena Valchanova

This common thread in messaging research is the concept of “message mining“. The technique involves diving deep into customer reviews, social media, and various platforms to unearth phrases that resonate with your audience’s goals, pain points, and desired benefits. It’s about understanding what your customers aim to achieve and how they articulate their needs and frustrations.

One approach to message mining is to leverage external sources. From review platforms to social media channels where your audience congregates, these resources are gold mines for understanding customer sentiment. Whether it’s analyzing reviews on Amazon for a physical product or sifting through B2B service feedback on Clutch, the goal is to tap into where your target audience shares their experiences and opinions. Or more specifically:

  • What’s my customer trying to achieve?
  • What can I help them realistically achieve?
  • And what are the other solutions that they might use to get to that same point?

Going a step further involves gathering insights directly from your customers. This could be through short surveys on your thank you page post-purchase or dedicated surveys aimed at uncovering unresolved problems and specific struggles related to your product category. 

Interviews, especially those structured around the Jobs To Be Done framework, offer deep dives into the customer’s buying process, revealing the triggers and considerations leading to their purchase decisions.

Be an archaeologist, not a futurist

“As human beings, we are super eager to please, so asking people what they are going to do in the future is going to give you unreliable information because they already know who you are, and they would like to tell you something that's going to make you feel better.”
Vassilena Valchanova

A crucial takeaway from Vassi’s wisdom is to approach research with the mindset of an archaeologist. Focus on what customers have done and experienced, rather than speculative future desires. This approach ensures that your messaging and positioning are grounded in reality, resonating authentically with your audience’s actual needs and experiences.

 

 

Positioning and brand messaging are two major aspects we are looking forward to supporting our founders with. Read more about Eleven Platform to understand how we provide value beyond capital.

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