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GTM: Why positioning is still queen in 2021

September 2, 2021

Positioning isn't a new concept.

But questions have been raised about the relevance in a hyper-competitive online world.

Thankfully, April Dunford has the answers.

In fact, the Obviously Awesome author says, “it’s the basic input of everything we do in marketing and sales.” 

So if positioning is here to stay, what’s the right way to go about it for your company? What are the differences between positioning and storytelling? And why isn’t strategic narrative a replacement?

Read the Q&A below to discover April's insights 👇

How do you define positioning in GTM?

AD: Positioning defines how your product is the best in the world at delivering some value that a well-defined set of customers cares a lot about. 

The reason this is a mouthful is because positioning consists of a set of different components. You can think of it as the basic inputs to everything we do in marketing and sales. 

For example, if you want to run a campaign, the first questions you ask are:

  • Who’s the campaign for?
  • What’s the value we’re trying to communicate?
  • Who’s our competitor and why are we better?

As a result, positioning can be split into these 5 components:

  • Competitive alternatives
  • Unique capabilities
  • Differentiated value
  • Target customer segments
  • Market category

(We’ll return to these components later.)

Positioning defines each of these and they’re all important inputs to everything we want to do in marketing.

How do you define storytelling in GTM?

AD: Storytelling is a tool we can use in a lot of different ways in marketing. 

Typically, it’s used when we want to say what a customer did with my product. Or sometimes you’re telling a story about the vision of a company. Or maybe you’re telling a story about why a company is a great employer and why people would want to work there. 

It’s not just one story. It’s hundreds of stories that we use across marketing and sales to communicate something about our product, company, or offering. 

What do companies confuse about positioning vs storytelling?

AD: Positioning is a thing and storytelling is one way to communicate it. A good story has a set of fundamental inputs. 

If we’re using classic hero’s journey storytelling, there’s a hero and the hero encounters a problem. Then they find a guide who helps them achieve what they want to. There’s an idea of a successful resolution and sometimes there’s a concept of what failure looks like. But that storytelling structure doesn’t answer the question. 

If the customer is the hero, what kind of customer are they? Who are we targeting? 

The process of putting together a story can’t happen without the fundamental inputs. And that’s why you need to understand positioning before storytelling. 

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What steps do you need to take to effectively position your company?

AD: If we consider the 5 components of positioning, my methodology describes how you can figure out what the answers to all those questions are. 

All of these 5 components are related to each other. So if I take differentiated value, for example. The differentiated value my product delivers for customers is totally dependent on my differentiated features or capabilities. 

And features and capabilities are only differentiated when I compare them to competitive alternatives. So I need to understand what the alternatives are before you do that. 

If I look at who my best-fit customer is, by definition, it’s the person who cares most about the value that my product can deliver. 

The last bit is market category, which you can think about as context for your product. You’ve got to think about the best context I can position my product in; you’ve got to make sure that its value is obvious to these best-fit customers. 

So how do I figure out the answers to these questions when each component is dependent on the other? 

In my methodology, we start with competitive alternatives.  “Competitive alternatives” is another way to define what exactly do you need to beat to win a deal. 

It’s important to note here that there are generally alternatives that don’t look like direct “competitors.” In B2B, we are often competing with spreadsheets, manual processes, or “hire an intern to do it.” 

Once you have defined what the alternatives are to your solution, you can move on to unique capabilities. 

This list will include features that your solution has that the alternatives do not. It will also include company or team capabilities that are unique like special expertise, commercial terms, support features, etc.  

In the next step, you go down the list of each of these capabilities and ask what value they enable for customers. You can think of this as the answer to the question: “So what?” Why does a customer care about that particular capability? 

In this step, we are looking for value themes. Ideally, we want to group the differentiated value list into 2 or 3 key value themes.

Next, you need to ask: What are the characteristics of a target account that make it a great fit for my product? 

Your product is likely valuable to a very broad set of customers, but not all of them care about your value in the same way. We want to identify which types of accounts really care a lot about the value that only we can deliver. That’s going to be my definition of a good-fit customer.

And finally, we can determine our best market category. 

The market category is the starting point for customers to figure out what you are. Are you email? Chat? Team collaboration? A database? Market category acts like context for your product that helps your best-fit customers understand your differentiated value.  

What is structured storytelling? And how can companies adopt it?

AD: There are lots of different storytelling structures for different stories and situations, with the hero's journey being the most common. The hero’s journey structure fits customer case studies well because it gives us a way to talk about the hero (in this case the customer) who encounters problems and then overcomes them to achieve success and avoid failure.

If we think about the story that a founder tells for fundraising, that’s going to require a very different story structure. 

In that case, we’re telling the story of disruption in the market and painting a picture of how that disruption plays out and why our company will ultimately come out as a winner. This is what makes us a good investment. 

These stories are oriented in the future and don’t generally focus on how the company is differentiated from today’s alternatives and the value the product can deliver to customers right now. 

If we’re talking about a sales story, that requires a very different storytelling structure. The goal of a sales narrative is to communicate why your solution is the best possible approach to solving a serious problem that customers are facing. 

It centers on the value customers can achieve with your solution that no other alternative can deliver.  A lot of the work I do involves creating a sales narrative that reflects the positioning. 

My structure for a sales narrative is based on what we know about what customers want in a sales meeting and the data on what successful sales reps do in sales conversations that separates them from unsuccessful sales reps. 

I’ve leveraged the research that was first published in The Challenger Sale but also takes the principals of Strategic Selling and SPIN selling into account. 

Where does “strategic narrative” fit in all of this?

In my opinion, the structures I’ve seen for a strategic narrative seem to map most closely to the structure of an investor pitch. They typically start with an acknowledgement of big changes happening in the world which will result in big changes in the way we do things. 

Naturally, there’ll be solutions that come out as winners and losers in that process, and if I’m pitching an investor you might want to make a bet that we’re going to be winners in this thing. 

The strategic narrative structures I’ve seen should not be used for a B2B sales pitch because they’re missing the most critical elements - competitive positioning, value, and urgency. 

In B2B, by the time a customer talks to a sales rep, they generally have a shortlist of alternative solutions they are already looking at. The sales narrative needs to position your approach to the problem relative to the other approaches they could take. 

Strategic narratives also skip the concept of Customer Value and instead tend to focus on capabilities. Any good sales rep will tell you that customers don’t buy features, they buy the value that features can enable for them.

Lastly, because strategic narratives are oriented around a compelling future that hasn’t happened yet, they don’t give sales a way to create urgency in a purchase decision. I’ve seen sales narratives that are too vision-focused result in customers simply deciding to delay a purchase because the product can’t deliver on the compelling vision today. 

Customers need to understand the entire market and your place in it. They want to understand what their different options are in terms of approaches to solving their problem and why yours is different and better. 

Great positioning defines all these things

A great sales narrative takes positioning and translates it into a story that starts by clearly articulating the problem the customers struggle with, the alternative ways of solving it, and paints a picture of the company’s unique point of view on what a perfect solution should look like. 

Once this common understanding of the market has been explored, the narrative moves to exploring the value the product can deliver (and the features that make that possible), and the proof that the product delivers what you promise.  

About the author

April Dunford is a globally recognised leader in positioning who spent the first 25 years of her career as a startup executive. In this role, she ran marketing, product, and sales teams at 7 successful B2B technology startups acquired by the likes of IBM and SAP. 

April is also the author of Obviously Awesome, which captures her ideas about positioning and a methodology for doing it that any startup can follow.

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