Management should approve your positioning strategies

One way to insure that members of the management team use your positioning strategies is to seek their formal approval for each one. Members of the management team communicate regularly with important market influencers, including financial analysts, industry analysts and media, all of whom need to hear the same coherent message – a concise, compelling reason for why they should invest, recommend or write about your company, its products and services.

By getting management team member’s participation in the process and ultimately their buy-in, they are primed to deliver the approved message strategies instead of inventing their own. Everyone stays on message for maximum marketing and sales effectiveness – as well as for consensus, direction and peace within the company.

The process can be daunting at times, but the outcome – delivering a consistent, focused message – is the easiest way to improve your overall marketing effectiveness. Try it. Here’s how you do it.

Getting management approval of your positioning strategies is the last step in the business process for positioning outlined in my eBook: Positioning – how to talk so the market will listen. Ideally some members of the management team – besides the VP of marketing – are involved throughout the positioning process so you can tap into their knowledge, experience and vision. But inviting them to get involved early is often an exercise in futility until the very end when you seek their formal approval.  That’s when you’ll get their full attention. After all, everyone has an opinion when it comes to positioning especially those at the top.

Get your story straight

That certainly was the case when I became director of product marketing for an international ERP software company 15-plus years ago. Several members of the management team had their own “great” stories about the company, and its products. They differed significantly from the standard materials put out by corporate product management, which were being modified by each country’s marketing team so there was no consistent message to the market. Nor were any of the stories or marketing materials terribly compelling.

My mission was to significantly improve the marketing effort from the ground up, starting with product positioning that was to set us apart from the competition. The first step I took was to hire a consultant who taught our product managers how to position their products using a proven business process, the one I teach today and outlined in the eBook. The business process is easy to learn; the product teams were quickly in the midst of positioning their products, a process that took several months because they had many other pressing items on their agenda.

As an aside, a typical positioning exercise can vary in length from several days to several months depending on factors such as time available, focus, and how well you understand your competition and your customers. The latter will determine the amount of time spent on market research. In our case, we sold through a channel, so customer access was a challenge. This slowed the process because we couldn’t contact customers directly; we had to go through the country manager and the VAR before we could talk to the customer.

PowerPoint for the Powerful

After each product team finalized their positioning strategy, a 12 to 15-side PowerPoint presentation was created that summarized the research and thinking that led to the proposed message strategy – a concise positioning statement (12 words or less) and three support points that unfolded the story in more detail. In addition, members of the management team were provided with a three- to five-page document that summarized the research that supported the proposed positioning strategy.

Presenting…the Three C’s

In presenting the research, the product managers’ demonstrated their in-depth understanding of the three C’s:

  • Customer – what are the target market’s most pressing problems? What keeps decision makers awake at night?
  • Competition – how do our competitors position themselves? Is there any unclaimed space we can claim?
  • Channel – Are there any problems, unique challenges or special needs of our channel? The channel also provided valuable information for our message strategy development including details of the purchase process, demographics, sales strategies and customer concerns.

The presentations took management through the positioning process, step-by-step. First, product managers presented answers to three fundamental questions we had asked at the beginning of the brain storming process:

  • What problem does this product solve?
  • How are prospects solving the problem today?
  • Why is our product a better solution?

An assessment of the competition followed with an analysis of their advertisements, web sites and other marketing materials. This analysis resulted in a positioning statement for each competitor. They were placed on a quadrant, or perceptual map. Management could then see positioning opportunities not claimed by others – the territories still open for us to claim.

Finally, the product managers explained the last step they took in the positioning process by answering the following questions about their products:

  • What is it? ( Features and product category)
  • What does it do? (Advantage and product description)
  • What does it deliver? (Product benefit)

What the product delivers – the key benefit attuned to the needs of the customer – is typically very close to the right position. At this point, the product managers introduced their proposed positioning statements and support points. An evaluation followed assessing each positioning statement. Was it important; did it address the target buyer’s No. 1 problem? Was it unique, believable and usable? Was it concise enough to be remembered? Did it have meaning to the target market, and could it be used in a variety of marketing situations?

Make them earn your advocacy

During the positioning process, I worked closely with each product team, which was led by the product manager. In addition to being a coach, my challenge to the product managers was that I had to support and approve their management presentations. They had to convince me before they got to go to the brass. We both understood that this was intended to be more than dress rehearsal. I needed to be a strong advocate to stand with the product manager when the inevitable criticisms would come from the management team.

Conviction is an important result of a successful positioning process. It comes from following a process, knowing you have gathered the critical facts, getting extensive input and feedback, and being willing to discover an even better position at any time in the process. Even at the end. It is belief…with an open mind.

Without conviction, your proposed positioning strategy is dead on arrival, or not long after management tears into it. That’s why having a business process for positioning is so important. It gives you confidence that you’ve explored and converged on the right position, because you can easily explain its rationale. And you already know the answer to that awkward question, “What is this better than?” Rather than just picking an idea – perhaps the latest fad position, like “insight,” – you’ve finished a discovery process, weighed the evidence and come to a logical conclusion.

Getting management approval was usually easy

The management presentations were challenging and fun. Almost every question, comment or objection was answered by referring back to the facts gathered and summarized in the presentation. The product team also had the opportunity to tap into the knowledge and experience of the management team. The process had also psychologically prepared the product managers. Just as they were never afraid to defend their positions, they were also were prepared to discover a better position, if one appeared. Preparation had typically been so thorough, and the product managers so sure of their work that almost all positioning strategies were approved in a single meeting.

Of course, some went more smoothly than others. One in particular stood out. We could always count on the vice president of sales to challenge our work. In this case, he was particularly vociferous, tossing one challenge after the other for more than 45 minutes.

Each challenge was handled adeptly by the product manager, and finally, the VP of sales gave in. The product manager got her approval. As she left, she walked by the VP, patted him on the shoulder, as if to say, “good try. It’s been fun.”

All together now…

There’s no doubt that because of the approval process the VP of sales and the entire management team were highly aware of the positioning strategy for her product and the others approved that day. And I think it is safe to say that if they needed to talk about a product, do a presentation, or discuss new product features with analysts or the media, they knew where to start – with the product managers, their positioning statements and their message strategies.

Consistent and repetitive execution of a product message strategy over an extended period of time is the most effective way to establish a position for a product. That’s why everyone in your company – and especially management – needs to be telling the same story. The way to get everyone to buy into the approved message strategies is to involve as many stake holders as possible during the positioning process – especially sales.

I write about the benefits of involving sales in the positioning process in this blog. It’s the best way of coming up with positioning strategies and marketing materials that sales actually uses. Similarly, involve members of the management team in the process by requiring that they bless every positioning strategy, and they’ll stay in message too. Get everyone saying the same thing, and you’re on your way to claiming a position in your market.