In Part 4 of this positioning series, I want to discuss the process of selecting which position to take in a market segment.

There is, in my approach, a Golden Rule:

A strong position is one that already exists in the mind of the segment.

I have sat through numerous positioning exercises, where people delineate the inherent qualities of their products, and then try to determine which positions they can adopt based on those qualities.

Which is like drilling a round hole and then searching for a peg that fits it.

A position doesn't begin with you. You don't define the position you're going to take. You assess what positions exist in the segment's mind and then determine which of those you have the best chance—based on your own strengths—of occupying and defending.

More directly said: The marketplace defines the positions, and you try to win one of them.

Your Ears Are the Best Research Tool

How do you determine the positions your segments have defined? Focus groups? Intense market research? Sometimes—especially if you're trying to enter a new market. But in my experience, there's an easier and more direct way.

Listen to your markets.

They tell you every day, constantly. They tell your sales people. Your channel partners. Your user groups. Your customers. Your prospects. Your competitors. The analysts that cover your marketplace.

Listen to your markets.

A Simple Example

Let me offer an example of this process, using a product category I've never worked with and simply pulled out of thin air for this article: athlete's foot remedies.

The first thing I did was listen: in this case the reviews of products at consumer review sites (a real effort would involve a great deal more listening). Four consistent patterns of interest were present.

  1. Speed of results.
  2. Effectiveness.
  3. Price.
  4. Scope of use.

There were some rogue remarks—non-greasy, odorless, easy to apply—but these were all one-off opinions instead of strongly defined positions in the marketplace. My goal then was to direct ACME to one or the other of these four.

The three major products all go after positions one and two—Strong and Fast Acting. That creates a muddled marketplace with all products vying for the same share of mind; each occupies that position in some area of the marketplace, but none owns the entire marketplace. There is no leader.

And it appears these companies go after their entire marketplace instead of segment-by-segment.

Understandably, nobody takes a Price position; becoming the low price leader both devalues you and can ultimately devalue the entire marketplace.

Scope of Use caught my eye—there were many comments about other fungal ailments these products healed (for instance, diaper rash). This position had a lot of potential:

  • A position that was defined by the marketplace
  • A position that no one was occupying
  • A position that was inherently segmented.
    • People with athlete's foot.
    • Athletes with infants.
    • Parents, with school-age children, who are starting to get other sorts of fungal infections (toe, fingernail, etc.) associated with maturity.
    • People who have fungal problems and who can save money (here price plays an indirect role) by buying over-the-counter instead of prescription remedies.
    • People inclined to want to use up medicines they already have before buying a new medicine.
    • People who have had athlete's foot in the past and have already developed a trust in the product.

And others.

I toyed with a few tactical ideas: a print ad showing a runner pushing a jogging stroller with a baby in it, with the headline: FUNGAWAY CURES WHAT BOTH THESE ATHLETES HAVE. Or a broadcast commercial showing someone looking over the remedies at the drug store, with a voiceover saying “Choose the one that's already worked for you.” Or an article in an appropriate magazine about how a fungus is a fungus and athlete's foot remedies have broader applicability.

That kind of thing.

As with all positioning strategies, at this point “Cures What Ails You” is just a hypothesis. Other issues must be explored: an obvious one being that FUNGAWAY will compete with products specifically designed for diaper rash; further research may show they don't have a good chance of winning that contest.

But we've got a starting point for a strong positioning strategy.

And I think I've made my point:

Understanding the positions that the market has defined and then figuring out which of those positions you can assume and defend forms the basis of any effective positioning strategy.

But does this mean that you can't influence the marketplace so that it defines a new position that you can then assume ownership of? Not at all. In fact, McDonald's is in the process of trying to do just that thing.

And I'll talk about that next time.

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image of Michael Fischler

Michael Fischler is founder and principal coach and consultant of Markitek (, which for over a decade has provided marketing consulting and coaching services to companies around the world, from startups and SMEs to giants like Kodak and Pirelli. You can contact him by clicking here.