Over the course of this series of articles, I laid out some of the basic approaches and philosophies that I take when it comes to positioning in the B2B marketplace. Some of you agreed. Some of you didn't.

That's as it should be. There are no fixed and unmovable rules to positioning—for that matter, to marketing in general.

There are no “five easy steps” to any aspect of it—from writing headlines that sizzle to developing positions that don't fizzle. Marketing is a craft, not a science. And every successful marketing program is made by hand, by talented craftsmen, sanding and sawing and staining a unique creation—a marketing structure—that works for their company and no other.

No rules for positioning. Only logical, consistent, smart approaches.

No rules.

Well… except for one.

Positions must be earned in the B2B marketplace.

In the consumer marketplace, this is often not the case. There, positions are mass manufactured. Pick a position and throw branding at it. Nobody cares if Bounty paper towels are really The Quicker Picker Upper. Or if Coke is really The Real Thing.

Truth is unimportant. It really is, simply, a battle for the mind. Traditional positioning theory works fine.

One of the main reasons it works is that the decision is a trivial one. There is little—usually nothing—at stake when one chooses paper towels or laundry detergent or corn flakes or floppy disks. It's a no-risk decision that people want to make quickly and be done with. They have more important things to do than read the labels and check the Web sites and query reference customers when it comes to picking a brand of paper towels.

B2B decisions, on the other hand, are far from trivial. There is plenty at stake: careers, budgets, political clout—all can be built or broken based on how good that decision is.

So while it's just fine to “pick” a position in the consumer world—and then heave enough money at it that you come to occupy it—that approach is going to get you nowhere in the B2B world.

Positions Are Challenges

In B2B markets, the position you take is a challenge to your marketplace—a challenge to prove that you've earned that position. Here, you can count on the fact that no matter what you say, your marketplace is going to find out whether you deserve to hold the position you're after.

If you claim one of the “customer service” positions (and in B2B, again unlike pure consumer markets, there are many segments to any position), your marketplace is going to investigate. If you claim “innovation leader.” they're going to look. If you decide that you want to be one of the dozens of companies who claim to be the “worldwide leader,” they're going to check that one out as well.

(Oh, are they going to check that one out!)

When they're done with their research, when they've looked intensively into who you are, how you compare with competitors, what customers think, what newsgroups and reviewers and analysts say, one of two things is going to happen:

  1. The marketplace is going to find that you are who you position yourself to be. Good news: you've earned your place.

  2. The marketplace is going to find that you are not. Not good news.

In the second case, the only position you'll occupy in the marketplace is the most heavily populated one of them all: the “Full of Hot Air” position (although I daresay the thing you're full of might change, depending on the vocabulary of your marketplace).

If you've ever been involved in a product procurement cycle where thousands, perhaps millions of dollars are at stake, you know the process you go through. The tactical expressions of a position are guideposts for you, but they're certainly not proofs of ownership in your mind. If a company says they're the “leader in customer satisfaction,” and if you're doing your job correctly, you wouldn't dare recommend them based on that statement. You would talk to the company, ask them how they measure that, evaluate the quality of that measurement, compare it to all the other companies that make the same claim, check references, test it out for yourself.

You would find out if it's true or not.

As I said: positions are earned in the B2B marketplace.

Positions Are Promises You Make

That's the real effort behind B2B positioning. Not “what kind of position should I take in the marketplace” but “what kind of company do I want to be in the marketplace.” And if you're not that kind of company, you have to become that kind of company. Only then—only if you have made the commitment at the highest level to transform yourself into a company that deserves that position in the marketplace—can you expect to have any chance of actually attaining it. No matter how much money you throw at it.

And in the end, as we think about positioning, this is what must be foremost in our mind. Not slogans. Not tag lines. Not logos. But an understanding that B2B positions are promises, not promotions. Promises you make to your marketplace that you are a certain kind of company. That you are a leader, an innovator, a service-oriented organization—whatever it might be.

When you position yourself, you are saying to your marketplace, “We promise that the more you get to know us, the more you'll learn that we really are this kind of company—we deserve the position we've taken.”

Because, in the end, it's the marketplace that drives everything. It's the marketplace that creates positions. It's the marketplace that allows companies to occupy them.

And in the B2B marketplace, once you've made a promise, you have to keep it.

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image of Michael Fischler

Michael Fischler is founder and principal coach and consultant of Markitek (markitek.com), 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.

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