Market Positioning: Who is your product for?


Is your product or business struggling to find more customers? In this post, we’ll find out how to identify the right customer base and convince them to try your product.


In the 1970s and 80s, Jack Trout and Al Ries began developing their theory of “positioning.” It’s a commonplace phrase in marketing today, but back then it was a revolution. Nowadays, we hear the phrase so often, we have forgotten what it originally meant.

 Al Ries’ and Jack Trout’s classic book on positioning.

Al Ries’ and Jack Trout’s classic book on positioning.

At its most basic, Trout and Ries suggest that a brand’s position is the way the prospect considers it in their minds, in opposition to its competitors. That is, you see Pepsi as opposed to Coke. Apple as opposed Google (or Microsoft a few years ago). Or brand new product X, as opposed to nothing at all.

By seeing your brand as opposed to a competitor, you are able to see how you can beat them—what they stand for versus what you stand for.

Where they are weak, and you are strong.

This is important because, unless you are the leader in a category, you want to grow your portion of the pie, instead of growing the category. It is far more cost effective to convince someone who is already in the market to try your product over a competitor’s, and far more expensive to convince someone to enter the market for the first time. So leave “growing the pie” to the top dog. He or she grows the pie, you keep stealing bites.

Having a unique position is what convinces someone to try your product instead of a competitor’s after they’ve entered the market—your product or business speaks to them in a way that the competition doesn’t.

To give a brief and easy example: everything an Apple fan says they don’t like about Google is exactly what Google fans like. And vice versa. It’s not about comparative advertising or being negative, it’s about having a point of view and sticking to it. It’s about doing the same things in different ways.

‘Fight fire with fire’ is the old cliché. But as the late Howard Gossage used to say, ‘That’s silly. You fight fire with water.’
— Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind by Trout & Ries


A more common and simpler description of positioning was coined by David Ogilvy: “What the product does, and who it is for.”

It’s not a complete description, but its a great place to start.

It’s often easier to think about “what it is”—the invention—the cool thing we’re working on that we want people to see. Or the idea we’ve had that we can to turn into a business. But “who it is for” is equally important.

Because without an audience, you have an invention, not a product. Which means, finding a target audience for your invention is what turns it into a product.

If we want more sales, if we want to grow the market, if we want to increase brand share, it has to come from somewhere else. When was the last time you saw a brief that identified where we’d be taking sales from? We talk about branding and hope it will act like a magnet. Magically attracting people from somewhere. Like moths to a flame.
— Predatory Thinking by Dave Trott

But as we know, having a product doesn’t necessarily mean you have business. A product only requires an audience—a free app that has millions of users but no revenue isn’t a business, it’s an invention with an audience.

A business requires a market or a subcategory within a market—a group of people who have a demonstrated willingness to pay for what you are offering them.

So that means, having a market is what turns a product into a business.

So Ogilvy’s description of positioning has gotten us from an invention to a product to a business—but now we need to get people in our target audience to actually buy what we’re selling. Which means there’s still some positioning work yet to be done.

We need to express why people should buy our product instead of another one. Or our product instead of buying nothing at all.

Expressing why your product is uniquely suited to your target market’s needs is a position.

A lot goes into that part—with hundreds of considerations about your brand, your operational advantages over your competitors, threats of new entrants into your category, how new and disruptive your business is, or if it fits well within an established industry.

 Sometimes the secrets to modern day marketing are found in books from 1916.

Sometimes the secrets to modern day marketing are found in books from 1916.

But to get to your position, you’ll have needed an invention, an audience, a market, and a business.

Once you have a real, established position, your marketing becomes easier and more effective. Your advertisements will have more clarity, your website copy will be more persuasive, your social media accounts will drive more referrals. Your business will become more valuable.

It seems obvious, and in many ways it is. But it requires significant, dedicated work. And that’s why it’s so often avoided.

As the titular character in Robert Updegraff’s 1916 Obvious Adams, says,I have decided that picking out the obvious thing presupposes analysis, and analysis presupposes thinking, and I guess Professor Zueblin is right when he says that thinking is the hardest work many people ever have to do, and they don’t like to do any more of it than they can help.


Is any of this truly necessary? If you have a great idea for an invention and are certain people will want to buy it, do you need to spend so much time upfront defining your position? Well, certainly anything is possible, but it seems prudent to plan for success rather than strictly hoping for it. As Ogvily said, “a blind pig can sometimes find truffles, but it helps to know that they are found in oak forests.”

They don’t gather all the facts and then analyze them before deciding what really is the obvious thing, and thereby they overlook the first and most obvious of all business principles.
— Obvious Adams by Robert Updegraff

This form of positioning can be used to turn virtually any invention into a business. For example, you can use it to think about why products like the Segway didn’t live up to the hype. Because the product was kept a secret, they didn’t spend enough time finding customers. They had a huge audience, but they didn’t know if they had a market. The more recent eruption of hoverboards proved a market for this type of invention exists in the mainstream, but the amount that the market is willing to pay for the invention is a lot less than the cost of an original Segway.

 Finding a position can often start by finding a competitive angle in a market you can capture through an operational or brand advantage.

Finding a position can often start by finding a competitive angle in a market you can capture through an operational or brand advantage.

Had Segway realized that their markets were tour companies, sporting event camera crews, and security guards, they could have marketed it to them effectively from the start. From there, they might have created a much larger business. But if they had realized who their target market actually was, they may not have worked so hard on the hype in the first place.

Instead, they thought their market was everyone—they thought their market was their audience—and so they created a product that everyone knew about, and that everyone knew no one else was buying. 

Sometimes, inventions are so interesting that merely giving them an audience is enough—but that’s rare, and never worth assuming.

So we can see that one way to create a business is to establish a market for your invention. But the reverse also holds: you can discover an opportunity for an invention by finding an open position in a market. That’s the web apps that serve a specific customer need their developers discovered (perhaps by addressing their own pain points first, like the origin stories of Basecamp and Slack). It’s also Tesla, creating an invention to address what had been an open position in the market—electric cars that don’t compromise on style or performance.

As Michael E. Porter says, “Competitive strategy is about being different. It means deliberately choosing a different set of activities to deliver a unique mix of value.”

Strategic positioning means performing different activities from rivals’ or performing similar activities in different ways.
— Michael E. Porter

Identifying or creating a position is hard, but by tackling it first, you increase the odds that you’re launching something into the world that people want to buy. Having an audience is great, and having an invention is fulfilling—but chances are you were hoping to build a business.

We’ll have plenty more posts about positioning in the future, but for now, I hope you’re excited to work on your own position, and dig into who your target market really is.

We build marketing plans and marketing teams that get more done, in-house. If you’re looking to turn an invention into a business, check out our Marketing Products.