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Are Product Positioning Problems Really Leadership Issues?

As someone who works with companies that need to compete more effectively, I frequently meet with outstanding positioning experts and marketing executives to better understand their product positioning issues and how those problems manifest themselves in the market. Not surprisingly, I find low-hanging fruit include:

  • Missed sales numbers
  • Increased competitive loss rates
  • Unfavorable analyst and press coverage
Creative Commons. Description English: Antique compass with broken face Date 18 February 2018, 16:04:54 Source Own work Author Thayne Tuason

Causes of Product Positioning Problems

I’m often suspicious of blaming so much on positioning because many other factors contribute to the abovementioned problems. For the sake of argument, I’ll just stick with the positioning discussion and analyze how so many companies get into positioning problems in the first place. Some legitimate issues I find are:
  • Innovative new products by incumbent and emerging competitive industry players
  • Significant changes to a company’s own product or market offerings
  • Your positioning reflects your future roadmap and not your current reality
  • We build the wrong product for the market (no positioning will help)

Who Owns Product Positioning?

So, who owns positioning? Ah, now for the elephant in the room. I’ll give the answer I’ve seen with effective organizations:

Product positioning is a cross-functional team project coordinated by someone with product marketing expertise who can effectively report to the business owner and cross-functional leaders.

An impartial third party may amplify a product positioning or repositioning exercise, but it subsequently needs buy-in from all departments to ensure alignment that makes it stick and work. Positioning is never once and done; it should be constantly honed. The project team should make the call on whether circumstances require new positioning, which should be rare.

Who Doesn't Own Product Positioning?

The board, even if you’re a startup. When the board gets involved with a position project, It’s a sign that:
  • The CEO is over his / her head. An effective CEO would recognize and solve a positioning problem early with the process described above.
  • The CEO isn’t bought into the process. In this case, neither will be other departments, especially sales, who will be quick to blame positioning for any woes.
  • The CEO doesn’t have faith in the team’s ability to execute a positioning project. That’s a far bigger problem than positioning, and effective positioning will not happen until the right team is in place.
  • Some board members may think what worked for portfolio company A will work for portfolio company B.
Boards play an essential role but frequently lack representation from members who actually have positioning expertise. Leverage boards to provide introductions and access to resources, not positioning project planning. However, don’t hesitate to invite board members as observers to a positioning session or two, but do set boundaries because their lofty titles may discourage some essential members of your team from participating more actively. If done correctly, you’ll have a better relationship with your board, who will become better brand champions. And what about your CEO or GM? That’s harder because business leaders, unlike board members, are much closer to the company’s product. The company’s product positioning leader must manage up so that the CEO’s input is taken into account but not so much that everyone else’s participation is muted.

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