Protect Your Small Business Market Position

Market positioning involves figuring out the niche your business is designed to fill, and then filling that market position so well that people have no reason to allow any other business into the space in their minds they hold for your brand.

Brands live in consumer minds. But just like you need to find an empty lot if you want to build a home to live in, you need to find an empty mind space (market position) if you want to embed your brand in your customer’s brain.

How small business market positioning happens

When people learn about your small business, they subconsciously slot you into a business hierarchy composed of the following:

  • Me-too businesses: If the mind slot — or position — that you want for your business is already taken, you have to persuade consumers to switch allegiances on your behalf, and that’s a tough job. The best advice for a “me-too” business is to find a way to become a “similar-but-different” business (see the next bullet) by targeting an unserved market niche or providing a differentiating benefit.

  • Similar-but-different businesses: These businesses market a meaningful difference in a crowded field. Depending on the nature of your business, your positioning distinction may be based on pricing, inventory, target market, service structure, or company personality.

    For example, instead of simply opening your town’s umpteenth pizza shop, open the only one in a trendy new neighborhood, the only one that offers New York–style pizza by the slice, or the only one that uses recipes from Southern Italy in a trattoria setting. Your distinction better be compelling, though, because you have to convince people the difference is worth hearing about, sampling, and changing for.

  • Brand-new offerings: If you can be the first to fill a market’s needs, you have the easiest positioning task of all. Just don’t expect that marketing to seize that brand-new position will be a cakewalk. First-in-market businesses need to educate consumers about what the new offering is and why they should care. Then they have to promote skillfully and forcefully before competitors enter the fray.

First-in-a-market businesses and first-of-a-kind products have to market fast and fastidiously because, in the end, being first isn’t as important as being first to seize a positive position in the consumer’s mind.

Determine your small business positioning strategy

The simplest way to figure out what position you hold is to determine what your business offers that your customers would have a hard or impossible time finding elsewhere. Some questions that will lead to your positioning statement include the following:

  • How is our offering unique or at least difficult to copy?

  • Is our unique offering something that consumers really want?

  • Is our offering compatible with economic and market trends?

  • How is our offering different — and better — than available options?

  • Is our claim believable?

Don’t aim for a position that requires the market to make a leap of faith on your behalf. If a restaurant is known for the best burgers in town, it can’t suddenly decide to try to jump into the position of “the finest steakhouse in the state.” Leapfrogging doesn’t work well when the game is positioning.

Develop your position around the distinct attributes that have made your business successful to date. Here are a few positioning examples:

  • Skyliner is a community offering families the finest view in town.

  • Treetops is an inn hosting the most pampered ski vacationers in the East.

  • Small Business Marketing Kit For Dummies is a friendly guide packed with advice and tools to help small business leaders plan, launch, and manage low-cost, high-impact marketing success stories.

See how it works? A positioning statement is easy to construct — just apply the formula you see in the figure.

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As you write your statement, avoid these traps:

  • Don’t try to duplicate a position in an already crowded category. Opening the third shoe repair shop in a small town requires more than a location and announcement. You need to convince customers who are already committed to the other shops that your store is better — because of its location, service, or other distinguishing attributes.

  • Don’t base your distinction on a pricing or quality difference that a competitor can take from you. For instance, you’re only egging on your competitors if you position yourself as “the lowest priced” or “the most creative.” With effort, a competitor can beat you on either front.

  • Don’t hang your hat on a factor you can’t control. Too many resorts have ended up red-faced after positioning themselves as “the region’s only five-star resort,” only to lose a star or have a competitor gain one. Instead, communicate distinctions that matter to your customers and then back them up with definitions and promises.

    For example, instead of making a vague promise about “best service,” Alaska Air says it’s the first major U.S. airline with a 20-minute baggage service guarantee.

  • Don’t settle for a generic positioning statement. Be sure you can answer no to this question: Could another business say the same thing?

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