Dear CMO:

Ready for a quiz? Pick a brand at random. Say its tag line out loud. Now, ask yourself whether any of your chosen brand’s competitors could walk up to the proverbial microphone and deliver that same tag line with just as much confidence and justification as your brand X did. Could they? Probably. What a shame. Somebody didn’t do their homework.

Positioning is serious business. How you present yourself to your audience in words and images either separates you from the pack or it makes you a commodity. If you’re positioned right, you’ve earned the right to begin the conversation with your customer. How do you do it? Here’s one way.

Step One: You.

Start with a general positioning statement. We’ve talked about this before. Fill in the following:

“________” is the “_______” that “______” because “_______.”

Do this for your brand. Do this collaboratively with your extended team and your key stakeholders. Hammer away at it until everyone agrees on one statement. If you’re done before four hours are up, you probably took a shortcut or you’re not trying hard enough.

Step Two: Them.

Do this for your competitors, too. How would arch nemesis Acme Corporation write their positioning statement? Spend time on it.

If Nike, or Apple, or Sony, or Progressive, or Disney, or Black & Decker were to “be you” and position your brand, how would they do it differently?

Step Three: Study the Gaps

Look at the differences and understand why they’re different. How are you demonstrably different from Acme Corporation? What are you saying that they can’t? What can they lay claim to that you can’t?

Step Four: Make it Work.

It’s time to lay out your attack plan. You’ve been fair to Acme so far. Now it’s time to kill them in cold blood.

Look at the positioning statement you did for Acme. Squint and look at your entire competitive landscape. Then write everything that’s wrong with them in your own voice. “Their beer tastes like water, only wetter. It has no taste. It has no substance. They don’t make it from the best ingredients. This is disgraceful.”

Next, look at your competitive statement in mirror image, grab your customer by the collar, and exhort them to do the right thing. “Don’t drink that stuff – life’s too short to drink lousy beer.”

Now, polish it by turning the negative into a positive. “Take pride in your beer.”

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Key Takeaways:

> Your positioning should be as unique as your fingerprint. No other brand should be able to say what you say, how you say it, without looking foolish. If your positioning isn’t purely unique to you, go back and do it again. There is something unique to say, even if it’s the fact that you’re the biggest car dealer in all of Death Valley.

> Positioning is more than ad copy. It’s how you communicate in your sales presentations with the three of four copy points you drill into your sales force’s heads. It’s the main topic of your social media strategy, with key members of management, marketing, and elsewhere penning pieces on your and others’ blogs. It shows up in how you choose to promote your brand at the point of purchase. It’s your packaging copy, your brochure copy, your web copy, the hallway chatter, the trade show projections on the side of the Sears Tower, and what the analysts say after you’re done with them.

> You can position yourself against one major competitor — or your can position yourself against a composite of all of them, which can be even more powerful. If no one competitor represents the “worst case” scenario story — but all of them together do — you have a very interesting angle to exploit.

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Oh, how I wish I could take credit for Sam Adams’ “Lessons” campaign. But, I can’t. “Take pride in your beer” began with a spot showing Jim Koch on camera in his brewery telling his team, “Sam Adams is not a beginner’s beer.” His chief competitors, the large breweries, simply couldn’t make that statement. They’d look foolish. It wouldn’t pass the sniff test.

Sam Adams has beckoned its competitors out over the Thin Ice of its own choosing and they don’t dare come out to fight.

Positioning and deadly accurate messaging are the words that animate your strategy. Your entire strategy. If strategy is important to you, positioning is your survival reflex.