Positioning-by-assumption doesn't work.

How to avoid losing traction with untested messaging.

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Positioning: “the place that a brand occupies in the minds of the customers,"

At least, that’s what Wikipedia says. And yet… I’ve always thought it’s weird when other positioning methodologies start with competitive alternatives and world changes, before agreeing who the customer actually is.

Most positioning conversations are inwardly-focused on the product, the company, the mission. What we know, what we think, our assumptions about customers and their world. Everything is viewed through the rose-tinted, biased view of our company.

I think this is a fundamental mistake that most B2B startups make.

How is our brand supposed to occupy a space in our customers minds if we don’t know what else is in their heads?

What is positioning-by-assumption?

It starts small and innocuously. The sales rep who’s seen a pattern in their wins. The CEO, influenced by the latest hot-shot unicorn. The marketer, spotting a gap in the market. A technical co-founder thinking their tech stack is a differentiator.

These honest assumptions can quickly snowball into huge decisions that set a new path for the company - only for it to melt away as soon as it meets the market.

But strong positioning needs to be based evidence and insight direct from customers.

The strongest positioning is when:

  • You’ve identified a space in your customer’s mind that actually exists

  • You can build a defensible moat of opinion to own that space

  • That opinion becomes an integral shortcut in your customer’s understanding of the world

Drift is a great example of strong positioning in action:

  • Marketers and sales reps are concerned about the majority people who come to their website but don’t convert

  • Drift says that forms are to blame, and that conversational marketing tools are better

  • Suddenly, it clicks; of course chat is better than forms

  • And the category is created

I believe the strongest positioning happens when you start with your customer. Early-stage startups have the best opportunity to do this, and start right.

Assumptions have a wide impact

I’ve made the same mistake of positioning-by-assumption many times before - including this example, where we created messaging that resonated with visionary budget holders rather than the champions we actually sold to (because we assumed they would think the same).

Positioning that is based on untested assumptions will likely impact the business in the following ways:

  • The positioning team like it, but sales/marketing struggle to understand - so they hook onto one message (probably ease of use or time saved) that they can parrot

  • The majority of the first sales conversation is spent walking the prospect through the message, rather than the proposition

  • Outreach emails become solely focused on features, rather than value

  • Product teams get caught in a prioritization loop, as they can’t decide what to build to support the positioning

Ultimately it sets you further back than before you rolled out the new message - leaving you scratching your head, wondering what to do… but blind as to the cause.

But at this stage, most teams will try to fix the symptoms, rather than the cause.

You’ll re-educate sales on messaging, forcing them to push the on-brand message. Product teams will be tasked with just getting back to building, with a direction to ‘build something small and iterate from there’. Marketing will ask if customer segmentation is correct, because nobody seems to be responding in the expected way.

The alternative isn’t difficult

Imagine the alternative. Your team want to improve positioning, based on what you’ve learnt over the last six months.

  • We start with customer segmentation, and niche down on the market problem groups1 we are going to support

  • Once we have an idea, we ideate on an empathy map for each group. What do they think, feel, see, hear, say, and do? What do we think they want to gain, and what do they want to avoid?

  • Armed with the empathy map, we form a proto-persona - literally a prototype of a persona - that covers their demographics, firmographics, psychographics, gains and pains.

  • Armed with this, we test our assumptions internally - what feels right, what’s not correct?

  • We set up 10-20 research calls with customers, prospects, and people in the market. The conversations cover five areas: segmentation, problem discovery, problem validation, product discovery, product validation.

  • These areas give us a whole range of insights to help us to slightly adjust our understanding, or highlight that our assumptions are completely false.

This process helps us refine our focus and align on a customer. It means the positioning team start from a shared understanding of ‘what we think about our customers’. It means we have created a hypothesis (the proto-persona) of what we expect to find in the market to evaluate our discovery against.

If we skipped straight to research calls, internal teams won’t feel heard. They feel they have some unique insight that’s been ignored - and will be more likely to reject the new positioning.

If we skipped the hypothesis building and didn’t create a proto-persona, people in the positioning team will use their own interpretation (of the customer, market, and problems). Rather than starting from a single, agreed interpretation, you’ll start from many differing opinions.

If we didn’t do research calls, then we wouldn’t be positioning for a customer, we’d be positioning for an imaginary creature that just doesn’t exist. It is always possible to do these - enterprise B2B startups often insist that research calls are impossible, but find a ton of value above-and-beyond the positioning purpose when they actually make it happen.

The best positioning is defensible. When someone asks ‘why message X?’, you must be able to tie that back to a customer insight.

Assume, then test

Assumptions are useful. I’m strongly of the belief that assumptions, gut-feeling, and intuition are internalized pattern-recognition. The challenge, however, is extracting assumptions affected by our many biases from those which are grounded in true insight.

In my work with early-stage B2B startups, we rely a lot on untested assumptions about the world. But it’s important that we learn from real people. It’s important that we learn about their lives, their goals, and what’s going on for them. It’s important that we can find a real space that exists in our customer’s head. Because that’s positioning.


A group of people that have similar challenges that they are willing to pay to resolve