After almost ten years of advising creative businesses on their positioning, I’ve looked back to find the five most common mistakes that I’ve seen. If you’re repositioning your firm, use this guide to help you avoid the mistakes I’ve seen and even contributed to over the years.
1. Language over Strategy
When I talk of positioning a firm, I mean 1) arriving at a fundamental business strategy, and then, 2) articulating that strategy in an attempt to position the firm in the minds of future clients, followed immediately by, 3) quickly adding the missing expertise that such a claim requires.
The common mistake is seeing positioning as an exercise in finding new language to describe what the firm has always done. (Skipping right to step 2.) Positioning is initially and primarily an exercise in focus – choosing a business strategy. The goal is to build a firm with expertise so deep that it radically reduces the number of viable competitors. The exercise is one of selecting an area in which the firm will be able to lead some day soon. It’s not to explain what the firm does today. If you are considering repositioning your firm it’s almost certainly because yours is positioned too broadly, so don’t skip over the strategy step to get to language. If you find yourself asking questions like, “What’s the next word for branding?” then you’re not doing it right. Strategy first, language second.
2. Brand over Firm
You position your firm, not your brand. You may build a brand by building and running a firm that is properly perceived to have deep expertise in an area, but in setting out to position your brand instead of your firm you run the risk of defaulting to the intangible differentiators instead of focusing on the only meaningful one: expertise. Many of the brands you work on, particularly if you work in packaged goods, have little real product differentiation and therefore are quite properly differentiated on personality. Creative and marketing firms should be differentiated on expertise.
After you’ve built a firm of deep expertise – maybe as soon as a year or two after repositioning – then you can think about the softer side of positioning your brand, letting your personality shine through. Until then, you’ve got some real work to do.
I really believe that once you build a firm of deep expertise you will no longer see the word brand as something weighty enough to convey what makes you different. Experts think in terms of their practice, their skill sets, their ability to transform organizations and move people. My opinion is the word brand is too lightweight to carry such a heavy load. It’s fine for skin cream, shoes and cars, but in the world of professional services its used only by those trading on personality instead of expertise. Position your firm first; build your brand later. My theory is that if you do the first well, the second will suddenly seem less important. I know many of the undifferentiated will disagree but I suspect few experts will.
3. Market over Target
It’s tempting to want to shape your claim of expertise to cover all the work that you do, but the counterintuitive approach of aiming for a target that is smaller than your market is quite powerful. A colleague of mine recent told me that he was busy doing all kinds of work outside of his specialization. “It’s interesting,” he said, “people are attracted to me because of my different niche. We get talking and they say, ‘Hey – would you be able to help with problem X?’ – something outside of my focus. Because of my background I can do it, so I say sure. So I’m doing all kinds of work outside of my specialization but it’s work I probably wouldn’t get if I chased after it.”
Your claim of expertise should be smaller than your capabilities. A lot smaller. It builds credibility and draws people to you, where a wide claim builds sales resistance because most people know that broad expertise is an oxymoron. You should find yourself frequently saying, “Yes, we can do that, but that’s not typically why we’re hired.” The target is smaller than the market. Aim for the target, hit the market and feel free to take what falls in your lap. As soon as you broaden out your positioning to account for this work it’ll stop coming to you.
4. Likes over Needs
It’s important to like what you do, but the positioning of your firm should be driven more by poorly met needs in the marketplace. If in positioning your firm you find yourself asking your employees what type of business they’d like to work on, then you’re falling into this trap. Look at your strengths, look at the needs in the marketplace that would benefit from these strengths, look for other needs that you might add strengths to help meet, and then after all of this, consider your personal likes.
Your people do not get a say. It is a serious breach of duty to let the employees position the firm, especially on the basis of their personal likes. If we all took career advice from our five-year old sons the world would be flooded with paleontologists. If we took positioning advice from our employees the world would be flooded with so many undifferentiated CPG firms that clients would need “search” consultants to help keep them at bay.
5. Positioning over Product
The mistake here is to think that positioning ends with the positioning exercise. The exercise and the resulting recommendations are just the beginning. I’ve only recently recognized how often I see this occur. The firm arrives at the claim of expertise and puts the words on their website but little else changes.
Product is my term for the collection of skills, capabilities and processes that represent your ability to prove your claim of expertise. The claim is the taking of territory. Once this is done you must work rapidly to build defenses for your new territory, and you do this by immediately asking yourself the product question: What skills, capabilities and processes do we need to add to support our claim of expertise? From there you map out plans to hire, train, partner or otherwise acquire this missing proof, and then you run to get it done.
The race only begins once the claim is made, and the truth is some people don’t have it in them to compete, so they settle for the words on the website. They can congratulate themselves on making a brave decision, but there is still hard work that follows. Positioning success requires both elements: a brave decision and hard work. Your new positioning statement is only the beginning. The good news is you now know the direction to run in, and you are rewarded with the desire to keep running.