Take the higher ground: From product to leadership positioning

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As part of our series examining the ecosystem necessary to bring technology to market, we asked veteran technology executive and investor Ron Weissman to share his thoughts on how startups can achieve success. This is the next of his commentaries and we welcome your comments.

By Ronald Weissman

Product checklists are the Silicon Valley product marketers’ crutch. They are so overused as to provide more cliché than caché, as they try “prove” that their product has better features than the other guy’s—as if that’s all that matters to buyers. Myopic marketers often forget to ask whether these checkbox differences are actually important to customers. While it has its place, checkbox marketing often conveys little about the brand or the underlying quality of the vendor – factors that may be as or more important to buyers.

Anthropologists have a name for tech/spec marketing: the narcissism of small differences. “Our search engine works in Hungarian, yours does not.”

Product or company?

Sure, you must prove your product meets spec. But you can elevate the conversation way beyond this and change the playing field from merely positioning your product as slightly better to positioning your company as doing something important. Outclass the competition; let them brand themselves as engineering-driven while you position yourself as a company that matters to customers.

Real world success

Planview is a great example of what can happen when you systematically elevate the conversation from features to company excellence. It launched a best practices initiative several years ago called Prisms.

Rather than focus end-user training around narrow product and GUI training, Planview educates users about best practices in managing an IT department, based on the experiences of hundreds of customers. Of course, Planview’s software is critical to implementing best practices, but the focus of the training became excellence in IT. Over time, Planview’s reputation and community grew to such an extent that it is now Gartner’s Magic Quadrant leader in enterprise portfolio management, to a great degree because of the integration of its best practice philosophy into every aspect of its software, training and company identity. Planview’s customers know that if they use Planview’s products, they will have a better performing IT department. And that’s all that really matters.

Based on whether your product is a technical or a lifestyle product and whether you are marketing to business buyers or consumers, there are a variety of ways to take the higher ground:

  • Educate the market in industry best practices, highlighting what your best customers are achieving with your product to enhance their performance, as Planview does.
  • Become a trusted source for information about your market or industry, not just your company. Launch a vendor-neutral market information site.
  • Promote your product’s longer-term social value, as supply chain vendor Plex does, by demonstrating how its solution safeguards the integrity of the food supply chain.
  • Focus on helping your customers’ realize their personal or career goals and objectives, the way Host Analytics helps CFOs gain a “seat at the table” in core decision making, well beyond the traditional role of the CFO.
  • Link your company to broader social campaigns, such as whiteboard vendor Promethean‘s focus on improving educational achievement, particularly in minority communities.
  • Transform an ordinary consumer good into a technically advanced lifestyle product as Camelbak does, turning bottled water into a sophisticated solution promoting “hydration” as a way of improving athletic performance. Camelbak has also linked its company’s brand to broader social campaigns to promote water purity and safety.

Takeaways

  • Think outside the (product) box. Change the playing field from product features to company brand. Focus marketing campaigns on your company’s market success and its core values, not just on head to head product comparisons.
  • Take every opportunity to position your company as a thought leader or linking your mission to a broad industry movement, a social good or a universal longing. As the old marketing adage says, “laggards sell soap, leaders realize they’re selling beauty.”
  • Understand that buyers are entering into a relationship with you, not merely consuming a product. Use success stories to demonstrate how you have helped customers achieve their core personal or business goals.

Ron Weissman is a Silicon Valley-based venture capitalist and angel investor with Performance Works and Band of Angels. He has been a board director of more than 25 companies and advised more than 50 CEOs and management teams in areas relating to corporate growth, market strategy, business development, HR and finance. He blogs about entrepreneurship and VC investing at www.perworks.com/weissman

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