Defining the problem: the positioning statement

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What problem do you solve? Who do you solve it for? What outcome does this problem keep them from achieving? What are their pain points? What makes you unique? Why are the alternatives insufficient to solve the problem?

What’s your problem? Who cares?

Of the many things that one can say about marketing, it is fundamentally about the economics of choice. You have something to offer: you want someone to choose your offer over an alternative. And the first question you have to answer is: ‘Why should they?’

No marketing effort — in fact, no business effort — can skip over defining what problem is worth solving. At a minimum, it means some group of people has a real need; that need is not being met; you have the best way to meet that need.

In marketing lingo, positioning refers to how you describe where your offer fits in the landscape of choices available to a set of real people with a real, common need. A positioning statement begins with clearly identifying those two things, the people and the problem.

Take a good hard look at the notion of ‘problem’. For our purposes, a problem should be defined as a shortcoming in some desired outcome. It’s not complicated; our media-saturated society is constantly making us aware of needs and problems.


  • too slow
  • too complex
  • too uneven
  • too risky
  • too expensive


You’ll quickly notice two things about this list. First, each shortcoming is a negative, describing an undesirable quality, and implying some desirable quality that’s in short supply:


  • not fast enough
  • not simple enough
  • not consistent enough
  • not safe enough
  • not cost-effective enough



Naturally, for each negative (too slow) there is a positive (faster); you probably came up with your own variants. So here’s the second thing for you to note: each of these attributes is a comparison. What’s implied is that some people have a need for a Thing 2.0 is that is more ____, superior in some way to the Thing 1.0 that they have for now.

A note of caution: stating the problem behind the need won’t work if you state the need directly in terms of your offer. In other words, it’s just not useful to say

“the problem is that you have a Thing 1.0, but you need a Thing 2.0.”

Not only does Thing 2.0 need to offer some benefit unavailable using Thing 1.0 — you need to be explicit about what that benefit is, and who needs it.

Why does it matter? This is a classic marketing mistake made by many technologists taking their new offers to market. They assume that the audience for Thing 2.0 knows what will change once they get their hands on it. It’s a two-fold fail: first, because they don’t expose those benefits to people who didn’t know they needed a Thing 2.0, and second, because they don’t learn what kind of value the audience does (or doesn’t) place on that improvement.

One additional note about one reason: there’s never just one need, one benefit, or one person making one decision. Neither life nor marketing is that simple. But you can’t solve for everything all at once; just like 4th grade pre-algebra, sticking with one variable is a good place to begin. And if it changes later, that’s fine too. World domination is not a one-step process.

You talking to me?

Understanding what people will pay for and why is a lot of work, so let’s begin by getting more specific about that. How would you describe the group of people who might want a Thing 2.0 and be willing to pay for it because it is


  • A faster way…
  • A simpler way…
  • A more consistent way…
  • A safer way…
  • A more cost-effective way…


The natural question is, “way to …. what?” A key attribute of tying your solution to an unmet need is to make sure you understand that need in context. There’s an old feminist joke about how “a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.” To be specific about the people who need Thing 2.0, you will have to specify the frame of reference, within which Thing 2.0 will be evaluated.

In the abstract, this might seem a little vague, but don’t overthink it: rather, this is your opportunity to describe the set of solutions to your prospect’s problems which you want to be compared with. (If this seems like stacking the deck or shrinking the haystack, it is: we’ll talk more about category creation later).

By definition, the problem solved by Thing 2.0 for the people who need it has been solved before. The prior solution is of course inferior to Thing 2.0, but in order for Thing 2.0 to compare favorably, it has to be compared to something. This context, or frame of reference, is made up of all the alternatives to which you want Thing 2.0 to be compared. It can be as specific or as general as you want:

  • Thing 2.0 is a Platform as a Service
  • Thing 2.0 is an industrial lubricant
  • Thing 2.0 is a signal calibration device
  • Thing 2.0 is a secure encryption algorithm
  • Thing 2.0 is a high-resolution 3D image simulator


The key complement to this context or frame of reference is the person or organization who actively uses some alternative to Thing 2.0 today, because they need what it can do. Again, the proof of the pudding is in the specificity, not the abstraction: Application developers don’t need a commercial lubricant any more than mechanical engineers need a secure encryption algorithm.

What’s more, mechanical engineers who are making dinner don’t need a commercial lubricant either. Implicit in the description of a user is a relevant activity within which the person can benefit from solving the problem you’ve posited.

What if there is more than one type of person who can use Thing 2.0? This poses several interesting, more advanced marketing problems, such as ‘Multi-Influencer Considered Purchases’ and ‘market segmentation,’ among others. Let’s keep it simple for now: you have to pick one. When Thing 2.0 is compared to its inferior alternatives, you’ll need to define a single class of people who are going to be at the receiving end of your marketing pitch — that group of people who will get the decision made.

How do I know I can believe you?

So far in this positioning exercise, you’ve made a few bets: who needs Thing 2.0, what problem Thing 2.0 solves, what alternatives Thing 2.0 compares to, and in what way Thing 2.0 is superior. Now, you want the prospective buyer to make a bet.

No decision is risk free, so you want the decision to choose Thing 2.0 to be the least risky. To do so, you’ll want to to reduce the risk by telling your audience unique capability or characteristic that sets Thing 2.0 apart from all the others like it.

This justification of Thing 2.0’s superiority is something you will need your target audience to understand makes Thing 2.0 unique. In fact, imparting an understanding of the connection between that feature and the results Thing 2.0 delivers is a critical component of your positioning statement.

Every buyer wants to believe that they are making a rational decision, whether they are or not. This is not about deception; rather, it’s about sharing the knowledge that comes with Thing 2.0 with those who will get it. In making a rational decision, the buyer wants to know that the results of the purchase are repeatable, on the strength of a unique justification.

There needs to be something aspect what they are buying — or buying into — that assures it will deliver the intended results, that reflects some amount of effort put into it. To extend the example (we’ll treat ‘superiority’ as an abstract), “Thing 2.0 is a [superior] Platform as a Service due to its

  • Broad selection of tested functional libraries
  • Seamless deployment model
  • Transparent test and validation framework
  • Highly-granular error messages
  • Secure role-based access control


Note that each one of these nominal differentiated features implies something different about what makes superiority work — and infers that the user will have some appreciation of this specific feature. You now have all the makings of a positioning statement, the working hypothesis behind your marketing.

Putting the positioning statement together

To complete the work of positioning your offer, let’s review the four questions your positioning statement needs to answer:

  • WHO: Target audience: role, problem, pain point
  • WHAT: Category, Context, Frame of reference
  • WHY: Differentiation
  • HOW SO: Justification for differentiation, proof

Let’s consider some examples of how your positioning statement might come together for Thing 2.0

  • WHO: IT business process compliance analysts
  • WHAT: Data extraction utility
  • WHY: Highest long term accuracy
  • HOW SO: User-friendly machine-learning algorithms

Now, how does that all come together to explain why some of those nice people with the money (i.e., customers) might pay for Thing 2.0, after all the blood and sweat and tears you poured into it?

  • “For IT business process compliance analysts, Thing 2.0 is the data extraction utility with the highest long term accuracy due to its user-friendly machine-learning algorithms.”

What? That’s it? How inspiring …. not. Maybe data extraction utilities don’t get you all hot and bothered? Let’s try another Thing 2.0:

  • WHO: Wearable device manufacturers
  • WHAT: in-line accelerometer
  • WHY: most flexible monitoring options
  • HOW SO: built-in computational APIs

Let’s go separate some wearable device manufacturers from their money and ship a boatload of Thing 2.0s:

  • “For wearable device manufacturers, Thing 2.0 is the inline accelerometer with with the most flexible monitoring options due to its built-in computational APIs.”

Great! Go watch the website, and let’s start taking orders from all the wearable device manufacturers who inline accelerometers offer inflexible monitoring options. Or maybe come back Monday morning since so much device manufacturing goes on in a time zone west of here and they’ll be a day ahead of us. They are going to be so happy to pay for this!

What? Back already? The positioning statement didn’t accelerate your early retirement or increase the value of your stock options to you’d enough to pay for upgrading the camera resolution on your quadcopter? We have an awesome solution, we know who needs it, we even told them why ours is better, and they didn’t even ask how much they needed to pay?

Before you get into an argument about whether this positioning statement would work better if it rhymed, know this: you’ve just run smack into the most challenging part of the job in marketing. It’s not pretty pictures. It’s not witticisms. It’s getting those nice people with the money to pay attention.   

This is what makes marketing strategic: if you can get them to pay you some of their attention, in the right time and place, you can get them to pay you that other thing: money.