The answer depends on whether you have a normal or weird business.
Weird: suggesting something supernatural; uncanny; strange; odd; bizarre. — Source: various online dictionaries
I work with a lot of weird businesses. Mine is a weird business, too. Rest assured: I use the words normal and weird in a value-neutral way to describe how commoditized the context the business operates within is, and how conventional or unconventional the business itself is.
Normal and weird businesses can both be great, profitable, satisfying businesses to run. Neither is inherently superior, and the world needs both kinds. And it goes almost without saying that no business is 100% normal or 100% weird — normal/weird is a model and all models are wrong.
The Job of Your Positioning Statement
Your positioning statement has 1 job: to describe what you do and who you will do it for.
We often want our positioning statement to describe how we approach things, but going beyond what and for whom and trying to explain how is asking your positioning statement to do too much heavy lifting.
There are popular positioning statement formulas that include the how element. I recommend starting with a simpler approach.
Do buyers sometimes issue RFPs for the kind of services you sell? If they do, you have a normal buying process, a normal business, and you should use a normal positioning statement.
The buying process for your services might be complex or even tortuous, but if you hear of buyers sometimes issueing RFPs for the kind of services you sell, then you have a non-weird business.
It does not matter if you actually respond to those RFPs or not. The fact that they can be created at all means that what you do is at least partially commoditized and headed towards normalcy.
Clear Positioning Statements for Normal Businesses
If you have a normal business, the format for a normal, clear positioning statement is:
Thing You Do for Who You Do It For
Blair Enns more eloquently phrases this as:
Discipline for Market
Some quick examples:
- Marketing for Manufacturing
- Sales Training for Creative Agencies
- Custom Software for Medical Device Companies
These read like website headlines. That’s intentional because this is the most elemental form for a positioning statement. In conversation, you’d add a few words to integrate the positioning statement into a sentence. “Marketing for Manufacturing” would become “We provide marketing services to manufacturing businesses”, for example.
What makes the positioning statements above clear is that they avoid clever language or superlatives (ex: “world class”).
What makes it difficult for us to avoid superlatives/clever language is that we don’t trust a website headline to turn into a conversation with prospects. Many of us have businesses that were born and raised in a context of scarcity, and so we’re not used to making a purposefully incomplete statement and having the market respond to that statement with interest.
Here’s what we’re used to:
Us: “I integrate narrative storytelling to help startups align around company purpose and get better results in the market through improved messaging.”
Them: “Oh, nice! . . . . . . . . . . . . <crickets>”
Here’s what happens with a clear positioning statement:
Us: “I help startups find their purpose.”
Them: “Wait, I thought all startups already have some kind of world-changing mission. You’re saying they need help with that?”
Us: “It’s interesting you mention mission because mixing up mission and purpose can…”
Instead of crickets induced by cognitive overload, we have a conversation.
Within a mindset of scarcity, every extra word you can cram into your positioning statement feels like an opportunity to win a new client – an angle that might help you win more business. In this mindset, you might try to create a positioning statement that resembles Velcro – lots of little “hooks” on it to try to grab any possible opportunity in the market.
Within the mindset of a successful specialist, every word you omit from the positioning statement is fodder for a conversation that starts with your clear, simple, blunt positioning statement eliciting further interest or questions.
A clear positioning statement for a normal business is very rarely a complete sentence with lots of detail. Instead, it is a cave man grunt that starts conversations.
Horizontal Specialists with Normal Businesses
There’s a variation on the above if you’re horizontally specialized, meaning your focus is on a business problem or platform and you don’t much care what market vertical your clients are in. In this case, your clear positioning statement will be:
Succinct description of the horizontal expertise
A few quick examples:
- Bi-Cultural Marketing Experts
- Monitoring Technology Analyst
- Sustainability Consulting
Few businesses — even normal ones — cover the entire horizontal breadth of the world of commerce. That is why even horizontal specialists can almost always add at least a fuzzy description of what broad vertical market or audience they work with. So the examples above would become:
- Bi-Cultural Marketing for Consumer Brands
- Monitoring Technology Analyst for SaaS
- Sustainability Consulting for Enterprises
The addition of a fuzzy/broad description of who your services are for shunts us right back to the Discipline for Market positioning statement format, and so that really is a universally useful formula for a clear positioning statement for a normal business.
Now let’s talk about weird businesses. Again, I quite like weird businesses. I run one myself, and so you should hear real affection in my voice when you see me use the word weird.
Corey Quinn is a good poster child for weird consulting businesses.
Imagine that you’re a company with 100 employees, and every phone call in or out of the company costs $10/minute. Employees use the company phone system for everything from negotiating hugely important deals worth millions of dollars to supporting customers to calling a plumber to fix their home toilet. The phone bill you get every month lists every single phone call, but doesn’t organize it by the purpose or value of the phone call.
That’s very much the situation with the bills that Amazon AWS customers get.
Some years ago, Corey saw the rising popularity of Amazon’s AWS platform and the related pain of understanding and managing AWS bills. He built a very successful weird business around this problem, and he has two ways of describing the business.
When he’s talking about himself, he uses a job title he invented: “Cloud Economist”.
When he’s talking about what value his business creates, he uses a weird positioning statement: “I help AWS customers address their horrifying AWS bills.”
Could Corey Quinn’s clients issue an RFP seeking help with a horrifying AWS bill? Sure, they could, but it almost never happens because his area of expertise is not commoditized. It’s an emerging problem within an open system, and very few other people who could solve it had the entreprenurial vision and risk profile to focus on this problem.
The non-standard, non-commoditized nature of the problem Corey helps solve makes the buying process for his services non-standard. For all I know Corey may have expended significant effort trying to standardize his end of the buying process, but his clients are likely to have no standard buying process for cloud economist services on their end. The lack of a standard buying process for his services is what makes Corey’s business “weird”.
If you have a weird business, you can and possibly must have a weird positioning statement.
Weird but Clear Positioning Statements
Weird positioning statements can also be clear and easy to understand, like Corey Quinn’s “I help AWS customers address their horrifying AWS bills.” Weirdness and clarity can coexist.
Because weird businesses often focus on non-commoditized problems within open systems, their positioning statements often require more words to do the explanatory work. There are 4 basic variations:
- Problem statement-focused
- Client aspiration-focused
- If/then formulation
- Oddball job title + quippy explanation
A few examples:
- “I help women in the architectural design world get unstuck and start moving their career forward again.”
- “I help art collectors understand how to use NFTs to enhance their portfolio value.”
- “I help SMB insurance agencies comply with HIPAA without doing unnecessary paperwork.”
- “I help new moms live a balanced, healthy life.”
- “I help self-employed software developers get advisory services work.”
- “I help small business owners get at least 30% more for their business in an acquisition or merger.”
- “If your organization has morale problems because of a recent move to distributed work, then my coaching services can help.”
- “If your business is being disrupted by digital natives, then I can help your executives craft a response that minimizes the pain of layoffs.”
- “If your digital transformation initiative is failing, I can rescue it without pissing off the consultants you’ve already hired.”
Oddball job title + quippy explanation
- “I’m a cloud economist. I help my clients address horrifying AWS bills.”
- “I’m an art world concierge. I help high-earning families use rare art both to enhance their home environments and as a smart investment.”
- “I’m a midlife crisis doula. I help male executives navigate the midlife crisis without becoming a cliche.”
Those weird positioning statements are made up, but they’re all realistic. They require and use more words than the normal positioning statements. This is because as a thing commoditizes, it becomes more standardized, and one feature of standardization is the creation of labels we all mostly agree on. A pre-commoditized market has many benefits, but the lack of labels we all agree on means your positioning statement has to do more work to describe the stuff we don’t yet have labels for.
Final Thoughts on Crafting a CLEAR Positioning Statement
Unclear positioning statements come from the presence of scarcity in your mindset. Your positioning statement is not a piece of Velcro, with lots of little “hooks” on it to hook many different kinds of opportunity. Instead, it’s a cave-man grunt that starts conversations.
If you have a normal business, you should have a normal positioning statement. If buyers sometimes issue RFPs for services like yours, you have a normal business, and the Discipline for Market positioning statement is the right one to use.
If you have a weird business, your positioning statement needs to do more explanatory work, and will be longer, more complex, and very unique as a result.
I hope that this article has helped you understand how to craft a really clear positioning statement. If you’re looking for more context and detail on specialization and positioning, then read my free guide to specialization for indie consultants.