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Getting Management to Buy-in On Positioning

Getting Management to buy-in on positioning
By Lawson Abinanti, Messages that Matter

When members of your executive management team communicate with key marketinfluencers, are they delivering the right message? Or winging it? Are your productpeople muttering that management doesn't listen to them - or worse? Ouch!Did I hit a sensitive nerve? If the message that key influencers hear from topmanagement is different from the one going out in the rest of your marketingcommunications, you've got a problem and a half. Not only is confusion inevitable, butyour brass is not going to enjoy being put in an awkward spot.The best way to solve this problem is to make sure it doesn't happen. Adopt apositioning process that includes executive management approval of your messagestrategies.

Building consensus from the top down

Lack of consensus about the marketing message is one of the most common problemsI've experienced in my B2B software career. A president will tell you his or her sales andmarketing teams just don't get it. If only they'd listen to the president. Ask the VP ofSales and the VP of Marketing why someone should care about the company's products,and you'll get two different stories. The top sales person has another great pitch, and soit goes. Sales and marketing efforts are diluted, and far less effective than they couldbe. That's why management approval of your message strategies is such a critical stepin successful positioning.

The ideal positioning process involves some members of the executive managementteam throughout the process, not just the VP of marketing. But inviting them to getinvolved in the positioning process is often an exercise in futility. They are either toobusy, or don't understand the importance of effective positioning, and simply won'tmake the time to participate. Make them understand that getting your positioning andmessage strategy right is about as important as getting the product right. Then makesure everyone in the organization understands the importance of positioning and agreeson what it should be. It's a Law of Nature (well, human nature anyway): approval by topmanagement is a great consensus builder, however it's not a guarantee that everyonewill fall in line. In another column I'll explain how to get buy-in from everyone else in theorganization who uses the message strategy, particularly sales, or your channelpartners.

Get your story straight

Several years ago when I became director of product marketing for an international ERPsoftware company, it became immediately apparent that I had stepped into a hornet'snest. Several members of the executive management had their own "great" storiesabout the company, and its products. Corporate marketing had another story. Themarket had its own version.

None of the stories were terribly compelling. My mission was to significantly improve themarketing effort from the ground up, starting with product marketing. The first step Itook was to hire a consultant who taught our product managers how to position theirproducts using a proven methodology. The methodology was easy to learn, and theproduct teams were quickly in the midst of positioning their products, a process thattook several months because they had many other pressing items on their agenda.As an aside, a typical positioning exercise can vary in length from several days toseveral months depending on factors such as time available, focus, and how well youunderstand your competition and your customers. The latter will determine the amountof time spent on market research. In our case, we sold through a channel, so customeraccess was a challenge. This slowed the process because we couldn't contact customersdirectly; we had to go through the country manager and the VAR before we could talk tothe customer.

PowerPoint for the Powerful

The final step in our positioning process was a presentation to members of the executivemanagement team. They could approve the message strategy, suggest modifications,request that we do more field-testing, or send us back to the drawing board.Each product manager's presentation consisted of 12 to 15 PowerPoint slides thatsummarized the research that led to the proposed message strategy - a concisepositioning statement (12 words or less) and three supporting benefit statements thatunfolded the story in more detail. In addition, members of the management team wereprovided with a three- to five-page document that summarized the research thatsupported the proposed positioning.

Presenting?the Three C's

In presenting the research, the product managers' demonstrated their in-depthunderstanding of the three C's:

  • Customer - what are the target market's most pressing problems? What keeps decisionmakers awake at night?
  • Competition - how do our competitors position themselves? Is there any unclaimedspace we can claim? Or a fulcrum where we can apply our unique leverage?
  • Channel - Are there any problems, unique challenges or special needs of our channel?The channel also provided valuable information for our message development includingdetails of the purchase process and cycles, demographics, sales strategies and customerconcerns.

The presentations gave senior management reason to believe the product managerswhen they explained the positioning process. First, it provided answers to threefundamental questions we had asked in the beginning:

  1. What problem does this product solve?
  2. How are people solving the problem today?
  3. Why is our product a better solution?

An assessment of the competition followed with an analysis of their advertisements, websites and other marketing materials. This analysis resulted in a positioning statement foreach competitor. They were placed on a quadrant, or perception map. Managementcould then see positioning opportunities not claimed by others - the territories still openfor us to claim.

Finally, the product managers explained the last step they took in the positioningprocess by answering the following questions about their products:

  1. What is it? ( Feature and product category)
  2. What does it do? (Advantage and product description)
  3. What does it deliver? (Product benefit)

Often, this seems so basic that nobody bothers to do the spadework needed to dig downbelow the obvious to the true foundation that builds a solid, unassailable positioning.What the product delivers - the key benefit attuned to the needs of the customer - istypically very close to the right position. At this point, the product managers introducedtheir proposed positioning statements and support points. An evaluation followedassessing each positioning statement. Was it unique, believable and usable? Was itconcise enough to be remembered? Did it have meaning to the target market, and couldit be used in a variety of marketing situations.

Make them earn your advocacy

During the positioning process, I worked closely with each product team, which was ledby the product manager. In addition to being a coach, my challenge to the productmanagers was that I had to support and approve the management presentation. Theyhad to convince me before they got to go to the brass. We both understood that thiswas intended to be more than dress rehearsal. I needed to be a strong advocate tostand with the product manager when the inevitable criticisms would come from themanagement team.

Conviction is an important result of a successful positioning exercise. It comes fromfollowing a process, knowing you have gathered the critical facts, getting extensive inputand feedback, and being willing to discover an even better position at any time in theprocess. Even at the end. It is belief?with an open mind.

Without conviction, your proposed positioning is dead on arrival, or not long afterexecutive management tears into it. That's why having a process or methodology is soimportant. It gives you confidence that you've explored and converged on the rightposition, because you can easily explain its rationale. And you already know the answerto that awkward question, "What is this better than?" Rather than just picking an idea -perhaps the latest fad position, like "insight," - you've finished a discovery process,weighed the evidence and come to a logical conclusion.

The management presentations were challenging and fun. Almost every question,comment or objection was answered by referring back to the facts gathered andsummarized in the presentation. The product team also had the opportunity to tap intothe knowledge and experience of the management team. The process had alsopsychologically prepared the product managers. Just as they were never afraid to defendtheir positions, they were also were prepared to discover a better position, if oneappeared. Preparation had typically been so thorough, and the product managers sosure of their work that almost all the work was approved in a single meeting.Of course, some went more smoothly than others. One in particular stood out. We couldalways count on the Vice President of Sales to challenge our work. In this case, he wasparticularly vociferous, tossing one challenge after the other for more than 45 minutes.Each challenge was handled adeptly by the product manager, and finally, the VP of Salesgave in. The product manager got her approval. As she left, she walked by the VP,patted him on the shoulder, as if to say, "good try. It's been fun."

All together now?

There's no doubt that following this process, the VP of Sales and the entire managementteam were highly aware of the positioning of her product and the others presented thatday. And I think it is safe to say that if they needed to talk about a product, do apresentation, or discuss new product features with analysts or the media, they knewwhere to start - with the product managers, their positioning statements and theirmessage strategies.

Members of the management team communicate regularly with important marketinfluencers, including financial analysts, industry analysts and media, all of whom needto hear the same coherent message - a concise, compelling reason for why they shouldinvest, recommend or write about your company, its products and services.By gaining management's participation in the process and ultimately their buy-in, yousolve one of the biggest problems in successfully positioning your products, services andthe company. Management is primed to deliver the approved message strategies insteadof inventing their own. Everyone stays on message for maximum marketing and saleseffectiveness - as well as for consensus, direction and peace within the company.The process can be daunting at times, but the outcome - delivering a consistent, focusedmessage - is the easiest way to improve your overall marketing effectiveness. Try it.

About the author: Lawson Abinanti is co-founder of Messages that Matter, a consulting firm that helps B2B software companies create compelling message strategies that build awareness and demand. Messages that Matter gives clients the knowledge and tools to develop powerful message strategies that differentiate products and services from those of the competition. Lawson has held strategic marketing positions with several B2B software companies including Navision, Applix, TM1 Software and Timeline. He can be reached at [email protected]. ©Messages That Matter, Inc.
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