top of page
  • Vince Cheung

The “art of war” in assessing your positioning

For over 2,500 years, the wisdom of ancient Chinese general Sun Tzu (“Master Sun” in Mandarin Chinese) has been widely studied and adopted by historians, military intelligence scholars, and business leaders around the world.

For me, when it comes to transforming a brand or product’s positioning, Sun Tzu’s advice in Chapter 3 of “The Art of War” is particularly illuminating:

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” —Sun Tzu’s Art of War, ss. 3.18: Attack by Stratagem[1]

In my last blog entry, I outlined Pragmatic’s Five-point Roadmap to Positioning, which looks something like this:

Developing the Positioning Prism is the most critical and iterative step of the exercise, and is also the most underrated. The process often unravels or dies in the vine when we have not invested in sufficient due diligence leading up to this step. In other words, every positioning exercise should begin with a refresh of knowing yourself relative to your customers, as well as knowing your competitors and how they are evolving their positioning and messages across online and offline customer touchpoints.

Know yourself

Start with what you know from the following three perspectives:

  1. Validate your target customer segments – are they still your most valuable customers? Are there emerging segments given the shifts in customer needs and wants you identified?

  2. Take an inventory of all in-market communications and content meant for the target segments identified above, with results where available.

  3. Invite all key stakeholders across sales, marketing, and service/operations to visually review this current-state, align on any changes or shifts in relative priority among the capabilities and/or product features to reflect what matters most to customers now. From my own experience, this is an often forgotten or hurried step up-front, leading to misaligned expectations and feedback to the output from this positioning exercise.

Know your enemy

Beyond a typical competitive audit, we recommend looking specifically for underlying themes to competitor messages, then mapping these themes along a couple of dimensions critical to determining gaps and saturation in positioning.

In one recent exercise we undertook in the home appliance service plans, we identified two dimensions critical to success:

Reputation Local “mom-and-pop” providers vs. super-regional and national players with scaled operations

Reasons to Believe Those who focus on function and confidence in service quality vs. scope of coverage and peace-of-mind

What we discovered was that all the national players emphasize coverage and scale, but none focuses on the ease and comfort of their service delivery, which matches our client’s key strength. This revealed an undeniable opportunity for our positioning exercise.

Now gear up for your positioning prism

Armed with a refreshed understanding of your customer and competition, it’s time to move swiftly into articulating your competitive advantage with a differentiated positioning.

While we often tailor this process to fit the appropriate brand, product, and organizational context, these four key questions, a modified take on the Product Identity/Positioning Prism, is a good place to start:

As discussed above, this is arguably the most critical and iterative step, and one that we have honed with a combination of collaborative workshops and iterative development.

It is also important to note, as a reminder, that the key messages developed should remain internal. It’s tempting, at this stage, to begin validating key attributes with customers.

In one recent example, a dead-locked product marketing team was eager to test relative consumer sentiment between “affordability” and a “frictionless experience.” Doing so without going through proper messaging hierarchy development (i.e. the next two steps) actually led to further internal confusion and mis-alignment on messaging, requiring the team to “reboot” their Positioning Prism exercise.

Winning the next hundred battles

The roadmap to establish and agree on positioning should ideally lead to 2-3 distinct options for the positioning statement, from which the same cross-functional team of stakeholders can react to and refine accordingly. In his next entry, my colleague, Yuri Kim will discuss how the process goes from here, turning these positioning statement candidates into a consistent, actionable guide to messaging across direct-to-consumer channels.

Contact us to learn more about this five-point Positioning Roadmap and how it can help create the shortest path from your business problem to solution.



bottom of page