Obviously Awesome - April Dunford

Created by Medha Basu. This summary was largely done for my own note-taking, sharing it just in case it adds more value to other people. Any errors are mine :)


Key Takeaways

  • To tell great stories with content, first have clear positioning. We can’t write great content until we understand who the message is for, what value we are providing them, and who we are competing against to deliver that value.
  • Positioning is the act of deliberately defining how we are the best at something that a defined market cares a lot about. It’s a lot like context setting. It creates the right context in the minds of our target audience (customers, investors, regulators etc).
  • If they’re not given context for a product or idea, our audience will create one based on what they already know. By creating the right context, we are defining how we are the best at something that your target audience cares a lot about.
  • A lack of context also makes it harder for them to figure out if we’re worth paying attention to. Great positioning makes our strengths obvious to those we want to sell to.
  • Content is how we communicate our positioning. It sets the right context for how our audience should understand our work.
  • Great positioning rarely comes by default. We often fall into the trap of thinking that there is a default context around our offering — that our product is what we set out to build. We have to set aside this baggage to come up with great positioning.
  • The five components for effective positioning are: competitive alternatives, unique attributes, value (and proof), target market characteristics and market category. Relevant trends are a bonus. More here.
  • It’s important to really understand what customers compare our solution with, because that’s the yardstick they use to define “better.”
  • Once we have captured our positioning, write a messaging document. This keeps a record of the accepted baseline messaging, and keeps language and positioning from evolving too far from the agreed starting point.

Related reading

🎧April Dunford on positioning vs messaging (Lenny’s Podcast)

🗣️April Dunford on product narratives

Book Highlights


every single marketing and sales tactic that we use in business today uses positioning as an input and a foundation.

Positioning is the act of deliberately defining how you are the best at something that a defined market cares a lot about.

Want to create better marketing content? Understand your value and differentiators better.

I like to describe positioning as “context setting” for products.

When we encounter something new, we will attempt to make sense of it by gathering together all of the little clues we can quickly find to determine how we should think about this new thing.

Weak positioning leaves a trail—the signs are there if you know where to look.

  • Your current customers love you, but new prospects can’t figure out what you’re selling
  • Your company has long sales cycles and low close rates, and you’re losing out to the competition.
  • You have high customer churn.

Positioning as Context

Positioning products is a lot like context setting in the opening of a movie.

The opening scene positions the movie so you can stop wondering about the big questions of where, what, why and who and move onto focusing on the story itself within that context.

When customers encounter a product they have never seen before, they will look for contextual clues to help them figure out what it is, who it’s for and why they should care.

Taken together, the messaging, pricing, features, branding, partners and customers create context and set the scene for the product.

Even a world-class product, poorly positioned, can fail. In the context of a concert hall, Bell is perceived as producing something that is very valuable.

Without context to guide us, we would be overwhelmed, maybe even paralyzed by choice.

For people who build and sell things, the frame of reference that a potential customer chooses can make or break the business.

“If you’re a baker, making bread, you’re a baker. If you make the best bread in the world, you’re not an artist, but if you bake the bread in the gallery, you’re an artist. So the context makes the difference.” MARINA ABRAMOVIĆ

Understanding something new is challenging because we don’t yet have a frame of reference. When we lack context for a product, the easiest way to create one is by starting with something we already know.

While we understand that context is important, we generally fail to deliberately choose a context because we believe that the context for our product is obvious.

most products can be positioned in multiple different markets.

But because we never thought about positioning our product deliberately, we continue to believe there is only one way to think about it.

if you were the baker, you might not see too much difference between muffins and cake—the product is essentially the same, right? However, choosing to make muffins or cake results in two fundamentally different business models, with different ways of making revenue.

Once our product is released into the market, we often fall into the trap of thinking that there is a “default” context around our offering. Our product simply is what we set out to build. However, the road from an idea to a market-ready product is rarely a straight line.

Trap 1: You are stuck on the idea of what you intended to build, and you don’t realize that your product has become something else.

Trap 2: You carefully designed your product for a market, but that market has changed.

Markets are made up of competitors who are constantly evolving their offerings, often in response to shifts in technology, customer preferences, economic conditions and regulatory requirements. Sometimes a product that was well positioned in a market suddenly becomes poorly positioned, not because the product itself has changed, but because markets around the product have shifted.

the ingredients are almost identical! But this muffin isn’t positioned as a “diet muffin.” In fact, they don’t even call it a muffin. It’s a “gluten-free paleo snack.”

The qualities that make your product special aren’t qualities that you would normally associate with cake at all. Sticks do not belong in cake. “Cake on a stick” doesn’t sound like better cake or innovative cake—it just sounds wrong. It sounds like cake doing things it wasn’t meant to

lousy positioning makes your prospects work harder to figure out if you are worth paying attention to.

Cake on a stick vs cake pop
Cake on a stick vs cake pop

Great positioning takes into account all of the following:

  • The customer’s point of view on the problem you solve and the alternative ways of solving that problem.
  • The ways you are uniquely different from those alternatives and why that’s meaningful for customers.
  • The characteristics of a potential customer that really values what you can uniquely deliver. The best market context for your product that makes your unique value obvious to those customers who are best suited to your product.

The Five (Plus One) Components of Effective Positioning

“malicious compliance,” meaning you have completed something that was requested of you, simply to illustrate the stupidity of the request.

  • Competitive alternatives: What customers would do if your solution didn’t exist.
  • Unique attributes: The features and capabilities that you have and the alternatives lack.
  • Value (and proof): The benefit that those features enable for customers.
  • Target market characteristics: The characteristics of a group of buyers that lead them to really care a lot about the value you deliver.
  • Market category: The market you describe yourself as being part of, to help customers understand your value.
  • (Bonus) Relevant trends: Trends that your target customers understand and/or are interested in that can help make your product more relevant right now.
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Competitive alternatives

Alternatives to your product can be “hire an intern to do it,” “use a spreadsheet” or even “suffer along with the problem and do nothing.”

The competitive alternative is what your target customers would “use” or “do” if your product didn’t exist.

As product creators, we need to be experts in the different solutions that exist in a market, including the advantages and disadvantages of choosing them.

Our customers often do not know nearly as much about the universe of potential solutions to a problem as we do.

It’s important to really understand what customers compare your solution with, because that’s the yardstick they use to define “better.”

Unique attributes

Unique attributes are capabilities or features that your offering has that the competitive alternatives do not have.

For service businesses—like consultancies, agencies and custom-development shops—the unique attributes are often related to a combination of expertise and experience.

Value is the benefit you can deliver to customers because of your unique attributes.

If unique attributes are your secret sauce, then value is the reason why someone might care about your secret sauce.

Value should be as fact-based as possible. Qualitative value claims, such as “people enjoy well-designed user interfaces,” are too subjective and customers won’t believe them. Your opinion of your value does not count as proof; the opinion of customers, reviewers and experts does.

Target market characteristics

Your target market is the customers who buy quickly, rarely ask for discounts and tell their friends about your offerings.

they are the customers who care the most about the value your product delivers. You need to identify what sets these folks apart. What is it about these customers that makes them love your product more than others? How can we identify them?

Market category

Think of the market category as a frame of reference for your target customers, which helps them understand your unique value.

Market categories serve as a convenient shorthand that customers use to group similar products together.

Declaring that your product exists in a certain market category will set off a powerful set of assumptions in customers’ minds about who your competitors are, what the functionality of the product should be and what the pricing is like.

If the market category we select triggers assumptions that do not apply to our product, then a good portion of our marketing and sales efforts are going to be spent battling those assumptions.

Relevant trends

Used carefully, trends can help customers understand why your offering is something they need to pay attention to right now.

Market categories are a collection of products with similar characteristics. Trends are more like a characteristic itself, but one that happens to be very new and noteworthy at a given point in time.

Trends help buyers understand why this product is important to them right now.

Accounting software, group chat, security systems, networking solutions—these are all market categories. Trends in technology can be applied to multiple market categories. Blockchain technology, artificial intelligence (AI) and augmented reality are examples of trends that are relevant to multiple different markets.

AI-empowered CRM, however, tells us what the product is (CRM is the market category) and gives us a clue about what makes it special right now (the use of AI).

Position your product in a market category that puts your offering’s strengths in their best context, and then look for relevant trends in your industry that can help customers understand why they should consider this product right now.

The 10-step Positioning Process

1. Understand the customers who love your product

Taken as a whole, the customer base often seemed very heterogenous and it was hard to see a pattern in why they chose a product, who they viewed as competitors and what their favorite features were. However, if we sorted out just the best-fit customers, we could clearly see patterns.

The first step in the positioning exercise is to make a short list of your best customers.

Until we have more experience with real customers, it’s better to keep our minds open and our positioning loose, and see what happens.

Your first instinct might be to consider your product and its special features and position around them. Understandable! That’s the part you understand—and possibly enjoy—the most. But that’s a trap. If we start by laying out our unique features, we are unconsciously comparing ourselves to a set of competitors.

The trouble is, we frequently see our competitors much differently than customers see them.

Customer-facing positioning must be centered on a customer frame of reference.

the story in your investor pitch deck may look dramatically different from the story in your sales deck.

Customers need to understand product positioning in order to find and evaluate a product. They don’t need to know or understand that the company is something separate from that product, when it currently exists to sell only one product.

2. Form a positioning team

A positioning process works best when it’s a team effort, ideally from across different functions within the company.

Your goal is to effectively work toward developing a new position for your product that the entire company understands and agrees with.

Positioning is a business strategy exercise—the person who owns the business strategy needs to fully support the positioning, or it’s unlikely to be adopted.

Having someone from outside the company facilitate the discussion will make the exercise much more productive and balanced.

also hear how helpful it is for the facilitator to gently challenge long-held assumptions that seem cast in stone and untouchable.

3. Align your positioning vocabulary and let go of your positioning baggage

The goal of the 10- Step Positioning Process is to find the best position for a product, one that puts the product in the context of a market where it can easily win because the product has obvious benefits over alternatives.

The reality is that most products can be many things to many types of buyers.

Market confusion starts with our disconnect between understanding the product as product creators, and understanding the product as customers first perceive it. The positioning team needs to understand the concept of “positioning baggage” before they can attempt to let go of it. You might find that each team member has a different level of positioning baggage—founders and long-time employees might view the product from the full perspective of its history, while newer employees do not. Start by calling out where your history appears in your current positioning. Is your current market the one identified when you imagined the product? Do you use terminology and describe features in the same way as when you started? Being conscious of the presence of your history in your current position will help everyone be open to alternatives. The most important part of this step is to get agreement from the team that, although the product was created with a certain market and audience in mind, it may no longer be best positioned that way. The team needs to agree to suspend their opinions about the positioning of the product for the duration of the exercise

4. List your true competitive alternatives

Customers don’t always see competitors the same way we do, and their opinion is the only one that matters for positioning.

The features of our product and the value they provide are only unique, interesting and valuable when a customer perceives them in relation to alternatives.

Customers always group solutions in categories, but talking to them about problems doesn’t necessarily reveal those categories.

Understand what a customer might replace you with in order to understand how they categorize your solution.

the foundation is the problem your customers are trying to solve,

The best way to understand competitive alternatives is to answer the question, What would our best customers do if we didn’t exist?

I encourage the team to (1) remain focused on the best-fit customer list and name only what those customers would see as an alternative, and (2) rank the list from most common to least common. This way, the team focuses on the most common alternatives and won’t worry as much about rare ones.

list all of the capabilities you have that the alternatives do not.

define features as something your product or company has or does.

5. Isolate your unique attributes or features

In this step you need to stay focused on features and capabilities (also called attributes),

It’s OK to list things here that some folks on the team might think of as negative.

Third-party validation that your product’s feature is better than the alternative counts as proof.

For service companies, the skills of the team are the obvious choice, but experience with a particular kind of project or company can also be a powerful attribute.

Concentrate on “consideration” rather than “retention” attributes. Consideration attributes are things that customers care about when they are evaluating whether or not to make a purchase. Every product has features that you can connect directly to a goal the customer would like to accomplish right now. Retention attributes are features that aren’t as important when a customer is making an initial purchase decision, but are very important when it comes time to renew. These include how easy it is to do business with a company and the quality of customer support.

6. Map the attributes to value themes

Attributes or features are a starting point, but what customers care about is what those features can do for them.

Articulating value takes the benefits one step further: putting benefits into the context of a goal the customer is trying to achieve.

Features enable benefits, which can be translated into value in unique customer terms.

To group points of value, you need to take the perspective of a customer. What points would naturally be related in the minds of your customers and prospects?


Remember: this positioning exercise is not about highlighting every little feature and attribute that our customers love. In positioning a product, we’re taking the most critical things that make us special and worth considering, and bringing the resulting unique value to the front and center.

7. Determine who cares a lot

An actionable segmentation captures a list of a person’s or company’s easily identifiable characteristics that make them really care about what you do.

A useful segmentation, however, needs to go well beyond demographics or firmographics.

Focusing on a best-fit prospect segment doesn’t always make sense to people who don’t have a marketing background. If I wanted to increase my chances of landing a customer, wouldn’t I want to target as broad a market as possible? The reality is the exact opposite. The broader your focus, the more difficult it is to connect with prospects and convince them that your solution is the best one for them above all others.

Target as narrowly as you can to meet your near-term sales objectives. You can broaden the targets later.

You need to focus on the value points that you listed in the previous step and repeat the question, Who cares and why?

In general, the segment needs to meet at least two criteria to be worthy of focus: (1) it needs to be big enough that it’s possible to meet the goals of your business, and (2) it needs to have important, specific, unmet needs that are common to the segment.

8. Find a market frame of reference that puts your strengths at the centre and determine how to position in it

In the context of this exercise, a “market” needs to be something that already exists in the minds of customers

We position our offering in a market to trigger a set of assumptions—about competitors, features and pricing—that work to our advantage.

By choosing to position within a specific market, you’re giving your prospects clues about what products they should compare you with, your key features, your price and your benefits.

There are a few ways to go about this:

Use abductive reasoning. The adage “if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck” also applies to new products.

Examine adjacent (growing) markets. Another place to look for options is in the markets adjacent to the one in which you have been positioning yourself.

Ask your customers (but be cautious).

If we choose to enter an existing market, we can either compete to win the entire market or position our product to win a slice of it. The “style” of positioning you choose will depend on a set of factors including the competitive landscape and your business goals:

Head to Head

The only case where a company might want to position a new product in a known category is when the category itself is defined and understood by buyers, but a strong leader has not yet been established.

You need data that tells you unequivocally that the market already exists in the minds of a critical mass of buyers or is emerging quickly enough for you to meet your business goals. For technology companies in particular, we often assume our knowledge of technology and trends isn’t that far ahead of average buyers, when it can be years ahead.

If you choose to enter this market, you will have to commit to moving quickly to establish yourself as the leader before someone else does. For technology companies, this often means committing to growing your customer base as quickly as you can, which can require outside funding

Big Fish, Small Pond

The best way to determine if your chosen subsegment is big enough is to determine how many sales you need to make in the next year to meet your revenue goals. If you need to close thirty deals to make your number this year and your target segment has only one hundred businesses in it, you are going to have to look elsewhere. If, on the other hand, you need to close thirty deals and there are thousands of businesses in your subsegment, it’s likely big enough for now.

If the category is not well understood, subsegmenting it is only going to result in further market confusion.

it has to be possible to demonstrate that this subsegment has a very specific and important unmet need.

The subsegment needs to be easily identifiable—meaning if I had to create a list of prospective buyers, I could figure out a way to do that.

The work of this style is first to educate the targeted subsegment about how a general-purpose solution is not meeting their needs. You need proof points that show there is a clear gap in value between the general-purpose solution offered by the market leader and your more-purpose-built solution.

Create a New Game

Category creation is about selling the market on the problem first, rather than on your solution.

If the category doesn’t already exist, it means customers aren’t currently aware that they have a problem. They don’t understand the cost of not solving that problem, nor do they understand the potential value they can unlock by solving that problem. Customers need to be aware of those things before you can successfully convince them to purchase any solution

“The most successful efforts in category creation do not result from company executives creating an acronym at an offsite. Rather they are discovered from deeply understanding a narrow set of customers. These customers are often ‘freaks,’ extreme in their attitudes and behavior, forged by tectonic technological and societal shifts. The category then emerges when and if the freakish attitudes and behavior become mainstream.

9. Layer on a trend (but be careful)

Think of your product’s strengths, your market context and a trend that is relevant to your customer base as three overlapping circles.

The use of a relevant trend is not a prerequisite for success, but trends can sometimes give “boring” products an extra gloss of interest.

Caution: if the trend doesn’t reinforce your positioning, it can also muddy your positioning waters.

It’s always better to be a little boring than completely baffling.

Describing a trend without declaring a market can make your product cool but baffling.

There are lots of ways that throwing trends into the mix can be potentially harmful. Companies can get too focused on the trend to the exclusion of the market, which ultimately leads to confused customers. It’s like describing why you are interesting without first telling people who you are.


Trends can only be used when they have a clear link to your product. Start by making the connection between your product and the market obvious.

Another way that using trends can get you in trouble is if you focus on the trends and the market, but don’t show the link to your actual solution.

10. Capture your positioning so it can be shared

Once you have worked through your positioning, you need to share it across the organization. Positioning needs to have company buy-in so it can be used to inform branding, marketing campaigns, sales strategy, product decisions and customer-success strategy.

After Positioning: What happens next

The most obvious immediate next thing after a change in positioning is to create new messaging that reflects the positioning. Interestingly, however, having worked with dozens of companies on their positioning, I’ve found that before we tackle messaging, it is more effective to craft what I call a “sales story.”

There are already stores full of books that can teach you how to do a better job of messaging, so I will give you just one tip that I think is important: write a messaging document.

Every campaign you create or new piece of material you build is going to have a slightly different purpose and slightly different messaging. If there isn’t one master messaging document that is used as the starting point, your messaging (and often your positioning) will start to creep as messages are built on modified messages in a chain.

A messaging document helps you keep a record of the accepted baseline messaging, gives everyone a common starting point for building specific copy for a specific purpose and keeps the language (and the positioning) from evolving too far away from the agreed-upon starting point.

The addition of a large, potentially threatening competitor doesn’t necessarily mean your positioning should change.

What matters most in these situations is customers’ perceptions. Do your target customers expect this new competitor to be relevant to them? Do they expect a change in the market (e.g., a price drop or a change in expected features) now that this competitor has arrived? If they don’t, then your position shouldn’t need to change.

Government regulations can suddenly force customers to care about features that previously weren’t important at all and can give one competitor an edge over another.


leave you with some key takeaways:

  • Any product can be positioned in multiple markets. Your product is not doomed to languish in a market where nobody understands how awesome it is.
  • Great positioning rarely comes by default. If you want to succeed, you have to determine the best way to position your product. Deliberate, try, fail, test and try again.
  • Understanding what your best customers see as true alternatives to your solution will lead you to your differentiators.
  • Position yourself in a market that makes your strengths obvious to the folks you want to sell to.
  • Use trends to make your product more interesting to customers right now, but be very cautious. Don’t layer on a trend just for the sake of being trendy—it’s better to be successful and boring, rather than fashionable and bewildering.