The Power of Positioning

I’m going to take a break here from what was supposed to be a sequential exploration of the media available to life science marketers and the influence of Highly Engaged scientists.  I’ll get back to that in a few day but wanted to point out that my company has just released a fascinating series of reports on positioning in the life science market.  This topic has never been explored in such great depth and I encourage you all to learn more about our important findings.

My good friend Julian Stubbs once told me, “The art of branding is built around positioning.  Taking a distinct position or territory, making it your own and attracting customers to it.”

Sounds easy enough but one of the most challenging aspects of marketing to life scientists is the high degree of homogeneity exhibited by scientific customers, particularly in the ways they prefer to receive and respond to marketing communications.  Given this reality, a lot of companies have concluded that an undifferentiated, “one-size-fits-all”, approach to marcomm is the only viable alternative and forego any attempt to stake out a unique position that will appeal to a specific group of scientific customers.

But even in homogeneous market, a positioning strategy based on segmentation can still play a vital role.  One important approach is to employ “value-based” segmentation.  Value-based segmentation most often seeks to identify product attributes deemed most important to customers and subsequently promote these benefits in marketing communications.  We often use sophisticated statistical methodologies such as conjoint or latent-class analyses can be used to classify customers based on values, needs, and attitudes; and they can also organize like-minded buyers into groups such as price-, service-, and quality-oriented segments.

We use these and other techniques to help our clients fully explore the ideal positioning possibilities for their brand.  I like to point out that positioning occurs in the minds of the customers and isn’t based on the actual attributes of a brand or product, but in the perceived attributes relative to competitors.  By focusing on understanding customers’ perceptions, impressions and feelings, our clients are better able to determine what approaches should be pursued.  This is because positioning issues are especially critical when customers and competitors in a market appear to be very similar.  For example, if three companies with similar products for studying protein interactions were to each survey a statistically valid sample of scientists engaged in proteomics they would likely discover that the participants in each survey would rank the value of product attributes in exactly the same order.  These companies would probably then find themselves developing marketing materials with similar, if not identical, messages with little chance of establishing a competitive advantage.  Understanding how the same customers perceived the relative advantages of each company’s brand, however, might yield significantly different results and more useful insights.  Company A might be perceived to be superior in “price,” whereas Company B is superior in “speed” and Company C in “support.”  Each company could then develop a segmentation strategy designed to enhance perceptions of leadership in areas where it is strong, while also using skillful communications to shape perceptions over time.  When this happens, target customers view the company’s position in the market as uniquely suited to their preferences and needs.

Julian and I have discussed this many times and we’ve concluded that at a lot of companies the challenge with true positioning is that it will raise some uncomfortable internal issues within most companies.  By standing for something, it often means you can’t stand for other things or indeed everything.  And ideally you want to be able to focus your positioning down even to a single phrase or even word.  Julian always points to the classic analogy: “Ask a thousand Volvo owners why they buy Volvo and you’ll get a pretty uniform response. Safety. Volvo owns the word safety. That doesn’t mean to say Volvo doesn’t make well designed cars or even fast cars but it does show that at the end of the day the value that Volvo most wants to be associated with they dominate.” That’s the power of positioning. And relatively few life science companies utilize it or even come close to it.