Thursday, October 08, 2020

Obviously Awesome Book Review

I typically read 6-12 books a year but tend to add 12-24 books to my reading list a year.

As a result, my reading list contains 172 books... And another list of 34 books that are "no longer on my reading list, but I don't want to forget about permanently." To make it worse, almost 100% of my list is non-fiction, making listening to audiobooks difficult because I like to highlight and take notes, and then reference what I read later.

As you could imagine, it can be a little overwhelming to chose ONE book to read when there are so many great options. That's why I'm grateful for recommendations from others, like this one on Twitter:

Today the Kindle version of "Obviously Awesome" by April Dunford is $7 and still a massive bargain if you have any interest in product positioning.

It's similar to Sprint in that it focuses on practical, applicable, immediate action steps. It's probably closer to a playbook than a traditional book. For example, Dunford doesn't touch on the research or psychology of why this process works. Instead, she focuses on her 10-step plan to create a product's positioning statement.

What Is Positioning?

"Positioning is the act of deliberately defining how you are the best at something that a defined market cares a lot about." (p. 4) It's a way of setting the context for your product so people can quickly figure out what you're talking about. The trick is to do it from your customer's perspective.

As the creators of the product, we know a lot more about competing options and become proud of our hard work ("adding this feature took significant work! We need to feature it!"), but customers may not know or care about either of those.

Another common problem is that inventors started with an initial idea, but over time changed the product based on customer feedback. That's a good thing! But, the inventor still views and talks about the product through the initial lens, not the new product it's become.

This creates at least two problems:

  1. It confuses new customers because there's a disconnect between what they see and how you're describing it. And if it's not clear, they'll walk away.
  2. Or worse: "Customers who misunderstood your value chose you for the wrong reasons, and now they're trying to recover sunk costs by turning your product into what they thought they were getting. In a worst-case scenario, your development team may spend time building features for these disappointed customers, trying to appease a group that is likely to quit eventually, while overlooking your happiest customers." (p. 12)

The book goes into two more signs of poor positioning: slogging through long sales cycles and customers complaining that prices are too high.

But if you shift your positioning with your customer's perception, all sorts of great things can happen. Here's my favorite story from the book:

"There are lots of examples of products that have historically been sold for one purpose, but as markets shifted, they became better known in a completely different market. Take, for example, Arm & Hammer baking soda. Invented in 1846, baking soda, as the name suggests, was used for baking. The inventors created it in their kitchen and sold it in paper bags. It was wildly popular and the creators slowly grew the business, selling more and more baking soda until Arm & Hammer was truly a household name.

Then, in the 1970s, markets began to shift. As packaged food was on the rise and baking on the decline, sales of baking soda began to flatline. The inventors knew that another feature of baking soda was its ability to absorb odors; indeed, some consumers were already putting open boxes of Arm & Hammer in the fridge to help control bad smells. The company could have decided that odor control was not a market they wanted to be in. After all, would anyone really want to bake with a deodorant? But Arm & Hammer decided to let go of the past and focus on markets where they could be successful in the future. They started advertising their current product as a deodorizer for refrigerators and later launched packaging specifically designed for use in a fridge. Converted consumers were now buying a new box every thirty days. The repositioning drove product sales from $16 million in 1969 to over $318 million by 1987.

The repositioning led to other innovations as well—as Arm & Hammer became known as a deodorizer, the brand naturally extended to products for deodorizing everything from cat litter to underarms.

The starting point of this growth was Arm & Hammer's willingness to let go of their old way of thinking about the product.

Freeing your mind from patterns of the past isn't always easy. Thoughts about the evolution of a product, from its conception to launch, are often baked into the initial positioning. Customers don't have the same baggage—they know nothing about the history of the product when they first encounter it.

Market confusion starts with our disconnect between understanding the product as product creators, and understanding the product as customers first perceive it." (pp. 85-86)

Apple's iOS Positioning Problem

In current events, this is the problem Apple is having with developers and iOS. Apple views the iPhone as a closed ecosystem, much like game consoles: the maker (Apple) gets to approve all apps/games, use their market place (the App Store) to sell and distribute apps, and set all the rules for what can and can't be done.

However, developers are starting to view iOS as an open ecosystem, much like traditional computers: there is no approval process, and users can download apps from anywhere on the web, the app maker gets to determine the pricing model (free, 1-time, subscription, donation) and how payments are accepted (credit card, ACH, bitcoin, check in the mail, etc.).

Developers still view game consoles as closed systems (that's not to say they're perfectly happy with the setup). It's only with iOS that the backlash has started.

The issue is that the iPhone and iOS have slowly shifted over time - based on customer feedback - to allow for more customization, more options, and more features. That makes it feel more and more like an open ecosystem. Yet, Apple talks about and sets rules for a closed ecosystem. And because of the openness attributes the iPhone and iOS are adopting, the App Store rules themselves are becoming increasingly muddy as Apple tries to have it both ways. It also doesn't help that Android - a very similar alternative - has positioned itself as an open ecosystem. This is causing confusion, frustration, and at least one lawsuit from developers.

Apple should clarify their position in the market (closed or open) and then create features, App Store rules, and marketing materials that align with that position.

""You cannot be everything to everyone. If you decide to go north, you cannot go south at the same time." - Jeroen De Flander" (p. 47)

What Position Do You Choose?

That's the rest of the book.

She first starts with the five (plus one) components of effective positioning:

  1. Competitive alternatives
  2. Unique attributes
  3. Value (and proof)
  4. Target market characteristics
  5. Market category
  6. (Bonus) Relevant trends

The book does a great job of describing each component and how they all fit together. At this point, anyone who's taken a marketing class is nodding their head in agreement. Of course, these are the components.

But, how do you identify the right ones? How do you not get lost in the weeds? How do you see it from your customer's perspective? What if, like Apple, you have two distinct sets of customers (iPhone buyers and developers)? Actually creating a persuasive position statement is difficult! Remember, a company worth over 1 trillion dollars, making the most successful product of all time, is struggling with this right now.

To help, Dunford details the ten steps to create a position statement. Here are the steps:

  1. Understand the customers who love your product
  2. Forming a position team
  3. Align your positioning vocabulary and let go of your positioning baggage
  4. List your true competitive alternatives (this chapter was great!)
  5. Isolate your unique attributes or features
  6. Map the attributes to value "themes" (also super helpful!)
  7. Determine who cares a lot
  8. Find a market frame of reference that puts your strength in the center and determine how to position it
  9. Layer on a trend (but be careful)
  10. Capture your positioning so it can be shared

It's a relatively short book, so I won't summarize each step. You should read it. I'm working through these steps for Majordomo and am already seeing fruit from using this framework.

As the tweet suggested, if you're creating products or work in marketing, this is a fantastic book to read. I highly recommend it.

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