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Rene White (Chasm Group) on How to do Positioning the Right Way

On this week’s episode of ScaleUp Marketing, I talk to René White, a Senior Advisor with the Chasm Group. René works with boards, CEO’s, and executive management teams on business challenges tied to revenue growth, He began his career with the storied marketing consulting firm Regis McKenna, where he worked directly with Steve Jobs at Apple for more than five years. Rene and I talk about what makes great positioning and how to do positioning projects the right way.

[00:00:00] Tom Wentworth: [00:00:00] Hey Rene, how are you? I’m doing great Tom. Good to talk 

to you again. It’s good to talk to you as well. So just give us a little bit of background on yourself and the chasm 

Rene White: [00:00:07] group. So I’ve been with the chasm group for believe it or not 17 years. And before that a decade or so in operating roles at Oracle and a typical software and interwoven three public companies in a head of marketing roles.

And then before that long career in consulting had my own firm for awhile, probably the only thing anybody would remember is that my little firm made the original tracking and shipping software for FedEx which was just, just before the internet. And browsers came on board. And then before that I go, I go back far enough in Silicon Valley that I was actually Steve jobs, his personal marketing guy for five years.

Wow. I don’t think I knew that. Oh yeah. I worked for a little marketing firm that maybe a lot of people in the Silicon Valley that [00:01:00] are slightly older remembering this to Regis McKenna, of course. Yeah. So I was I headed up the applicant and, and my, my role was. Basically you know, market Steve jobs, which was 50% getting them into, you know, the right places in 50% of it was keeping them out of the wrong places 

Tom Wentworth: [00:01:23] as, as, as the role of any good agency with any CEO.

So congrats for 

Rene White: [00:01:28] you. Yeah, exactly. Well, it might’ve been a little harder with him than, than most. Yeah. 

Tom Wentworth: [00:01:35] I just got the chills. I’m a huge Steve jobs guy. And of course we just, McKenna was so instrumental to Apple’s early days. 

Rene White: [00:01:41] Wow. 

Tom Wentworth: [00:01:43] So we’re going to talk, it’s about positioning today. Something I know you’re passionate about. Classically positioning is something I think that’s certainly under appreciated. That’s done almost wrong. A hundred percent of the time. And for a [00:02:00] lot of companies, they think of positioning. They go Google, what is positioning?

They go find some flavor of the standard Madlib positioning statement for target buyers. Your offering is a market category, which provides benefits, unlike competitors who provide competitors benefits. And that’s how they think of positioning, which is obviously wrong and incredibly oversimplified. So for you, who’s a positioning pro.

How do you define positioning and what specific mean to 

Rene White: [00:02:30] you? Yeah, I’ll try to make this as simple as possible because I think he points something out and that is the, the classic definition or the tenants for doing it just, just is not relevant anymore, but you still gotta make it so that it’s it has the right, the right point of of a pointy sword.

So what I mean by this is. You know, positioning should be the essence of who you are as it relates to your market. But, but [00:03:00] notice something, I didn’t say what you do for a living, which is the common misconception or outcome of a positioning statement. Is it, it focuses too much on what you do and really the marketplace or potential buyers they’re interested in.

Who are you? 

Tom Wentworth: [00:03:23] And who are you not right. 

Rene White: [00:03:25] Yeah. Relative obviously, relative to other competitors, people that supply the same thing or similar, and maybe, maybe just as important, especially these days in, in business to business, but I’m sure it also relates in consumer marketing is doing nothing is probably your biggest competitor in a marketplace these days.

Why, why don’t I just do nothing or I didn’t know. I need to do that. Or you know, maybe more importantly why should I care about what you do? 

Tom Wentworth: [00:03:57] Yeah, it is ironic, right? [00:04:00] We’re in sales kickoff season and we talk a lot about competitors. You’re right. By far the biggest competitive loss at any company has, is the do nothing competitor, but no one ever talks about it.

Rene White: [00:04:11] Yeah. Well for, especially for younger companies that are trying to innovate that a marketplace or even create a category it’s incredibly risky for most customers to take a chance on something new. So the answer, the safest thing they can do is chest hunker down and say, why don’t I do nothing? I can’t get fired for that.

Well, let’s put it this way. It’s a lot harder to get fired for that than it is to like take a chance, spend some budget and have it not go well. Yeah. 

Tom Wentworth: [00:04:43] So what makes in your mind, what makes great positioning? It’s easy to point out flawed positioning, but what are the attributes when you do your research?

What are the attributes of really great position? 

Rene White: [00:04:52] Right. So yeah, a couple of things. And, and again, you know, I, I think positioning has evolved greatly since that template [00:05:00] that you talked about. You know great positioning identifies you with your customer’s view of the world and then shows why only you can help them either fix a problem with that view of the world.

The problem they’re having with it, or helps them aspire to something bigger. So today, you know, that really means it needs to be connected to a story, something, something bigger than trying to automate a task or. I, you know, we sell seed on an 

Tom Wentworth: [00:05:30] airplane. Yeah. I think what, what, what we all call back in the day?

Speeds and feeds. No one 

Rene White: [00:05:36] cares. Yeah, no one cares. No one cares. And it’s really nice that you do that. And this, this goes back actually to my, literally to my Steve jobs, you know, era of working with him. If one of the things that I noticed very early on in working with him was he always, when, when we talked to.

Industry analysts or financial analysts or the press, you know, time [00:06:00] magazine, whatever it might be. He always started with why I believe in what I believe. And then he would talk about, so therefore this is what I’m doing. And in that era, it was always interesting. Cause we, we were always running into, you know, and obviously the world knows that, you know, they, he had a relationship with bill Gates and you know, back and forth sometimes really positive sometimes.

A little bit more adversarial, but, but bill Gates would always start with the wet instead of the why. And you know, the, what does, if you start with the what and say, here’s our shiny object, aren’t you impressed, you know, people shut down, but if you start with, I believe in this. If you believe in it too, then my answer to how I’m going to work with that is probably going to go over a lot quicker than my bright, shiny object.

Yeah. And starting with that. 

Tom Wentworth: [00:06:53] And I feel like, you know, Apple’s position of it just works. You know, some flavor of that was, you know, talk [00:07:00] about bill Gates and Microsoft everyone’s experience was, well, Microsoft just doesn’t work. Blue screens of death and viruses and malware and slow downs. And I think that positioning obviously is helped Apple for a few decades at this point.

Rene White: [00:07:15] Yeah. And I, again, I think it’s a, it’s a good example of the real difference between great positioning and mediocre positioning is focusing on the why, why it matters in why should I care about you? 

Tom Wentworth: [00:07:29] How does positioning relate to category creation? So you’re a lot of talk around B2B SAS, these days of category creation, and everyone is aspiring to be a category.

Creator is positioning come before category creation after how do you think about it? 

Rene White: [00:07:46] It’s a really good question. You know, trying to create a category is probably the hardest job that marketing could ever do. And it’s also a long haul, Tom. It it takes time. You know, you don’t, you don’t reinvent.

People’s thinking [00:08:00] about what they should buy or what they should do. You know, in a nanosecond, it just, people just, it takes time and there’s a whole, you know, the chasm group is all about kind of that whole adoption curve and yeah. You know, some people get it right away because they just love fun, new things.

And most of the marketplace, you know, it was very pragmatic. About things. So, you know, this whole, you know, does the, just the category happened before the, no, you, if you’re going to create a category, you have to educate the marketplace on something they don’t think they need. And, and once you educate them, then, then you have to help them figure out.

Well if that’s the case, how do I specifically need it? And who else is needing this and using it. And then maybe then maybe after all of that if I’m past that in believe that is valuable to me, then I’m ready to buy. Then it’s a real category. But you know, categories are made by [00:09:00] pragmatic buyers who just want to fix a process.

Where they want to aspire to make a process better notice. I said, process, not a task. So this is, this is not selling a tool to a user because it’s the pragmatic buyer who says I I’ve got to. I I’m like those kind of people in. I want to do that. Yeah. And that’s where you get all the customers. And that’s when a category is a real category.

Or you can, you can sell 15% of the marketplace that are early adopters and never make it past them because you never understood how to sell to to pragmatic buyers. I 

Tom Wentworth: [00:09:40] think that happens. We look at all of these well-funded startups who are growing like rocket ships in their early stages. They triple ARR from three to nine to 18, but.

And they want to be category creators, but you’re right. Like these, these early stage buyers, they get all distraction right upfront and they hit [00:10:00] a wall. And it’s because to your point, the sort of laggard buyers that help create a category need to be marketed to differently. And I feel like a lot of the reasons you hear about these startups who flame out is because they’re just not, they’re not prepared for the real world of the pragmatic buyer.

Rene White: [00:10:18] Yeah. The, the old saw on is, is whatever made you successful in the early stages of building your category will, will not make you successful going forward because the buyer just doesn’t relate to what you’re talking about. I, one example I have is I, I worked with a a company in the tele-health area and this was.

I started with him maybe eight years ago and working with the CEO and the original problem that they had, they came to me for was their, their sales had plateaued and they didn’t understand why. So we dug into their their, their Salesforce history for the past 18 months and realized that.

[00:11:00] When do we talk to salespeople about what kind of buyers they were selling up to that point? They were all those kind of early adopter kind of buyers that said, Oh, telehealth is pretty cool. I liked that, you know, we want a robot in our ER. And then they get a wall because they’d sold all those people and of the 1300 hospitals in the United States.

And when they got past that. They were pragmatic buyers who basically said, well, why do I need that? So their whole sales approach was for early adopters and that sales approach did not work with pragmatic buyers. Their sales flattened. We changed the whole way. We talked to pragmatic buyers that were in there, their sales funnel, and sales went up in, in something like 16 months went up for 25%.

Tom Wentworth: [00:11:51] So I’ll, I’ll net that out for you. If you’re one of these startups that, that sells to other startups and you’ve grown really fast, you better go talk to Rene because the [00:12:00] minute you run out of startups to sell to, and you’ve got to go sell to pragmatic buyers, the, your world is going to flip upside down.

And I see that happens so many 

Rene White: [00:12:08] times. Yeah. And Tom, the good news here is that you know, you’re not, you’re not recreating the wheel, you’re not coming up with whole cloth. It’s been done, you know, many times before and the companies that don’t recognize that generally don’t make it that much further and sell the company or, you know, pack it up.

And real leaders figure that out and run like heck in the right direction and do the right things. 

Tom Wentworth: [00:12:36] So talking about that. So one of the things that you do in your current role at chasm group is you help companies in lots of different ways, but how do you sort of scope when somebody comes to you and says they want it, they want your help with positioning.

First of all, who is that? Who comes to you? Is it the COO, the CEO? Where do you usually get this request 

Rene White: [00:12:56] from? Yeah, again from one of two people, [00:13:00] either the COO who has been tasked by the board or the, or the CEO with you know, we really need to really need to up our game in talking to the marketplace.

It’s time. We’re growing up. And the, and the COO is tasked with the responsibility to do it. And you know, my bias is they’re smart enough not to try to just do it. In-house And then the second one is the CEO calls me up or text me and, and basically out of frustration that the team isn’t getting to the place that they want to get.

And mostly what’s that’s about is the positioning just isn’t big enough against what we think we’re really, you know, so great at yeah. 

Tom Wentworth: [00:13:48] I think the seat when the CEO, when marketing owns it, it becomes the marketing positioning, which is useful, but not necessarily foundational when the [00:14:00] CEO drives it, it becomes the company messaging.

And I think it also becomes the company strategy. When you align everybody against great positioning, then it gives clarity to the R and D team. It gives clarity to customer success. It gives clarity data to. To everybody who touches the customer, right. 

Rene White: [00:14:18] You bring up a really important point. And that is in a way, positioning is the tail that wags the dog.

It is, it is the revelation of what they could be and should be. And it absolutely has implications to the product, to who they target as customers who the competition is. Really who the competition is. And and specific typically to all the things that wrap around the actual product, like well expertise and service and customer success, those kinds of things that are part of, you know, what I call the whole solution.

You, you call it the whole solution too. I know you do. And and [00:15:00] that is the whole solution is what pragmatic buyers are looking for. Well, they’re not looking for another 

Tom Wentworth: [00:15:05] tool like you, I studied at the altar of Jeffrey Moore as well, so I know the whole solution from the Documentum days and, and all of that, so.

Sure, sure. So we want to do a positioning project. We’re a company we want to engage with you. What does, how does a project work for you? How do you guide companies through this process? 

Rene White: [00:15:25] Yeah, well, you know, no matter whether, you know, a company comes to me or somewhere else, they here’s what they should be looking for in this You know th the way you really started is first, you’ve got to have the company viewpoint.

So as your benchmark, right? So where do they think they are in terms of their place in the world? And then you got to go out and talk to real customers. And as I, as I talk to customers of my client I specifically and explicitly tell them talking to you and doing due diligence with customers, because I want to hear the unbiased [00:16:00] truth about what you really want and what you think you need.

Not the inherent bias of folks that are, you know, desperate to sell you something. Yeah. And then gap analysis. Because I think that’s important. What am I hearing about what the real, the real needs are and what customers lot lives in work? You know, roles are really about not, not their, not their job title, but you know, what their companies expect of them.

I do a little bit of inductive reasoning and versus deductive reasoning. So I don’t. Talk to customers and say, Oh, therefore, Tom, you know, the answer is I try to come up with what I think out of experience. Okay. In doing this, I think I’ve done 70 engagements over my time period. And then there’s a chasm group.

And, and try to come up with what I think is a hypothesis for what the positioning might look like. And then I play it with those customers. I talked to those end customers. I talked to you to get either validation or [00:17:00] oops, I got that wrong. And then I come back and present the ideas and recommendations, important ideas.

I like, like you said, I don’t try to come up with the answer and try to tell you that it is the answer. Because you guys know your business well enough. I’m a quick study. But you know, I can’t know things like the security marketplace or data curation or you know, those kinds of things better than the technologists and don’t presuppose to do it.

And I make recommendations on, you know you know, what the path is to take it. And maybe more importantly, you should always look to whomever you bring in from the outside to bring in best practices. So, where were other people gone before you and what can you learn from it so that you can one accelerate the process of coming up with the right positioning, the one that really stings and make something happen.

And then secondly of what landmines that you don’t need to [00:18:00] step on that sets you back. Because the last thing you want to do is start a positioning and realize two or three quarters into it that it’s wrong, that it really doesn’t differentiate you from your competitors. It doesn’t connect with customers in a way that says I prefer you over anybody else.

Yeah. So those are the kinds of things that, you know, go forward in making that and just helping the team. Cause these generally end with, you know, exec teams that are either listening in and, or it’s in some sort of workshop where we’re all talking about it. It’s the last part you should be looking for.

Someone from the outside to do is provoke your thinking. And help you kind of accelerate to the decision-making on what a great position you have to be. What happens 

Tom Wentworth: [00:18:47] once you’ve done 70 of these? What happens when somebody violently disagrees with the position that you’ve come up with? Does that happen?

Rene White: [00:18:57] You know, it’s almost, I can’t even think of a time [00:19:00] where there’s certainly not violent. There, there, there are always voices on exec staffs that believed that they know better. Hmm, and that they have the answer. And a lot of times it’s people who either talk to customers and like to talk in terms of anecdotes.

I talked to this one customer and they’d never say that or it comes from the technologists that are. Completely I want to say married to the value proposition that they originally created in can’t understand why the whole world doesn’t want to buy the way they articulate it comes from 

bill 

Tom Wentworth: [00:19:37] Gates to your point earlier.

Rene White: [00:19:39] Yeah. You know, and for some people, you know, it’s really hard to argue with someone like a Steve jobs or a bill Gates, or, you know, an Elon Musk or, you know, come up with the latest sleeps. It’s hard. Believe me. And a lot of times, you know, they’re visionary and they’re right. And I learned a long time ago in dealing [00:20:00] with the likes of well, let’s see, not only Steve jobs, but Gordon Moore and Bob Noyce at Intel and Scott McNealy.

And that kind of can run down a bunch of the list of those days. And basically some, some of those people and I would put Steve and Steve definitely at the top that, that basically says these are rare people and you gotta let them run and then help them out. Most of the other crowd needs help.

And I think the other thing you learn when this is something that I think maybe for all your audience that are CMOs. Or marketing people or our work with CEOs on their positionings, especially as strong-willed, you know, people that are the ultimate decision makers on what the position should be.

It’s really important that you try not to be smarter than them and prove it to them. Careful. If you have an MBA from one of the blue chip schools, you have a tendency to want to do that. Or to basically just be a yes person and just, you know, you’re totally [00:21:00] right, because those kinds of people hate both those things.

So the you’re gonna, you’re going to ask me now. So what is the answer? What’s the way in basically it’s it’s to use the psychiatrist method and just basically ask why do you think that way? Or why do you think that will work? Ask it four times and really terrifically, brilliant people like. Steve jobs just wanted to be able to have someone, they could take their great ideas and work it through with them.

And that’s all they really wanted to do because they knew they had the right hand 

Tom Wentworth: [00:21:34] it’s it’s narrowing on. They had the right concept. It’s narrowing them on the right answer. 

Rene White: [00:21:40] Yeah. And then helping them articulate it in a way that the marketplace would, you know, would consume it more easily. Then having crammed down the throat sometimes, which was as a tendency of, of brilliant entrepreneurs to cram their ideas down people’s throats.

And if they don’t like it, they can, you know, they can pound sand. 

Tom Wentworth: [00:21:59] How do you [00:22:00] measure the success? So you’ve gone through all this work. You’ve articulated it in this exact forum. You talked about how do you measure success and over what time period? 

Rene White: [00:22:10] Yeah, yeah. As a marketing person, you know, you know, even though, you know marketing measurement has become, you know, more quantitative versus qualitative and there’s all kinds of ways to do, you know surveys and research and, you know, brand studies and things like that.

I have a really simple way to do this one. Is it. And this actually I think is actually a a bill Gates quote, you know great innovations. I’m going to, I’ve got a pair of wings, you know, great innovations, always take longer to take hold, but when they do, they’re more profound. So you know the real way I measure it and I, and I suggest my clients measured is do your ideal customers.

I use those words, very specific, your ideal customers, the center [00:23:00] point, you know of your customers, the ideal sweet spot of your customers. Do they understand your position and can they parrot that back to you? And do they prefer, and therefore, do they prefer you over competitors or even overdo nothing?

Yeah. Do you have a sense that your ideal customers, you get a pretty good, you know response to that? You know, the positioning is working. Note positioning is perfect. Positionings evolve over time with one caveat. And that is these anxious technology executives and entrepreneurs always are working at light speed.

So they think that their positioning should move just as quickly when in fact just win. You know, your CEO wants to change the positioning advanced the positioning. The customers are just getting the old one so careful that you don’t move too quickly on this. My 

Tom Wentworth: [00:23:59] thought on that [00:24:00] is. It’s like when marketing gets gets bored of it, sales is just getting it when sales gets bored of that, customers are just getting it.

And when customers are getting bored of it is when you know, you know, you’ve done something, 

Rene White: [00:24:11] right? Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. So careful on the quantitative stuff, it can be, it can be a trap. 

Tom Wentworth: [00:24:19] Yeah. Yeah. It turns out some of the, one of the lessons I learned, some of the best things you can do in marketing are impossible to measure in the way we want to.

We all, we want the world to be this direct response. Everything is perfect attribution. It’s just not how the real world works. 

Rene White: [00:24:35] No, and I think, you know that my, you know, my, my other comment on this is, you know, it’s really the, the job, the role, I wouldn’t say job description, but it’s the role of the CMO to really help the CEO or the founders you know, with the vision of the company.

And where they’re taking them. And that’s so important. It’s not just get us a bunch of leads, Tom, and [00:25:00] it’s not just, you know, are we digitally marketing our way into fame? It, it really is. If, if, if you’re not helping well, here’s the thing I’ve seen CPOs be kind of switched themselves into this role.

Because they’re technical and they kind of understand the product. And I I kind of decry the fact that it’s harder and harder now for CMOs to play that vision role in that, which is positions, all part of that with, with the CEO about where we’re going, because I can tell you that when my operating days, that’s what I did.

I’d say, I’d say the marketing job, the marketing job was maybe 25% of my work. Most of my time was spent with the, with the exempt staff and certainly with two or three key individuals trying to understand where the vision of the company was going. Wow. 

Tom Wentworth: [00:25:54] That is not at all how CMOs operate today. And I think that’s, [00:26:00] it’s one of those, you know, I think we go back and look at.

How we did things in the past. Maybe that’s a change that we should think about re revisit. 

Rene White: [00:26:08] Well, that’s, that’s why you don’t see too many CMOs become CEOs. 

Tom Wentworth: [00:26:13] Indeed. Yeah. Topic of another episode, I coordinate with Dave Kellogg a few months ago. So Rene, this has been fantastic. Thank you so much for this short masterclass on positioning.

By Tom Wentworth

CMO at Recorded Future | Formerly Acquia, RapidMiner | I like math, open source, and the Smashing Pumpkins

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