Blog post

Most Common Positioning Mistake – Attacking the Competitive Alternative

By Hank Barnes | December 05, 2017 | 2 Comments


Positioning is one of the core things that our team at Gartner works with clients on.  I personally have well over 1500 positioning reviews over the past 5 years (its probably more like 2000 or more.  If you factor in the other analysts that all follow the same approach the number grows significantly) and see many issues and problems repeated.

But the one that I worry about the most and see the most often is attacking the competitive alternative.

As a reminder, we leverage (and extend) the positioning framework put forth years ago by Geoffrey Moore.


The thing I remind our clients of is that two elements of this framework are really grounding for the target customer:  the category and the alternative.  They are there so the customer can say “Okay, I know what we are talking about. I get it.”

The primary competitive alternative is a key element of positioning.  It is, for the target customer, the approach they are most likely to take other than yours to address their need.   Said another way, it is what they think is right.

And here is where things go wrong.   The vast majority of positioning efforts that I review go far beyond declaring the alternative.  They attack it.  They say things like “UNLIKE  the costly, constrained, siloed  <<whatever>>”  and go on further to talk about why that approach is really really stupid.

Now, put on your customer hat.  This positioning effectively says, “the way you are thinking of solving this problem is really, really stupid.”  So you are calling them stupid.

That is a problem.   Rather than attack, simply declare.  Then you can differentiate by talking about some of the negatives (and why you are better).  The stories you create that positioning helps frame can address some of the issues.

But train yourself and everyone in your company not to denigrate the primary alternative.   Declare it, then differentiate from it.

Rather than making your customers feel like you are calling them stupid, you’ll be acknowledging the most accepted thinking and presenting a case for considering something different.   You’ll be more likely not to force them into a defensive posture right from the start, creating an opportunity for more open discussions.

Want to dive into positioning in more detail.  If you are a client, schedule an inquiry with me or others on our team.   Or, for clients and n0n-clients, attend the Gartner Tech Growth and Innovation Conference in San Diego from April 30 through May 2.    This is the one event where the technology product or services companies can spend 3 days folks on ideas to grow their business.  I’ll be running workshops on positioning and storytelling (space is limited for these workshops).

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  • Kate L. Roa says:

    Thank you, Hank. I have two places on my website that can make people feel defensive. I’ll be editing today!

  • Hank, I am looking forward to meeting you and hearing how our custom software engineering offerings at Flint Hills Group can be positioned better for customer engagement. I’m already signed up for your talks!