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The Indispensable Art of Positioning for Small Businesses

By David Baer, Baer On Marketing

Many things that are standard practice in the corporate world seldom make their way into the playbook of small business owners. Whether it's the intimidation factor, resource constraints, or simply a lack of awareness, there's a chasm between what large corporations and small businesses do in terms of strategic planning.

However, certain strategies, such as the art of positioning, are not only adoptable by small businesses but are critical for their survival and growth. While many entrepreneurs think they've done enough by "choosing a niche," positioning goes far deeper.

It's not just about cornering a segment of the market; it's about indelibly imprinting your business in the consumer's mind, making you the go-to choice within that segment.

Case in Point: The Local Café vs. Starbucks

Consider a local café that simply markets itself as "your friendly neighborhood coffee shop." Now, think of Starbucks, which has effectively positioned itself as a "third place between work and home." Both serve coffee, but Starbucks has successfully occupied a distinct position in the minds of consumers. Your local café needs more than just good coffee to compete; it needs effective positioning.

Getting Beyond Corporate Speak

The term "positioning" may sound like corporate jargon, but its application is universal across business sizes. Coined by Al Ries and Jack Trout in the 1980s, the concept is about crafting a unique mental space for your brand inside the consumer's mind. The goal of positioning is to define this mental space so precisely that your business becomes the go-to solution for a particular consumer need, desire, or problem. When done correctly, your business should become synonymous with that need, much like how Google is synonymous with online search, or Kleenex is with tissues.

Lessons for Smaller Businesses

The key takeaway here is that these aren't just strategies for corporate giants. Small businesses can also benefit from well-crafted positioning strategies. The idea is to identify what makes your business distinct in a way that is meaningful to consumers and to own that space fully. Whether you're a local bakery specializing in gluten-free goodies or a fitness coach focusing on helping seniors reverse the effects of osteoporosis, the principles of positioning can help you become the go-to choice within your particular niche. By understanding and implementing the foundational and advanced lessons from positioning, businesses of all sizes can carve out their unique territory in the consumer's mind, achieving not just market presence but market dominance in their chosen segments. These days, consumers face upwards of 10,000 brand messages each day. This makes positioning even more critical, especially for small businesses that may not have the luxury of massive advertising budgets. A strong positioning strategy acts as a beacon that draws consumers toward your brand amidst the sea of information they navigate daily.

The Three Cornerstones of Effective Positioning

Ries and Trout identified three core pillars for carving out an effective positioning strategy: Brand Value: Beyond just a unique selling proposition, your brand value is what you alone can offer. For example, suppose you run a pet-sitting service that not only takes care of pets but also trains them in basic obedience during their stay. That's a brand value that sets you apart from a mere "pet hotel." Brand Promise: This is your commitment, your pledge to the customer. It's not just what they will get from your product or service, but how they will feel. Let's take the example of a small local gym that promises not just state-of-the-art equipment but a community atmosphere that makes everyone feel like a local champion. The promise here extends beyond the physical to the emotional realm. Brand Identity: This is the character, the personality, the soul of your brand. Are you the quirky, fun brand that brings joy and surprise to your customers? Or are you the dependable, always-there-when-you-need-it brand? This shapes how you're perceived and can be a deciding factor for consumers.

Authenticity and Relevance

In the current business landscape, consumers are more skeptical and picky than ever. That’s why it’s important to consider these two additional factors to amplify the impact of positioning: Authenticity: Consumers today are savvy and have an array of tools at their disposal to verify claims. Fake reviews or misleading promises can be exposed faster than ever. Your brand's authenticity isn't just a nice-to-have; it's a must-have. Relevance: As societal norms and values shift, so do consumer expectations. A brand that was once positioned as the pinnacle of luxury might find itself out of touch if it doesn't adapt to new definitions of what "luxury" means to modern consumers.

Translating Positioning into Effective Ad Copy

Knowing your brand's value, promise, and identity is just the first step. These elements need to be crystal clear in every piece of marketing material you produce. Using the example of a hypothetical bakery named "Brick Street Bakery," consider the following generic ad copy: "We offer a variety of baked goods and coffee. Great for any occasion." Now, let’s look at it after incorporating positioning-focused copy: "Why settle for ordinary baked goods? At Brick Street Bakery, every pastry is a trip down memory lane, handcrafted from generations-old family recipes. It's not just food; it's an experience." The positioning-focused ad doesn't just tell consumers what the bakery sells, but why it should matter to them. It speaks to a specific need or desire the consumer might have, like the yearning for authentic, home-cooked goods.

Positioning as a Non-Negotiable Strategy for Small Businesses

While the concept of positioning has its roots in corporate strategy, it's a universally applicable and crucial element for small business success. It's not about merely choosing a market niche; it's about defining a unique and irreplaceable spot within that niche. In a crowded marketplace, strong positioning doesn't just help you get noticed; it ensures you're remembered and chosen time and time again. Therefore, small businesses must invest the time and resources to understand and implement effective positioning. Ignoring it is not an option if you aim to build a brand that stands the test of time.


David is a veteran direct response marketer who started his career selling classical music subscriptions online in the 1990s, at the dawn of email marketing. Since then, his copy and strategic guidance have earned his employers and clients millions in sales.

He is the author of multiple books on email marketing and marketing strategy, the co-founder of the marketing strategy firm, The Prepared Group, and host of the podcast, “More Perfect Marketing,” where he’s explored marketing strategy with hundreds of guest experts.

David shares more lessons on the fundamentals of strategic business marketing and revenue growth in his weekly newsletter. To subscribe, please visit When you sign up, you’ll also receive 26 Powerful Marketing Cheat Sheets plus David's complete "Niche Your Business" training videos.


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