One of the most important challenges business owners face is to be noticed above the din of all the other businesses shouting for a prospect's attention.

Failing to be noticed basically means business failure. Many successful businesses have a unique position in the marketplace, a spot that they occupy with leadership. To achieve this, they position themselves in the prospect’s mind with a single theme which sets them apart from their competition.

Positioning yourself in a narrow niche can seem scary because you sacrifice broad appeal, but you can’t be all things to all people. Having a single theme can be very powerful. A great example is Domino’s Pizza with their “30 minutes or it is on us” slogan, which says nothing about quality, size or price. Domino’s founder Tom Monaghan employed “a fanatical focus on doing one thing well.”

Standing for one thing can mean giving up other possible opportunities but not always.  Harry Beckwith in his book Selling the Invisible gives some examples of how a narrow business focus has led to other opportunities.

In 1980, when facing financial failure, Scandinavian Airlines decided to position themselves as the “business traveler’s airline,” bravely turning away from the lucrative tourist market. They did extremely well serving the business traveler who paid high fees for the quality service. The unexpected thing was that profit soared and any remaining seats could be sold cheaply to budget tourists. Positioning themselves as the business traveler’s airline also allowed them to provide the lowest fares in Europe for budget tourists. The sacrifice of narrowing their position provided a win in an unrelated way.

Harry Beckwith gives another example of the power of focus, this time in the legal profession. In New York, the highest regarded law firms saw themselves as gentlemen who did not involve themselves in the field of business takeovers. Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom (SASMF) had other ideas.

SASMF positioned themselves as leaders in the field of business takeovers, which by nature were dominated by complex and often distasteful cases. The firm won a reputation of demonstrating great skill while being graceful under pressure. This led prospects with lesser cases to think that if they are that good in such a difficult field, they must be able to do almost anything requiring a ‘lesser logic’ type of thinking. SASMF, through this act of positioning in a field no one wanted, became one of the richest law firms in America.

These examples imply that if you figure out what is one of the hardest fields in your industry and focus on being successful in that field, there can be other rewards generated by a ‘lesser logic’ psychology in the prospect’s mind.

The fear that taking a narrow position leads to limited opportunities is not always the case – when the right emotional note is struck in the proposition, the prospect can experience great feelings of trust and comfort. Beckwith gives an example of this, the Long Island Bank.

The Long Island Bank tested prospects’ perceptions on a series of ads, one series before, and another series after a narrow position was introduced. The latter did not mention assets, capital, range of services or quality of services, as banks tend to do. The new ads presented the bank as the ‘local’ bank for Long Island, which has strong, deep emotional and social connotations.

The results of the tests on prospects’ perceptions of the local bank revealed they now had stronger, more positive across-the-board perceptions about it, including its assets, capital, range and quality of services, none of which were mentioned in the new ads. This is the ‘association principle’ or ‘halo effect’ – claim a primary positive thing and associations with many secondary positive things happen.

So how do you position your business to stand out, especially if you think you are the same as all the others?

The key is to realise you are not the same. Like people, each business is different, but if your thinking is one of dull sameness, you need to change your thinking or your business will be seen as a plain commodity only differentiated by price. Once price becomes the only attraction, the chance to develop into a prosperous competitive business is virtually nonexistent.

Even if you do have a plain commodity, successful companies such as Heinz, Johnson & Johnson, and Kleenex prove to us that commodity doesn’t need to be dull and there is a lot of scope to be perceived as different and better. It is not that you need to be completely different and better, but merely perceived by your prospects that way.

How you are perceived by your prospects is how you are positioned; you can’t position yourself. You can work toward a goal of being in a position, but your position at any point in time is still determined by your prospects. If your position in a prospect’s mind is not where you want it to be, you need to work incrementally to move their perception to where you want it. It can rarely be done in one big jump. You need to work with the perceived position, enhance it, and nudge it over time to where you want it to be by working with what you currently have.

A classic example of this is Avis Rent-A-Car, which was always second to Hertz. The company worked with this position and came up with the very successful slogan “We’re number two. We try harder.”  The lesson: leverage your current position.

A positive step in the right direction is to develop a ‘positioning statement’ of where you want your business to be. When you’ve come up with one, it needs to become part of your business culture, with all staff actively involved. Good, clean answers to the following seven questions can form a positioning statement, in the order presented:

  1. Who are you?
  2. What business are you in?
  3. Whom do you serve?
  4. What are your customer’s needs?
  5. With whom are you competing?
  6. What makes you different from your competition?
  7. What is the benefit to the customer?

This leads to a positioning statement of where you want to be in the future. You can assist the process by creating a ‘position statement’ which is where you are now, based on the same seven questions and compare the two statements to see what you need to do to change, and work to change these things incrementally. Too big a jump can confuse your prospects and your staff. Bold dreams and goals are good and have their place, but positioning statements need to be realistic.

During the process of incremental change, it is not a good idea to hide what you obviously are. If you have a small business, promote the idea that being smaller means your service is more personalized and responsive. It’s like Avis using their position as “number two” in their industry to advantage.

Positioning your business helps focus. Disciplined and consistent focus aids you by highlighting what needs doing while all else is ignored. Aim for a sweet spot of service that you know you can be excellent at and many of your competitors can not, and be perceived as the business to go to for that service.

You may miss some other seemingly attractive opportunities, but you can’t be everything to everyone. Make a stand one way or another; otherwise you will end up sitting on the fence – in the middle – perceived to be claiming no leadership at all in the minds of prospects.