How do you approach messaging and positioning when your product isn't the market leader?
I actually don't think this matters all that much. Messaging should be anchored in the outcomes your product delivers to your target persona, and the key differentators that make you uniquely suited to deliver those outcomes. That doesn't change based on your market position.
Where this could come into play is when you talk about successes you've achieved. As a market leader you can talk to the your breadth of customers, market share, analyst ratings, etc. as proof points. As a challenger, you paint you customers as forward-thinking innovators who are taking a different approach as seeing better outcomes as a result.
One approach here is to re-define your market in such a way that you’re the leader of that market. That’s kind of what category creation if all about.
Another approach here (again, leaning in to how you’re unique in the value you provide) is to emphasize how you’re enabling your customers to think differently about solving their problem and innovate their way to business success.
Per our head of PMM (Eric Petitt), it is important to think about and understand the market leader positioning because the leader often defines category expectations… as well as their weaknesses. And when a challenger tries to play catch up to the market leader, the copy-cat will die over time because they are not adding value. The recommendation then is to pick a tighter target audience and a differentiator that will “de-position” the market leader. Your strengths should call out their weaknesses.
You change the conversation.
Positioning is all about defining a target audience and a place in their minds where you are the market leader.
There’s some great inspiration in the ‘Positioning of a Follower’ chapter of ‘Positioning’ by Al Ries and Jack Trout. Worth reading, but to paraphrase one example, 7-Up didn’t try to compete with Coca-Cola and Pepsi in the category of‘soda.’ They competed with the sub-category of ‘cola’ within the ‘soda’ category, positioning themselves as the ‘Un-Cola.’ While I’m not a huge fan of the name, it successfully defined a niche that 7-Up could be the leader in, and then focused on talking about why cola isn’t so great after all.
Here's an example of how you would translate that to the B2B space: Let's say you can’t compete with the market leader in service offerings. But you can take the position of the top ‘self-service software’ — and then focus your marketing on why it’s unattractive to pay an arm and a leg for someone else to use the product for you.
I am a believer that your messaging/positioning has to be consistent with how differentiated your product really is. Customers will quickly figure out what is marketing fluff vs. product truth anyway! So - even if your product is not the market leader but your research tells you that you have a killer product - i'd suggest being aggressive with the messaging and positioning and taking the fight to the competition! On the other hand - if you are entering a new segment with a 'v1' version of a product that you know is not very competitive yet, i'd lean a bit more towards reflecting the vision of the product/strategy vs. capabilities of the product itself in the messaging/positioning.
You differentiate by first creating a perceptual map that makes it easy to see how your competitors are positioned relative to each other. Use the perceptual map while creating positioning statement options. Eliminate those that fail to differentiate. The winning positioning statement is unique, believable and important - it expresses a benefit that solves one of the target buyer's most pressing problems.