out-of-position.jpgPositioning is one of the biggest, most foundation keys to success.

It’s certainly true in sports. In baseball, if your defense is positioned wrong, the other team can more easily score runs. In basketball, both offense and defense are decided by how players are positioned on the floor. Get it right, and you have a strong defense or an explosive offense. Get it it wrong and you loose.

The position of furniture in your home can make a huge difference between the room feeling comfortable and spacious as opposed to dark and cramped. And with your office, how you position things around your desk can often decide how efficient you are.

Position is so important. So why, then, do so many businesses get it wrong? Worse, why do so many businesses not focus on it at all?

I once was the product buyer for the largest single-store Patagonia clothing dealer in the world. We did in the neighborhood of $4.5 million per year in Patagonia clothing alone – all out of one, 3,600 square foot store (read: tiny).

The two owners were great guys and the business flourished, growing more than 25% per year each of the three years I was there. But the success was all from luck. They started the store with a different intention and really stumbled upon their success simply because the store was located in a wealthy area where their customers just loved Patagonia clothing. So because the customers had plenty of disposable income the store grew at an enormous pace. And continued too after my three years there.

In the first year I was there, they hired a new manager. Tom was a great guy with a great sense of humor and just a joy to be around. But he came from a different retail background and never really understood why the store was a success. You see, Patagonia makes high-quality clothing for many intense, outdoor activities. But we weren’t an ‘outdoor store.’ We sold about 15% of our clothing to your hard-core outdoor user. The rest went on the backs of upper-class families who like the quality and label status. Tom, had come from the hard-core outdoor industry and had visions of changing the store into an outdoor gear haven. Tom and the owners had the same vision.

But the customers didn’t. They saw the store as having cool Patagonia stuff – you know, fleece and organic cotton.

So in the aftermath of September 11th, a few years after I had left, and with the slow down in the economy and the fears that surrounded people, the store began to decline. Within a year they closed. Not because they couldn’t sell Patagonia to wealthy people any more. They certainly could. But because they had tried to change their focus from being ‘the place’ to get Patagonia in the Midwest to trying to be a hard-core outdoor clothing store. And as Patagonia took a backseat to other lines and ventures, people lost interest in shopping there.

What ultimately happened was that the owners never really understood the position of their business. They started as one thing. Yet they found success in something different. And they never let go of where they started from. Hence, they ultimately made decisions about positioning themselves that caused the collapse of their rather successful company.

So many businesses don’t get this. They don’t understand it’s how you position yourself that makes the difference between success and failure. And they don’t see that if you change your position without considering your customer base, why they buy from you and how they perceive you – you can sink a highly successful business.

The difference between success and failure is in how your target audience perceives you. That’s positioning. How are you positioning yourself?

And what have you found to be effective in bridging the gap between what you do and what your target audience perceives you do?

(note: image from Kees Verwer on Flickr)

Reader Interactions


  1. Adam Kayce : Monk at Work says

    The difference between success and failure is in how your target audience perceives you. That’s positioning. How are you positioning yourself? (emphasis added)

    Ah, that’s the conundrum right there, isn’t it? It’s about how other people see you, which isn’t something you can directly control. You can influence it, but not control it.

    So, it seems to me that it’s a process of saying/writing/doing one thing, getting feedback from your listeners, and tweaking. Forever tweaking.


  2. communicatrix says

    What Adam said. It’s sometimes shocking how differently people see us. Also, humbling. Frequently? Annoying.

    But I ignore it at my peril.

    When I was acting, I was guilty of what your store owner fellas did. I’m just lucky I wised up enough to accept my “type.” It didn’t mean, of course, that I couldn’t bring all of me to any role; just that “me” came in a small, goofy-looking package with a largish chin, and I had to take that into account.

    On a completely different note, I have to say how much I loved this post because of the way you made your point. More and more, stories resonate with me, possibly b/c the web is overly crowded with preachers and listmakers.

    Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. But I sure do like hearing a personal story. And b/c it’s personal, only you can tell it: bonus-extra!!

  3. mike ashworth says

    A very timely piece. I was talking with someone the other week about their business as they wished to increase profits etc.

    I suggested that a good place to start before embarking on a massive campaign that might add value was to determine what it was about their business that differentiated them from the competition.
    That was met with a sort of quizzical look, as if it was so obvious that everyone should know.

    I recommended that a good place to start is with talking to customers either face-to-face or via a questionnaire to gauge what it was they liked about this place and not the others, and also that they talk to people who didn’t become customers to ascertain why.

    The response I received was that they didn’t have time for such activity that adds no value they needed to get on with placing some ads in the local press.

    I guess I need to polish up my pitch!

  4. Dawud Miracle says

    For me, marketing isn’t about control. I know some think it is. But it’s not. You can’t control your audience or even how your audience perceives you. But you can understand how people perceive you and whether it’s in line with your business focus.

    This needs to be a blog post.

    As for constantly tweaking…the answer is yes. You actually want your business to be forever unfinished.

    Thanks. It’s my real experience.

    One thing I see business owners do all the time is not understand how their perceived. And that most often leads to either failure or lack of growth. Would you say that’s been the case with your biz?

    I’ve been there. Using words like ‘massive’ will often scare your clients. But that’s okay, that’s how I learned not to use terms like that.

    One further thing you could offer is to create a set of questions the business owner wants answers too and give them to someone else to do the research. Often, people will be much more honest and give more thought to their responses if a third party does the questioning. Try it out and let me know.

  5. Paul says

    So I get the positioning part. Now what have you found to be the most effective way to find out how your target market perceives you. We have a contact us and we use to have a feedback link. I am looking for something fresh. If you have some tips let me know.

  6. communicatrix says

    In my own case, I would say that any failure/lack of growth is due to my own stubborn refusal to market myself properly, starting with naming my services.

    Back when I was acting, though, yes–as I mentioned, I definitely experienced a period of frustration when I was working against my “type.”

    So at least I learned *that* little lesson.

  7. Charlene says

    You are correct in stating the you need to position yourself in your customers mind. You also need to take into consideration your products, services, competition and intangibles and look at the whole picture.

    Coming at it from all directions will be best for the longer-term.

    As far, as Paul’s question, I suggest just ask your customers. You may be amazed.

  8. Rob McNealy says

    I’ve been involved in a number of startups, and I totally agree with what you’ve said. Sometimes you just can’t position yourself where you want to be, because there just isn’t a market for what you’ve envisioned.

  9. Dawud Miracle says

    Charlene answered below. Your clients/customers will tell you amazing things that you never knew about their experience with your business.

    Yet, when I talk with you I have these lovely experiences of how much you love life, you love ideas, really I feel you love life. And it’s infectious. For me, your key is to share that zeal in a way that also expresses how you can help people.

    So, you’re on it. And I can’t wait to see what comes out.

    True, and where would you suggest one begins?

    One of the misnomers in business is that you have control. You don’t – the customers do. You market yourself where you think you fit. But people will decide where they fit and where they spend their money.

  10. Paul says

    Charlene – Thanks, but that is a difficult thing to do. I kind of have to different types of clients. The people I advertise for and the people I am advertising to. I was looking for something less obvious than posting something on the site. We have tried a feedback section but got nothing. If anyone else has some that would be great. Thank you Charlene

  11. mike ashworth says

    Paul, I don’t know how many Clients you have however I have often found that a survey (web based or postal) depending on the clients preference work well.

    If you have an opportunity to call them or speak face-to-face,even better. You could even instigate a process whereby each week you survey a specific segment of your Client base.

    You may even wish to use this survey as a means to make an offer (to encourage participation as traditionally surveys do not get a great return rate)

    keep surveys short, sometimes even asking three questions can be all you need to get an understanding of how your clients perceive us.

    1. one thing you like about us, and we should carry on doing.

    2. one thing you dislike, and would like us to stop.

    3. one thing we do which we should change slightly.

    I think “contact us” and “feedback” are exactly the right things to have on any site, too many organisations try to obfuscate these. They are great tools for advising about things relevant to your site, such as something that looks odd/not working or perhaps even a new idea/suggestion (get enough people saying it and it might be worth looking at)

    Mike Ashworth
    Business and Marketing Coach
    Brighton and Hove, UK

  12. Dawud Miracle says

    As I mentioned, Charlene nailed it. If you already have clients and customers, learn from them.

    Great tips. My experience is that web surveys often give only moderate feedback and often only have a small response.

    What I’ve found to work best is having someone else do the questioning, one-on-one, with customers. You’ll often get more robust and honest responses that way.

  13. David says

    Just found your blog through Stumbling. I’m also a “U Comment I Follow Blogger.”

    To answer…”How are you positioning yourself?”

    I continue to find niche markets and unique ways of doing things. I love the challenge of discovering new ways to re-position. That’s one of the things that I like about self-employment.

  14. Adam Kayce : Monk at Work says

    Dude, I think you may have missed what I was saying…

    I’m not advocating a control-based attitude, I was just pointing out that control is impossible. When you posited the question, “How are you positioning yourself?”, it sounded to me as if you were saying that controlling your positioning is actually something you can do.

    That’s why I’m saying it’s about tweaking, testing, getting feedback, etc., because all of this is one big interplay between you/your business and a whole bunch of other people’s perceptions, filters, and assumptions.

  15. Dawud Miracle says

    Thanks and welcome.

    It certainly is. I feel the same way. What’s your favorite part of being self-employed?

    Dining Room,
    Simple…test. Do you best to meet think like your audience does, then put it out there. In short order you’ll find out how successful you are.

    I know what you mean. You do control how you position yourself. What you don’t control is how you’re perceived. That’s why I asked the question the way I did.

    And you’re absolutely right – it is a constant process of testing and tweaking. Ultimately, that’s how you find your true niche.

  16. Eric Eggertson says

    I love your example.

    I think marriages operate the same way. Some people spend 25 years with someone, and never really understand what made that person tick.

  17. Skip Anderson says

    I agree completely.

    Customers always buy from a retailer (or any other business) for a reason. But when the business doesn’t know what that reason is, they end up managing their business on automatic pilot. The problem is, automatic pilot only works if you know where you’re going, and if you don’t really know where you’re going, you’ll crash.

    “…it’s how you position yourself that makes the difference between success and failure.” So true, Dawud.

  18. Dawud Miracle says

    I hear you. Marriages are definitely like this. As are most relationships, don’t you think?

    Or they manage it on luck.

    What resources have you used to find greater clarity with your positioning?

  19. Skip Anderson says

    “What resources have you used to find greater clarity with your positioning?”

    First: I’m not a “more is more” kind of person. I believe in limiting one’s scope. So I try to do that, but sometimes I find that even a less is more kind of guy like me is starting to stray from my core expertise, goals, or market. Then I have to reign myself back in.

    I guess what I’m saying is that proper positioning isn’t just a matter of clarity of focus, but also a self-limitation of focus. Attempting to be all things to all customers is usually contrary to profitable business growth.

  20. Dawud Miracle says

    I couldn’t agree more. Often the problem with businesses is they try too hard to land every sale. I take a much different approach – both in my business and in advising my clients. I try to find a highly focused niche of leads and market to what I perceive their need is. Simple, really.

    And I don’t care if I leave people out. As a matter of fact, I want to leave people out. It should be expected. It’s the only way to clearly find your niche, wouldn’t you agree?

  21. mike ashworth says

    Their is a saying “people don’t like to be sold to, but they like to buy”. I think that is relevant, as you say, people try to hard to force a sale. Either the individual has a problem or need that requires purchasing a product to remedy or they don’t.

    What do people think of the notion that you should, as a routine process, get rid of 10-20% of your customers each year, either the ones who are most unprofitable, don’t generate enough referrals, take up too much time for the resulting profits etc.

    Interested in what you think of the above?

    Mike Ashworth
    Business Coaching and Consultancy
    Brighton and Hove, Sussex, UK

  22. Dawud Miracle says

    I’m all for ‘getting rid’ of clients. However, I do it by attrition. I do it by putting up constant qualifiers for my clients to stay on track. They pay me monthly. And the ones that do the work get great results. Yet those who don’t do the work most often end up leaving on their own. So I don’t ‘fire’ them. Rather, I let them decide they can’t keep up the pace we set together. So they, in essence, fire me – which I’m fine with.

    And people do like to buy. I think there’s a fine balance between selling and offering. You want to be very clear on how your product/service can solve their problems, yet you don’t want to force them into a buying situation. Though you do want them to ‘feel their pain’ a bit because it’s often what makes them take action.

    Now, I’m sharing some of my secrets here…Thoughts.

  23. mike ashworth says

    I still think I’d let them go (perhaps with a referral to someone who’d be more in keeping with what they are looking for) rather than think of myself as being the one that “got fired”.

    It is an interesting take on the same idea about relationships. Perhaps that is why Egg, the Credit Card company in the UK, is coming in for a flack

    And we both agree, people do like to buy. I like to buy however I hate it when someone is trying too hard, or tries to early in a relationship to sell me something.

    An example would be as follows: I’m still in the “getting to know” phase (of the know==> like ==> trust ==> buy process) they think we are in the “about to buy” phase.

    I very much like the articles here as they stimulate lots of discussion. great stuff.

    Mike Ashworth
    Business Coaching and Consultancy
    Brighton and Hove, Sussex, UK

  24. Camping Equipment UK says

    “The customer is always right” is a good way of thinking about these things, it seems to me that too many start-ups ignore the desires/preferences of their customers, in line with their own business vision.

    Even the best market research can’t predict exactly what is going to be successful: you need to follow the customers’ lead on how to progress your business.

  25. Camping Equipment UK says

    “The customer is always right” is a good way of thinking about these things, it seems to me that too many start-ups ignore the desires/preferences of their customers, in line with their own business vision.

    Even the best market research can’t predict exactly what is going to be successful: you need to follow the customers’ lead on how to take your business forward.

  26. Gregg Thurby says

    Dawud, Hi

    It’s obvious, but even big companies can make the mistake or a similar one… I worked for a company who refocused and re-branded their consulting firm for the dot com market, thus annoying existing real world customers just before the dot com collapse!

    Timing can be soooo important!



  27. Kyrie Bridgewater says

    Hi Dawud,

    How true, your comment “The difference between success and failure is in how your target audience perceives you. That’s positioning.”

    And so, I have found that it is a continual testing process-what works and what doesn’t work for the majority of your customers-to me, it’s kind of like continually tweaking headlines in your ads and split-testing them.

    It’s hard work, but it truly is ‘the difference between success and failure’!

    Thanks again for a though provoking article!

    Kyrie Bridgewater

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