Book Review and Analysis: Obviously Awesome by April Dunford

TL;DR

I’ve read hundreds of books on business and marketing. The best ones (and perhaps the rarest) are the most practical. They give you a legitimate, battle-tested framework and a step-by-step guide to getting something meaningful done that delivers key results. April Dunford’s book, Obviously Awesome: How to Nail Product Positioning So Customers Get It, Buy It, Love It, is one of these gems. It’s one of my top 10 business reads of all time, and I highly recommend it for business leaders and marketers.

Why you should read Obviously Awesome

15 years ago, in my first role as a startup marketing executive, I discovered Rocket Watcher, April Dunford’s website on startups and startup marketing. The website has since been decommissioned, but it was a frequent and helpful reference for me over the years as I helped launch and grow a handful of businesses and nonprofits. Until I found Obviously Awesome, the only book I had read on positioning was Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, by Al Ries and Jack Trout.

It’s been many years since I read Positioning, but I remember it being mostly case study analyses and unstructured questions meant to stimulate thinking. Enlightening, but impractical. It was fine as an introduction to the concept of positioning, but there was no clear framework for defining and implementing positioning as an essential component of marketing and business strategy. April Dunford’s Obviously Awesome tackles positioning deftly, with an immensely practical step-by-step guide that could be the companion workbook to Ries and Trout’s more conceptual volume.

Why you should care about positioning

To summarize some of Dunford’s teachings, the risks of not having a defined position (or having a poorly defined one) are confusion, skepticism, and boredom in the minds of your buyers. Not good! Early in my career, a mentor (imagine Bobby Axelrod in the TV show Billions) taught me that to address a market opportunity successfully, win the positioning game, and dominate mind and market share, you need to make the competitive alternatives look deficient in the eyes of your ideal buyer.

This is reminiscent of the ideas outlined in the famed Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevant, by Renée Mauborgne and W. Chan Kim. Blue Ocean Strategy is another fine conceptual work that’s heavy on ideas and case studies, but light on practicality. To make the competitive alternatives irrelevant, you need an integrated strategy that makes positioning operational throughout the business.

Consider this: without a position, you are vulnerable to attack. You leave an unguarded gap wide-open for your competitors to capitalize on. Imagine positioning as the net in hockey or soccer. There’s a goalie or goalkeeper to prevent the opposing team from “scoring”, taking your market opportunity away from you. Building a business without clear positioning is like playing hockey without a goalie. You’re wide open and unprotected. Your chances of losing points to the opposition increase. If you’re not in position to defend your market opportunity, everything is at risk — revenue, profit, market share, even your very existence.

How to define positioning

I recently road-tested Dunford’s approach in a positioning and messaging workshop I led for the leadership team and departmental heads at my current company. I adapted the workshop from the 10-step positioning method laid out in Dunford’s book (I added an 11th step from my own experience in making strategy operational, which I may cover in a subsequent article). The workshop was well-received, and we came out with a good result.

Dunford’s book walks you through the steps to defining positioning. Depending on the size of your company, you should carve out a half day to a few days to define positioning with your team. At my current company, a startup, I was able to do it in half a day. Larger teams will need a full day or several days. Your positioning team should comprise the leadership team and the heads of the various business units or departments.

In my experience running strategic planning workshops like this, I’ve observed the value of involving people from all levels and areas of the organization. Business leaders are often surprised by the insights that come from folks you wouldn’t expect: engineers, administrative assistants, even interns. The bottom line is, DO NOT do this holistic work in a marketing vacuum. You need stakeholders from all areas of the business, especially customer-facing.

What you’ll get out of it

If you follow the 10 steps, you’ll develop a quick and easy reference guide that lays out the key components of positioning for everyone in the company. This process will also help build clarity, consensus, and confidence among the members of your team. Here are the components of positioning you should end up with:

Competitive Alternatives — There’s a common misconception that competitive alternatives to your product or service are always competing products or services. It’s more likely that buyers view the status quo, or what they’re currently doing that isn’t quite working, as the competitive alternative to what you’re offering.

Key Unique Attributes or Strengths — Your product or service has (needs to have!) features and capabilities that the alternatives do not. These strengths or unique attributes need to be defined from the perspective of the best fit prospect for your offering. It’s not about you and what you think! It’s about what’s going on in the buyers’ minds, what problems they want solved, and the space your solution occupies there.

Value — There’s an ancient marketing argument about what constitutes a feature or benefit. Dunford throws value into the mix. Here’s how I think about the difference between these three elements: the features or capabilities of your product/service enable the customer or client to enjoy benefits that are meaningful to them. The benefits result in the buyer getting a desired outcome or value that they can’t get (or at least perceive that they can’t get) with the competitive alternatives.

Here’s an example: I’ve used a project planning/to-do list app called Things for many years now. Things has a feature I like called “Areas”. Areas could be the different hats you wear in your business or nonprofit or, as is the case with how I use them, different areas of your life that you care about and that you use to group projects and tasks.

I have Areas called Health, Marriage, Relationships, Career, Contribution, and Money. Areas is the feature or capability that Things has that I like best. It allows me to organize my projects and to-dos into areas of focus that make sense to me. The value I get from the benefit is, in large part, emotional. I feel good because I feel organized. I’ve represented all the important areas of my life and have filled them with projects and tasks that will help me get more of what I want. The tangible value is that I get more of what I want in life because I’m organized, which helps me focus and get more of the right things done.

Best Fit Buyers Profile — In order to define an ideal customer, client, or donor profile in a sophisticated way, it’s not enough to list demographic and psychographic information. In fact, this stuff should probably come later, after you’ve defined the profile of the best fit buyer who cares the most and is the most enthusiastic about the value that your offering creates for them. This applies to both startups and go-to-market strategies at larger companies. It’s more efficient to go after the buyers that are the easiest to sell to and retain.

Market Context — Market context is a shortcut to creating understanding and hopefully helpful assumptions for your buyers. Maybe your product or service is innovative. You’re a pioneer in your field. You’re showing buyers something they’ve never seen before. It can be very hard and expensive to educate a market about something new. However, buyers already have space in their minds for established categories of products with built-in assumptions. If you determine it advantageous to do so, you can position your innovative new offering with products and services in an existing category to aid awareness, understanding, and education. Just be sure the category comes with assumptions that help rather than hurt you.

Summary

  • Positioning isn’t just a statement written by a marketer. It’s not messaging, though it is the foundation for it.
  • As illustrated by April Dunford’s career and the expertise captured in her book, positioning is a critical element of business strategy that can determine whether you win or lose the market.
  • Defining positioning is an intellectually rigorous and intentional process for teams. It clarifies key elements that should inform how a business markets, sells, and operates to win.

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Adam Dudley

Adam Dudley

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Life’s too short for bad coffee! Business and marketing guy. I love science, tech, startups, and philosophy. I practice Mysore Style Ashtanga Yoga 6 days/week.