Ah, football season in the US – that time of year when we look to sports to help illustrate the importance of clearly communicating your product positioning and differentiation to prospects.

Here is a fun experiment. Try explaining NFL football to a non-fan. Or, for that matter, to anyone from outside North America, where the very word “football” has an entirely different meaning. As do many of the sport’s terms.

How is a down the word for a segmented unit of action? Who named those two points a safety if they take place in the offense’s end zone? Why am I still so despondent about the Music City Miracle almost two decades later?

It’s hard to explain game play to a non-fan. But it’s ludicrous to expect them to understand it by looking at the most generic, commoditized information about the sport.

Its weekly standings.

product positioning - differentiation

These charts are great for people who love the sport, follow the teams, and thrive on geeking out over statistics and trivia.

You know who they’re not great for?

Anyone who is just starting to learn about the game. People who live with someone who watches it, so they want to share their interest. Someone who has just started a new job where everyone in the department is a diehard fan, and figure they should brush up on their water cooler talk.

But that’s OK. The charts were never designed as education for the non-fan, and they don’t pretend to be.

In reality, information at this level is for loyal fans, enthusiasts, know-it-alls and gamblers. It’s for anyone who already understands what the sport, teams, and match-ups are all about. Charts like these can arm them with information that may help them speak intelligently about a team. Perhaps, they can make a quick decision about whom to root for or bet on.

Stats are data, not product positioning

Here’s the thing:

Some technology companies (and their sales teams) – still – present their product information like a statistics chart.

We’re talking complex, high-consideration technologies that people have to budget for months or years in advance.

Purchases that need evaluation over the course of many quarters and vendor meetings.

Investments that require approval for from executives with even greater influence – who also don’t know how to read a chart.

That’s easy, you say. Just read the numbers, you say. Right? After all, it’s disingenuous not to acknowledge that people who can tell higher numbers from lower ones should be able read a chart.

Arguably, fans of any competitive sport (especially one that has teams, leagues and points) would be able to decipher the most common statistics no matter what new sport they were studying.

If you had to keep up with water cooler talk on a Monday, with a quick glance at some crucial stats, odds are that you could grasp generally which team is superior, and which ones are, ahem, “rebuilding.”

So yes. In the same manner, if you’re comparing features of a family of products or competing technology products, of course you’d be able to make a decision.

Because anyone can obviously see that some alternatives have more of certain specs, and fewer of other specs.

Except when they don’t.

product positioning - no differentiation

Hidden differences

Let’s take the 2012 NFL mid-season for the AFC East conference as an example.

Someone who made a decision based on standings alone – lets call them features – would see four identically competitive teams.

(I’ll pause and wait for anyone who’s familiar with these four teams to dry their tears of laughter. This could take a while.)

If all four options were the same, how would you choose?

Some tech companies would just throw more features at you.

product positioning - just add features

This should make it easier. By showing that the non-conference record for the Patriots is the worst in the division, and that they also have the only losing streak, if it were up to some companies, that’s all the information you’d need to eliminate the Pats from the running.

You might think this is a stretch, and I don’t blame you.

But many companies arm their sales teams and channel reps with feature and spec charts like these as the definitive selling tool.

Why? Because with all sincerity – or hubris – they truly believe their product will sell itself.

And that’s a mistake.

Because any competitor can make one little change to a single feature of their product, and put themselves back in the running – eliminating what you were relying on as a differentiator. And making any product positioning moot.

Like the Pats’ in-conference record, the Conf column, showing matches played against other teams in the AFC. Ah, that changes things.

product positioning - add more features

Or home and away games, where the Bills are evenly matched with the Pats, ROTFL.

product positioning - keep adding features

Or the final stat, the Division record – which is just about where you finally see a meaningful difference (if you know the importance of division records, that is), and at the same time, say to yourself, “This is making my eyes cross. Who even cares about all this?”

And nobody would blame you.

Specs hide value

After all, you’re not a die-hard NFL enthusiast. You’re a B2B buyer, evaluating NFL teams because you need to deliver a sports-themed training initiative for your upcoming sales kickoff. And this is the information the training company’s account rep has presented to you.

Rabid users of a technology solution are overwhelmingly not the business buyers.

As part of a typical buying committee, users may only make up one of the 7 stakeholders, and it’s likely they’re not the main contact in a sales situation.

What if you’re one of those business buyers?

Let’s say you oversee corporate communications at a large enterprise. Your responsibility may be to execute the CHRO’s directive to centralize internal communications across your 8,600 locations and 42 countries.

You probably have KPIs for effectiveness, reach, and consistency, to name a few. How will you achieve them? Will the solution be an outside service provider? New processes? Hiring a specialized staff? You’re not even certain that you need equipment at all.

But someone is.

product positioning - spec table

While you’re out there figuring out how to solve that enormous business issue, will you really be swayed by an impenetrable wall of specs?

Which ones are important to you? Will those meet your goals? If they will, then do you really need all the other specs at all? or will you feel as though you’re overpaying for specs you won’t use? (How much does a spec cost, anyway?)

Feature comparisons and spec charts, like weekly standings, have their place. But not in product positioning, and not in educating prospects about a solution.

Selling solutions? Or moving boxes?

Feature comparisons and spec charts are product documentation – the physical (or digital) characteristics of the product transposed into typewritten characters.

Long into the sales cycle – at the evaluation stage – they’re the checklist against agreed requirements. Any other time, they’re the developers’ resume.

But they’re certainly not marketing material or sales enablement content.

If they were, they would focus less on the product, and more on the customer’s needs.

Consistently, when comparisons like these do not address the buyers’ unspoken “What’s in it for me,” customers will see the products as commodities and make their choice based on price alone.

  • That could mean, well, congratulations. You’ve sold your lowest-priced offering, undercutting your own bottom line.
  • It could mean the buyer purchases a competitive product, or goes with a different solution altogether – one that has more clearly differentiated its product positioning beyond the specs.

In our mid-season 2012 example, looking at the very first chart above, the superior choice would have been the clearly differentiated Baltimore Ravens, positioned uniquely among an easily distinguishable AFC North division.

And a few months later, for someone making a bet on a certain super-big game, it would have been the right decision.

But you know what? You couldn’t tell by just reading the stats.

product positioning - winning difference