Brand Positioning: A Complete Guide for SMBs and Startups

In this guide, we’ll share what brand positioning really is, why it’s important, and how to develop a brand positioning strategy.


3 Big Ideas

  • A brand’s position ultimately exists in the mind of the consumer.
  • Brand positioning is a strategic process that influences what consumers believe your brand stands for.
  • When successful, brand positioning can grow market share, justify premium prices, and even demand larger exit multiples. 

In a perfect world, owning a brand position means you own a place in the minds of consumers. I say adhesive strip. You say Band Aid. I say facial tissue. You say Kleenex. I say search engine. You say Google.

In these examples, the brand and the category are one and the same.

Where I grew up in Texas, asking for a Coke didn’t always mean you were asking for an actual Coca-  Cola. A Coke could mean a Dr. Pepper, a 7-Up, or even a Big Red (a soda sold exclusively in Texas at the time). Coke had achieved the ultimate in brand positioning. It was synonymous with ‘soft drink’. 

In this article, we’ll share what brand positioning really is, why it’s important, and how to develop a brand positioning strategy. 

What is brand positioning?

Put simply, your brand’s position is what makes your brand stand out and stand apart from the competition in the minds of consumers. Of course this presupposes your brand occupies any space in the minds of consumers. These days, establishing ‘mind share’ is about cutting through the clutter. And cutting through the clutter can mean spending a ton of money. That’s why it’s especially hard for small and medium sized enterprises that don’t have giant brand budgets to stand out. (By the way, we define small and medium sized businesses as companies with fewer than 1000 employees.) 

But, just because you don’t have an enterprise sized budget doesn’t mean brand positioning isn’t worth the effort. In fact, effective brand positioning can have an exponential return on investment. It can save you from wasting time and money pushing the same message all your competitors are pushing. In other words, it will save you from being boring and forgettable! And, if you do manage to get a coveted ‘position’ in the minds of your consumers, it means you’ll also get an unfair share of business from them. 

Brand Positioning is how customers categorize your product or service, and where they rank it in their minds. If you take a look at the examples below, you’ll see how murky things get when you get past the #1 and #2 position.

Why does your brand need a positioning strategy?

In many ways, your company’s brand positioning strategy is akin to your company’s brand map. It clearly lays out where you are trying to go and the manner in which you will get there. 

The reason you need to document your positioning strategy is so you can share the map with your entire team. Everyone in your company should know where you are headed and the route you’ll take to get there. If your team doesn’t have the map, things will go wrong. 

After decades of working with companies on marketing and branding, I’ve found that the reasons most companies fail to develop a truly great brand isn’t from lack of trying. The reasoning most branding efforts fail is from a lack of consistently communicating – both internally and externally – the brand’s position relative to the competition.

The other reason to develop a positioning strategy is to get agreement on where “there” is. “There” has to be worth the journey or you’re not going to get a whole lot of people to take the journey with you. “There” is your brand’s purpose. It has to matter, it has to be relevant, and it has to be big.

When is the right time to assess your brand position?

Short answer: Now. If you haven’t already done the work of plotting the position you want your brand to occupy, you need to do that now. In other words, if you don’t already have a map, you need to develop one. 

If you have already done this work, you need to see how well you’re moving along toward your destination. It’s an ongoing process. 

Here are a few times when you’ll want to do a thorough positioning assessment:

  • Your company is introducing a new product or service
  • Your company is expanding into new markets
  • Market dynamics or industry regulation are changing
  • Your company needs a north star to focus your communications efforts
  • Your prospects can’t articulate what your product or service does, or how it’s different
  • Your prospects are evaluating your offer almost exclusively on price
  • The category leader in your industry has become vulnerable
  • A category disrupter has emerged
  • Your category is in decline

At Motive3, we use a brand positioning assessment to initially assess clients’ brand positioning (and encourage annual checkups).

How do you develop a brand positioning strategy?

Brand positioning is a process that involves looking both inward and outward. Positioning by its very definition implies an external market frame of reference. So the process begins by looking at the market itself. Once you’ve defined the market, then you’ll want to look inward – study your customers, your own product features and benefits, the areas where you have an obvious advantage – and stake your claim.

Start with a positioning strategy framework

There are a bunch of positioning frameworks out there, and plenty of books to read about it, but here’s how we do it practically at Motive3.


  • ID your best customers
  • Determine your category frame of reference


  • Unearth your truly unique attributes
  • Map your attributes to value that customers care about
  • Refine your customer targets
  • Develop your position

Find what your best customers have in common

What do your best customers have in common? It could be almost anything. It could be

  • A common dissatisfaction with an alternative on the market
  • A unique way they use your product or service
  • A common sociological or economic characteristic they share
  • A life milestone they are crossing (for example having a baby, or retirement)
  • Etc.

You can do this a couple of ways. If you have a huge number of customers and don’t really know them personally you could run analysis on customer data to surface insights. If you’re a smaller firm and have direct knowledge of your customers, you could simply list your top 10 or so and then look for patterns in what they all have in common. 

The goal here is simply to start to understand what your current customers (not prospects, because they haven’t chosen you yet) have in common with who you are today. This in itself might give you some startling insights, but it’s only the start of the process. Why? Because the customers you have today, may or may not be the ones you need tomorrow.

Determine your category frame of reference

This may sound basic, but you’d be surprised how often we find that smaller companies have not stopped to consider the wider category they operate in. I’ll give you an example. We recently worked with a company that developed software to help track vaccinations across the US. 

When we kicked off our engagement with a positioning workshop and asked our first context-setting question, What category is your business in?, we were surprised to hear 3 different answers by 3 different members of the executive team: software development, information, public health.

Why is category important? Your product or service category is important because it’s how the market (external) will categorize what you’re offering. Therefore it also dictates who they will compare you with (your external competitors). In the example above, those are three radically different categories, with radically different competitors in each category. None of them are necessarily wrong, but depending on which category frame of reference our client assigned themselves to, they could be a weak competitor or a strong one. 

So what category are you in? HINT: Who are your primary competitors right now? What category are they in?

List your major competitors plus their features & characteristics

Who do you compete against day in and day out for business? If you have a sales staff, this is a straightforward exercise. Get the specific companies you go up against from them. They’ll have the best answers. 

If you don’t have a sales staff, or if you’re a smaller business this may be a difficult question to answer because you probably have countless nameless competitors. In that case, you need to do some research. 

  • Who you sell to: who else competes for the same customers you compete for?
  • Where you sell: who do you compete against in your area or territory? 
  • What you sell: who else sells what you sell (even if not to the same customers)?

HINT: Business journal “lists” are a great way to find who the biggies are in your area.

Once you have a list of competitors, you’re going to need to do some basic analysis.

  • How big are they in terms of revenues?
  • How broadly (or narrowly) do they define their sales territory?
  • How broadly (or narrowly) do they define their sales offerings?
  • How do they price similarly or differently?
  • Who is their ideal customer?
  • What features and characteristics do they all have in common?
  • What features and characteristics are unique to each competitor?
  • What do they hang their hat on?
  • Etc.

We capture all of these characteristics in a spreadsheet so we can color code things and move stuff around easily. 

What are your uniques?

What is unique to your brand? Now that you’ve assessed your competitors, take a look inward to find what is truly unique for your company, brand or service. When you’re doing this, don’t be afraid to list things that on the surface could seem like a negative. For example, don’t be afraid to say:

  • We’re new
  • We’re young
  • We’re small
  • We’re slow
  • We’re weird
  • Etc.

If you’ve ever heard the words “boxy but good” you know that Volvo famously used the boxy shape of their cars to launch an advertising campaign that sticks to this day.

Value Mapping

Value mapping is the process of mapping the things that make your brand unique to the benefits they produce. It’s those benefits (not the features) that are what represent value to customers. Take all of the attributes that make you unique and start to group them into some logical categories. We suggest no fewer than 3 and no more than 7 categories. Now, ask yourself this question for each group: What benefit does this attribute enable for customers? Here’s what this looked like for one of our clients in the financial category.

Consider: what benefit does this attribute enable for customers?

Conduct customer interviews to determine your current brand position

You could even go one step further and do customer interviews. At Motive3, we LOVE customer interviews because they tend to give us all the answers we can’t find in the data. And, the verbatims tend to be pure gold for copywriting.

Customer Segmentation (or refining your customer targets)

Customer segmentation is the process of narrowing the full field of possible customers (sometimes called the total addressable market) down to the set of customers that are likely to find the most value in your unique offering. When you look at the benefits that you enable, ask yourself two questions. 

  1. Who will most find value in these benefits? 
  2. Who will least find value in these benefits?

Why both questions? Because this isn’t a theoretical exercise. Not everyone will find the safety of a Volvo as the thing they value most. Don’t believe me? Drive around your neighborhood and try to find a motorcycle and a Volvo parked in the same driveway. Some folks value freedom or excitement more than they value safety.

Plot your competitors on a positioning map

The purpose of a positioning map during a positioning strategy exercise is to find a place where you can claim a difference. Practically, a positioning map is a visual representation of how your brand is perceived by customers. When creating your positioning map, the axes should represent the key dimensions or benefits that you produced in your value mapping work. The map is a great stress test to see how well you’re differentiated from your competitors inside your category. 

Your goal is to develop a map where you hold a dominant position relative to the companies you sell against with your best customer segment. Hence, you might need to work through a handful of iterations before you find one that helps shape where you want to stake your claim of difference.

For example, Volvo may own safety, but it’s not a cheap car to purchase. At the time of this writing, Mazda makes some of the safest budget cars on the market at an affordable price.

If you have a teenager and are looking for a safe car that won’t break the bank, Mazda could be your brand. Imagine this headline on an ad:

When you hand your teen a new set of keys, make it a Mazda. The safest car under $23,000.

Who is typically involved in brand positioning?

Developing a brand positioning strategy typically involves a number of different stakeholders, both internally and externally.

Internally, the team could include:

  • Marketing and branding folks who are directly responsible for developing and executing the brand strategy.
  • Product and/or service teams who have a deep understanding of the products being offered, and can provide insights into different ways and scenarios that the product can be used.
  • Sales and customer service teams who have firsthand experience interacting with customers and can provide insights into customer needs, preferences and perceptions.

Externally, the team may include:

  • Branding and advertising agencies who have expertise in positioning models and methods, category expertise, and also have the benefit of an objective point of view.
  • Customers and customer panels who can give direct input about their wants, needs, frustrations and pains.

How long does it take to build a positioning strategy?

The amount of time that it takes to develop a positioning strategy can vary depending on a few factors including the number of people involved, the complexity and size of the organization overall, and the amount of research that will be done to inform the strategy. 

For example, at Motive3 we tend to favor doing customer interviews when we do brand positioning. We find them invaluable for normalizing and humanizing the process. There’s no substitute for getting the voice of the customer in their own words. However, these take time – time to schedule, to conduct, to document and to then analyze for insights.

And finally, there’s the time involved in getting the ‘aha’. If everything goes well, and you immerse yourself in the category overall as much as is feasible in the time you have available, and you listen to real customers so you are forced to get an outside perspective, and you work the problem from as many angles and maps as necessary . . . then, if you’re lucky and the brand gods smile upon you, you’ll unearth an advantageous brand position in a flash of insight. 

Now you have to take it to market and see if you got it right. 

What comes after brand positioning?

Once a brand positioning strategy has been developed, the next step is to implement it and put it into action. This involves a variety of activities, including:

  • Communicating the brand's positioning to your market segment. This involves creating marketing and branding materials that clearly communicate your brand's unique value proposition and the benefits it offers to its customers.
  • Aligning all internal and external communications with the brand's positioning: This is when you’ll update the brand's website, social media channels, and other marketing materials to reflect the brand's positioning.
  • Training employees on the brand's positioning: It's important for all employees to understand the brand's positioning and be able to communicate it effectively to customers and other stakeholders.
  • Monitoring and adjusting the brand's positioning as needed: A brand's positioning should be regularly reviewed and updated as needed to ensure that it remains relevant and effective. This may involve conducting market research, analyzing competitors, and adjusting the brand's positioning as needed to reflect changes in the market or the target audience.

Overall, implementing a brand positioning strategy involves taking action to communicate the brand's unique value proposition and differentiate it in the market. It's an ongoing process that requires ongoing monitoring and adjustments to ensure that the brand's positioning remains relevant and effective.

Oatly is a great example of a brand that fully embodies the importance of differentiated positioning. They’re one of many in the seemingly endless varieties of non-dairy milk alternatives lining grocery store shelves. In their own words however, Oatly exists to make positive societal shifts as a sustainability company that sells oat milk. Though oat milk is the product, they have a higher purpose — to start a movement that shifts consumption of animals to plants to secure the longevity of the planet. But what people really respond to is their breakthrough messaging style. It’s approachable, cheeky, and fun. They’re a great example of tying a brand purpose to a unique voice that cuts through the clutter.  


Another great example is Our Place. You might categorize Our Place as a kitchenware or cookware brand by the simple fact of the products they sell, but the company would beg to differ. Our Place was created to not only fill a cookware gap in multiethnic American kitchens, but also around a strong belief that through home-cooking we can build stronger communities. The name of the company, Our Place, is derived from the core idea of “come over to our place” as an open invitation to gather together for a home-cooked meal. While the company has a great mission, the real differentiated position is in the product design. One pan, that is beautifully designed, to replace eight traditional pieces of cookware. Simplicity for complex times – that’s different. 

The Bottom Line

Overall, positioning is a crucial element of overall brand strategy, but it's just one piece of the puzzle. A successful brand strategy involves a holistic approach that considers all aspects of the customer experience, from the initial discovery of the brand to ongoing engagement, loyalty, and advocacy. 

By taking a comprehensive approach – starting with positioning – businesses of all sizes can build strong, lasting relationships with their customers. And that’s what it takes to grow market share, justify premium prices, and even demand larger exit multiples. Learn more about our brand positioning consulting.

Brand Positioning: A Complete Guide for SMBs and Startups

Newsletter —

In this guide, we’ll share what brand positioning really is, why it’s important, and how to develop a brand positioning strategy.


Brand Positioning: A Complete Guide for SMBs and Startups

In this guide, we’ll share what brand positioning really is, why it’s important, and how to develop a brand positioning strategy.

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