In a famous experiment in 2007, the Washington Post arranged to have Joshua Bell, one of the best musicians in the world, to play on a Washington D.C. subway platform for 45 minutes. More than a thousand people passed him during his performance. Only a few stopped to listen and the cash he earned amounted to $27. Two days earlier Joshua Bell sold out a theatre in Boston where the cost was over $100 per seat.

This experiment can teach us a valuable lesson about context and what it means for selling a product. Joshua Bell, in the context of a subway platform, is perceived as just another street performer, trying to hustle a buck from busy commuters. In the context of a theatre full of classical music fans, Joshua is, in the words of one Washington Post reporter “One of the best musicians in the world, playing the most elegant music ever written, on of the most valuable violins ever made.” The exact same product, presented to people in wildly different contexts is perceived to have wildly different value.

For most products, we don’t have the equivalent of a concert hall – we have to create a frame of reference for prospects to help them understand us. How do we do that? Positioning is a way of giving context to a person who has never heard of your solution before. It’s a way of creating a frame of reference that highlights the strengths of your solution.

Framing however, is often done poorly, particularly by startups. That’s because companies will often jump to the conclusion that there is only one possible way to position a solution. That default positioning however, generally plays to the strengths of the existing players in the market (why wouldn’t it – they probably created the market in the first place) and often doesn’t take into account the innovation that a new solution brings to the table.

So how do you shake yourself out of that default and come up with other possibilities? The first step is to take a hard look at yourself without a frame. This may sound easy to do but it often isn’t. Here’s how you might do that:

STEP 1: List out your unique features without judging them as “good” or “bad” – Every offering and company has things that make them different or unique. Often we are so used to looking at ourselves within our default frame of reference that pass judgment on whether our characteristics are good or bad based on that frame alone. In this step the key is to look at what you have as building blocks, without passing a judgment. Often characteristics can be both positive and negative. For example, a product with few advanced features is often also easy to use, a product that is highly customizable could also be seen as complex. As Alistair showed in his earlier post – too big for gymnastics could also be just right for swimming. In this step you are just listing the unique/remarkable/rare things you have, without labeling those as positive or negative.

STEP 2: Make a list of what those characteristics are useful for – Almost any characteristic can be good for something. If you go down the list of things you have that are unique and different – what value could those things bring for customers? The key to this step is to separate this from a particular target market. How might these things be useful for anyone, or groups you maybe have never thought about serving before? Bubble wrap was originally conceived as wallpaper, then later marketed as home insulation, but it wasn’t until IBM used it to package computers for transport, that it became a success.

STEP 3: What groups of buyers would care a lot about that value – Not everyone is looking for a super customizable tool or a tool that’s easy to use, or cares about fantastic support. This step is about pairing the value you could provide with a group of folks that cares a lot about that value.

Using these three things together you now have the basis for creating a frame of reference. One pairing of value with audience will make you a street performer playing a fiddle for tips and another will make you a concert violinist worth $100 a seat.

Which frame you choose will depend on a host of things including your company financial goals, your ability to reach and sell to a particular market, your ability to credibly claim leadership in your chosen space, etc. We’ll cover how you assess a frame in an upcoming post.



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