Obviously Awesome with April Dunford

Lauren Volpi's headshot on a blue background

April Dunford is a consultant and author who helps companies make complicated products easy for customers to understand and love. She is a globally recognized expert in Positioning, having launched 16 products across her 25-year career running marketing, product and sales teams at a series of successful startups. She is the author of the best-selling book Obviously Awesome: How to Nail Product Positioning so Customers Get it, Buy it, Love it.

Here are a few of the topics we’ll discuss on this episode of Long Story Short:

  • April’s detailed product positioning framework 
  • The root cause of most weak positioning — and how to fix it
  • How positioning is different from messaging and branding
  • The misalignment that occurs across marketing, sales, and product teams within companies — and the issues that causes for buyers
  • How to paint your product in the right light
  • The dominant emotion for B2B buyers (and how to tap into it)

 

Resources:

April’s Website

Obviously Awesome by April Dunford

The Challenger Sale by Brent Adamson and Matthew Dixon

The Challenger Customer by Brent Adamson, Pat Spenner, Nick Toman, and Matthew Dixon

The Four Steps to the Epiphany by Steve Blank

Positioning by Al Ries and Jack Trout

Lenny’s Newsletter

Lenny’s Podcast

 

Connect with April: 

Twitter

LinkedIn

 

Connect with Jeff:

LinkedIn

 

Connect with Sirkin Research:

Website

Twitter

Instagram

LinkedIn

Jeff Sirkin:
Hello, and welcome back to another episode of Long Story Short, the podcast about storytelling connection. I’m your host, Jeff Sirkin. On this show we talk to people making a difference, as marketers, entrepreneurs, and social impact advocates. We dig into actionable strategies and tactics to help you connect with your audience and keep your finger on the pulse of your market. My guest this week is April Dunford. She’s a consultant and author who helps companies make complicated products easy for customers to understand and love. She is a globally recognized expert in positioning, having launched 16 products across her 25 year career, running marketing product and sales teams at a series of successful startups. She’s the author of the best-selling book, Obviously Awesome How to Nail Product Positioning So Customers Get It, Buy It, Love It.
April and I had a great conversation all about positioning. She literally wrote the book on it. We talked about what positioning is and how it’s different from messaging. We covered the misalignment that occurs across marketing, sales and product tams within companies, and the issues that causes the buyers. And we dug into April’s positioning framework for you to make your own products obviously awesome. Without further ado, please enjoy my conversation with April Dunford.
Hi, April. Thanks so much for coming on Long Story Short.

April Dunford:
Hey, it’s great to be here.

Jeff Sirkin:
The focus of today’s episode is all around product positioning. You were the foremost expert that literally wrote the book on it. In order to get started, I really want to start with how do you define positioning?

April Dunford:
Whenever I talk about positioning, people are often confused. A lot of people will confuse positioning with things that are sort of what I would adjacent to positioning, or things you would do with positioning once you have it. They’ll say, “Oh yeah, positioning, I know that is. It’s the same thing as messaging.” I’m like, “Nah, actually no.” The one that I really hate is when people talk about brand positioning, because I feel like there’s branding, and positioning, those two things are really separate and distinct. I define positioning like this, positioning defines how your product is the best in the world at delivering some value that a very specific well defined set of customers really cares a lot about.

Jeff Sirkin:
I love that. Again, I know we’ve heard you say that that feels like a mouthful, but I really don’t think it is. I think every component of that is essential to the definition. I think something that I see in my work is the idea, and this comes up a lot, the idea that it’s not about… Theoretically, there’s nothing wrong with your product at a base level. It’s really a matter of painting it in the right light to be seen by the right people, right?

April Dunford:
Right. That’s not to say that we never have product problems. We do.

Jeff Sirkin:
Of course.

April Dunford:
We do. Sometimes we have products that fail because the product just doesn’t meet a real need for a real set of customers. A lot of times what we have is a product that’s in market, it’s doing pretty well, we’re just not doing the best possible job of telling a story around it.

Jeff Sirkin:
Right.

April Dunford:
Usually when we scratch at that, like why is our story kind of weak, or why is our story kind of mushy, when we scratch at it, it’s usually because we don’t have a really crisp definition of how we’re going to position it. Meaning, we’re not all really clear on who we compete with, how we’re different from those alternatives, what really is our differentiated value, and who exactly are the type of prospects we’re trying to go after because they’re a really good fit for that value. So, defining all these pieces is part of defining positioning. I think a lot of times you’ll have products in market that aren’t really living up to their potential because they’re positioned in such a way that a customer can’t really figure out what it is, “Why should I care? Why should I pick this over the other thing?”

Jeff Sirkin:
I’ll say in hindsight, in my experience as a buyer on the other side, is the products that have failed for me are the ones I end up not pursuing, are the ones where to me it’s just a little confusing. I don’t really know what bucket to fit it in, in my mind. I’m not going to name names, but there’re certain names it’s like, wait a second, are you a CRM? Are you a messaging tool? Again, it’s sort of like this. If I have that kind of ambiguity, it’s sort of like well, if I don’t know what need it fits for me, it’s something I’m not interested in.

April Dunford:
That’s exactly it. That’s exactly it. There’s a lot of things like that. Sometimes it’s people can’t figure out what it is. Sometimes people, they’re like “Oh, I know what that is. I just don’t get why anyone would pay for it.” So they think they get what it is, but they just don’t understand the value. Or you’ll get this thing where people think they get it, but they actually are wrong. They’ll say, “Oh, I know what you are. You’re a CRM.” And you’re like, “No man, we’re nothing that. Why are you calling me that? We’re not that.” The more we can be explicit about here’s what we are, here’s the value we can deliver, here’s who we’re for, the more we can clear that confusion up.
A lot of the times, people are just guessing because we haven’t told them. We are not making it easy to figure that stuff out. The burden is all on the customer to figure that out.

Jeff Sirkin:
Yeah, I think that’s such a great perspective that if you’re not clear you’re putting the burden on the customer. That’s something that in most cases they’re just going to do.

April Dunford:
No, that’s exactly it. One of the things I’ve been really interested in lately, I find I’ve been having this conversation over and over again, is one of the key things about positioning is what are you positioning against? Part of positioning yourself in a market category is kind of indicating well at least who I think my competitors are. If you’re going to compare me to something, you should compare me to these kind of things. We have this idea I think in marketing that customers don’t want to hear that from us. They don’t want to hear us talking about competitors. They don’t want to hear our opinion about where we are. That’s the customer’s job to figure that out. I think that’s bonkers. I think that’s absolutely crazy.
I think what you’ve got is, imagine how if I think about B2B software, imagine how most of these B2B software gets bought. Boss walks in and says, “Oh my God, I hate the way we manage customer information. This is terrible.” We’ve been doing it on a spreadsheet or something, or maybe we’ve got this clunky old CRM and we’re like, “You know what, we need new CRM.” Does the boss pick new CRM? No. The boss looks around and says, “You, Joey, go find us a new CRM.” And Joey’s like, “Crap. I don’t know. I’ve used a CRM, but I don’t know what the state of the art of CRMs are. I don’t know who the players are. I don’t know what my purchase criteria should be.” Then what the buyer does is they go around, they’re looking on the websites, they do all their research and it’s just a mess. Everyone looks the same, and they all look the same. Every website says, “We’re the number one CRM.”

Jeff Sirkin:
Leading.

April Dunford:
I’ll go to these review sites like G2 Crowd, and it’s your a 5.1 or a 5.2. Does it matter? I don’t know. Everything’s top rate quadrant. There must be 20 companies up there. How do I pick? Then we as vendors are doing nothing to help that person on that buyer journey, because we don’t want to talk about the other guys. What we actually have to do is put ourselves in the shoes of buyers and say… What the buyer really needs is a way to think about the whole market. How do I split these things, if there’s 59 choices? They’re not all the same. We certainly have a perspective on that as vendors. We know way more about the market than a buyer does. Way more. We eat, sleep, and breathe this.
We could tell you everything that’s wrong about everybody else on the market. So if we can tell this story and say, “Look, there’s these kind of solutions and they’re really good if you look like this, but not so great if you look like that. There’s these kind of solutions that they’re great for XYZ, but not so great. But for someone like you, you need a thing that’s this. Here’s what’s important. At least, that’s what we think. That’s why we think you should pick us.” We almost never do that.

Jeff Sirkin:
That’s right. I want to keep following this example because I think when it comes to convincing prospects to buy products, it’s critical to tap into the emotions of buyers. While there’s a wide spectrum of emotions in consumer marketing, it tends to be a lot narrower in B2B. Something as you’re talking about this example, I want to kind of get your perspective of what do you see as that dominant emotion for Joey that’s now staring at 30, 50 different CRMs and not being able to pick between them?

April Dunford:
This is the thing that gets me, the consumer people, if I’m marketing consumer stuff, there’re all kinds of emotions like “I want to show off with my friends. I want to get a date. I want to look cool.” There’s all this stuff. B2B, the big emotion is terror. We’re scared. We’re fearful of making a mistake. The stakes are high in a B2B purchase. If I buy the wrong pair of shoes, it’s no big deal man. I just don’t buy those shoes again.

Jeff Sirkin:
Well, nobody else can answer to it but yourself.

April Dunford:
Yeah, no one to answer to but me, right? But if this is a considered purchase, and it was B2B… So I’m Joey. I know I got to pick the CRM for the whole department. If I make a bad choice, I bring it to my boss and my boss says, “Idiot. Why are you picking that one?” Then I’m going to look stupid. Maybe I don’t get a promotion. Maybe this thing is so bad, and we adopt it, and then all the other users hate my guts because I’m the person that picked that thing. Or maybe it dies on us at the end of the year when it’s crunch time and we miss our number, and oh my gosh the whole company’s going to suffer. Maybe I get fired for picking the wrong thing. This fear, we have to really understand this, because this fear is the reason why probably our most fearsome competitor in B2B is do nothing.

Jeff Sirkin:
Nothing, absolutely.

April Dunford:
Because the easiest thing for Joey to do in this situation is to look around and go, “Oh man, I don’t want to be responsible for making this choice. What if I get it wrong?” If I don’t in the first bit where I’m looking around and I’m trying to figure out… If I don’t figure this out quickly, the easiest thing for me to do is to go back to my boss and say, “Hey, you know what, it’s the end of the quarter. Bad time to buy a new software. Let’s just delay this purchase. Why don’t we do it next year? We’ll just delay it.” Then Joey’s crossing his fingers that he doesn’t get the point the next time they go to pick this thing, and he doesn’t have to be responsible for it.
If you look at the stats in this, it’s amazing. 40-60% of B2B purchase processes ends in no decision. Even more specifically, if you scratch at that data, the majority of those, it’s not because they love the thing they’ve already got. Why did they embark on a purchase process in the first place? There was obviously something not great about what they had, but the real issue is that they couldn’t figure out the right approach to the problem. Meaning, I couldn’t even figure out the market to say, “This approach versus this approach,” let alone figure out the vendors that made the short list for that approach, because I couldn’t figure out the approach I just said, “You know what, I’m throwing in the towel. We’re just going to stick with what we’ve got.”

Jeff Sirkin:
I think that 40-60% number should scare everybody, and rightfully so.

April Dunford:
Right? Half of them. My gosh, that’s terrible. And yet, in most of the companies that I work with, if you go to sales and you say, “Who do we compete with?” Sales will give you the list and they’ll say all the things that look just like you. But when you lose a deal like that, they say, “Oh, it’s just no decision.” Delayed purchase, they don’t see that as a loss, but it is a loss. It is a loss. You failed to get them across the line to even consider anything.

Jeff Sirkin:
I’ve had the same exact thing in QBRs where the sales people are saying, “Well we only lost one deal. These kept getting kicked down the road,” or whatever. It’s like, well you had X millions of dollars that were supposed to close. You only closed a very small fraction of it. So sure, the rest of them are technically open, but it’s because people keep pushing you off.

April Dunford:
This is it. And so, the other thing is that if I make no decision, on the surface of it, at least inside the company, even though if I’m Joey, I made no decision. What I’m really saying is, “I don’t want to pick. I can’t figure out how to pick, so I don’t want to pick.” Well what it looks like is we stayed with the status quo. What Joey did is he went back to his boss and sold status quo and said, “You know what, the thing we’ve got is okay. You know what, it’s okay if we do it on a spreadsheet. It’s not that bad.” If you don’t think that the spreadsheet is your competition, or the old legacy thing is your competition, if you don’t see it that way then you’re not giving the buyer any reason to switch off it. Meaning, generally we’re not effectively positioning against status quo in these cases.
If I’m a good sales rep, I should be able to come in and say, “Look, every day you’re using a spreadsheet costs you this. You think this is an easy decision to stay with this thing? It’s actually riskier to stay with this thing than it is to go to something else.” If I understood that, I could make the case against it. But if I don’t even see it as competition, well then I’m not going to bother selling against it.

Jeff Sirkin:
I think from my perspective, I think that’s where so many companies miss, is that to your point exactly, is like if you ask sales “Who are your competitors?” They list out the eight other things that walk, and talk, and quack just like they do. But in reality, so much of what they lose to is not that. So, as a result when they’re coming into these conversations and saying, “Oh, our processing speed is 7% faster or XYZ,” it’s well, okay but I’m not totally sure why that matters to me. I think to your point, you need to start from a place of you need to show them why the status quo is riskier. You need to show them that they are the frog in boiling water and they need to start realizing the risks they’re taking on everyday by sitting in that status quo.

April Dunford:
That’s exactly it. Exactly it.

Jeff Sirkin:
I want to come back to another piece of your process. I think we all know the value in talking to your customers generally, but one of the biggest aha moments I read from your book was the idea that you want to specifically talk to your best customers. Can you elaborate on what that specifically made such a big difference?

April Dunford:
This is a thing again that I think is maybe more particular to B2B than it is B2C. In B2B, it is not uncommon, particularly if you’re a startup, it’s not uncommon for you to have… Let’s say you have 30 customers, but really there’s 10 that are using you the way the product was designed and you would describe as a really good fit. Then you probably have four or five customers that maybe you landed those deals at the very beginning, when the product looked very different, and it did a very different thing. If you could roll back time, you might actually walk away from those deals, knowing what you know now.

Jeff Sirkin:
Right. Right, right.

April Dunford:
If I’m trying to do customer research and find out how do my customers think in the interest of lets improve my marketing and sales moving forward, do I really want to include the customer that’s doing the weird one-off thing with a version of your product you don’t even sell anymore? No, I don’t actually. What I want to do is I want to think about the section of the customers that I have today that are amazing. They’re a great fit for what we do, they intuitively get what we do, we sold them really quick because they got it, they didn’t ask for a discount because they totally got the value, they tell their friends about it. They’re happy, they renew every year with a big smile on their face.
Most companies, if I go in and I say, “Look, give me the profile of a customer that if you had a pipeline full of these folks, you’d be super joyous.” Let’s position for those because that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to have positioning that helps you get a pipeline full of these amazing ones, and we don’t want to get those weird one-off ones that were actually kind of a bad fit. I don’t know what they think about, to be honest. I care what the good fit people think.

Jeff Sirkin:
I think the other thing I want to unpack there is we approach marketing assuming we know what matters most to our customers. We think that the things we’re touting, that the processing speed, or whatever the things are, whatever the features and benefits are that we’re touting in market, is what they found. The reason I find that so interesting is to go specifically to those best customers is a lot of times they found Rutherford is the black box of the airplane. They found the special sauce, and it might be something that you’re not promoting. It might be a new use case that you weren’t even aware of.
So, so much of that can really come out of these conversations. We’ve had clients where they have 10 major product features and it turns out their audience only cares about two. And those aren’t the ones that they’re really promoting in market. I think there’s some of that back and forth too where they’ve found something super special, and maybe it’s your partnership. Maybe it’s not your product specifically, but something to do with your service level. But it’s really being able to kind of uncover those things, and then that way you can try to help more people find that in advance.

April Dunford:
Right. You know, this works in a lot of different ways. One thing I think is really interesting is that if you’ve got sales people, and those sales people are with that customer through the purchase journey, you know a lot. You generally know what the status quo is. You know who you’re getting compared to. Your sales person knows. But if you’re not tracking that, you don’t. If you never ask the sales people, you don’t. Now here’s where it gets tricky, you’ll have companies that come in and they don’t have any sales people, so a complete zero touch sales model around.
Well, now you know nothing. You know nothing. You actually have to go and get that. You know nothing. You don’t know who you’re getting compared to. You don’t, unless you go make an effort to go figure it out. Here’s the other thing, sales knows a bunch of stuff, but often we’re not going to ask them and they’re not tracking it, so that set of information is completely un-tabbed. You make a good point about sometimes we go and we talk to customers and we find out there’s this weird use case that we didn’t know they were doing, or they really love this thing, and we were surprised by that. If I walk over to product, I got the same thing.

Jeff Sirkin:
Yeah.

April Dunford:
I’ve got often, if I go to product and I say, “What’s really differentiating for us? Give me a thing that we do that no one else does,” product will tell me about some feature and it’s amazing, but nobody internally can figure it out. And so can’t sell it. Marketing people don’t understand it, so they don’t market it. Does the customer use it? No. Is there value in it? Potentially, huge value. Potentially, huge differentiating value. But hey, if we’re not talking about it, sales is not talking about it, we can’t rely on the customer and magically discover our amazing stuff by accident if we’re not positioning around it and we’re not doing whatever.
I think when we’re doing positioning, one of the key things we’ve got to do is tap into all these sources of information inside the company that we don’t even bother to talk to. So, when I do positioning stuff with companies, like we got product, sales, marketing, customer success, services, everybody’s in the room together because I’m trying to piece together what do we know internally? Then sometimes we got to go outside because there’s no other way to go do it. We have to go outside, especially if you don’t have sales. If you don’t have sales, I don’t know how a customer makes a decision. I don’t know what the status quo is. I don’t know what happens. I don’t know whose on the short list. So, I don’t know what I have to position against. I’m dead at the start line.

Jeff Sirkin:
I think even as you were talking about rounding up all of the different pieces of the organization, one of the major issues with organizations is a fundamental misalignment within their go-to-market function. So when marketing, and sales, and product have different views on some of those foundational items like what market category their product is in, or who your regular customers are, what kind of negative impact can that have within an organization when those functions are misaligned?

April Dunford:
I actually think that this is the root cause of most weak positioning, is a misalignment across the team. You know the one that I think is really interesting? It’s this question of who do we position against? A lot of times, that’s the source of it. You’ll get marketing that feels like, “Oh we need to really position against this, so we need to really emphasize these three things.” But then you’ll go over to sales and they’ll be like, “No, we think we position against this, so we got to emphasize these three other things.” Then you go over to the product side of the house and they’re building stuff and working on a product roadmap based on what they think are the things we got to beat out in the market.
All of a sudden what you’ll get is this kind of mushy messaging because it isn’t consistent. We’re not basically consistently hitting on “We are the best in the world at A, B, C. This is why you want to buy us.” It’s like marketing is saying ABC, sales is saying, EFG, with sometimes a little A sprinkled in there. Maybe you’ll bring in the CEO for a really big deal and the CEO is talking about XYZ, and it’s like something totally different. The customer’s kind of left again trying to make sense of it on their own. The burden then falls on the customer to be like, “I’m hearing a lot of messages here and I’m trying to figure out what box to put you in, and how to position you against everybody else I’m talking to.” And it’s just not clear.
That kind of mushiness will impact you all the way across your funnel, unfortunately. You’ll get the wrong kind of customers coming in because marketing’s doing something funky. Then they’ll make the switch to sales and go, “Oh gee, you’re that. Oh, that’s not what I want,” and then they drop out. You’ll get customers dropping out all across the funnel. Sometimes you’ll have sales teams that are really amazing at selling, but they’re selling the wrong stuff, so they get to a customer across the line and then 10 minutes later they’re churning on you because you’re like, “Wait, this is what we thought this was. I thought this was going to be something else.”
Weak positioning will kill you all over the place. I do think that agreement and alignment across the team, we need to actually get everybody together, figure out what the positioning is, and we got to pick it and stick it, and be consistent about it all the way across the organization if we’re going to have a hope in Heck of communicating a consistent clear message out to the customers we’re trying to reach.

Jeff Sirkin:
I think one of the reasons I love your perspective on the way you’re describing this as positioning as a team sport, is really because in my experience a lot of times these silos don’t even realize the disconnects. In some of our projects, we engage across marketing, sales, and product. Oftentimes, it’s not until we’re in the kickoff meeting, which is where they’re in the same space, discussing their beliefs around what matters most to buyers that they actually start to realize how far apart they are, and how different what they believe. I kind of refer to these moments as they happen as organizational therapy. To me, if that is so much of the value, is really being able to coalesce around that, because I think in a lot of cases the buyer sees the misalignment, but within the organizations they’re so heads down in their silo that they don’t even see it in turn.

April Dunford:
Yeah, totally agree.

Jeff Sirkin:
One other thing we talked a little bit earlier about, talking to your best customers, and we know why that’s crucial now, but I know that when the answer to everything is just “Talk to your customers,” it drives you a little crazy. I’d love to hear why that is for you.

April Dunford:
I know. I know. This has become one of my pet peeves because I do see a lot of this, that it’s like “Customers have all the answers. All you got to do is talk to your customers. I don’t get why you’re so numb. Just get out there and talk to customers.” I don’t actually believe that’s true. I think customers have a lot of the answers. They don’t have all the answers. One is the example that I used before, most of the time if I’m talking about tech products, if I go rummage around on the product side of the house there’s a handful of cool things that are totally differentiated and amazing that your product does, that only product management knows about.

Jeff Sirkin:
Right. Right.

April Dunford:
And marketing has no clue about it. Sales has no clue about it. Therefore, customers have no clue about it. It’s like I could ask a customer all day and they would never talk to me about that thing. So there’s that. The other one again, is this issue around differentiation like we cannot expect our customers to be experts in the market. So, even if I go and serve as… This is what I see a lot, people will go and they’ll survey their customers, and they’ll say, “Why do you love us so much?” The customers will say, “Because you have amazing support. Your support is amazing. I love it. The last company we had was terrible at support. You guys are great supporters. Amazing support.”
Did anybody buy you for your amazing support?

Jeff Sirkin:
No.

April Dunford:
No. They didn’t experience your amazing support.

Jeff Sirkin:
And the next customer won’t either.

April Dunford:
Until after they bought.

Jeff Sirkin:
Yeah.

April Dunford:
So it’s not that your amazing support isn’t important. It’s totally important for renewals. But it isn’t what we call an acquisition feature. I can’t message around that marketing a Greenfield account, because until you experience my support you don’t know. It’s just me saying it. Maybe you don’t even care about it at the time of purchase. You’ve got to put yourselves in the shoes of a customer that’s in an active purchase process, which they aren’t when we’re going to do this research. They’re done. They’re already over here and they pick, pick, pick, pick.

Jeff Sirkin:
That’s right.

April Dunford:
A customer in an active purchase process, they’re trying to figure out the market, they’re trying to make a short list, they’re trying to figure out purchase criteria. That’s really different from post-purchase you go and say, “Hey buddy, what’s your favorite about us?” They’ll tell you whatever they think you want to know. Then there’s a million ways to do that research poorly, which I’m sure you know, right?

Jeff Sirkin:
Yes.

April Dunford:
People will go in and ask the leading questions like, “Tell me how much you love our database analytics function.” “Oh, I love it a lot.” Things like that, where there’re leading questions. Its bad data. A lot of the times, I think people come with this idea like “We’re just going to ask questions,” but I don’t think customers have all the answers for a lot of this stuff. We’ve got to figure it out, and then it’s on us to teach customers.

Jeff Sirkin:
Yeah, and I think it was Steve Jobs who said, “Customers didn’t know they needed 1000 songs in their pocket until we invented the iPod.”

April Dunford:
That’s exactly it.

Jeff Sirkin:
No one’s going to say-

April Dunford:
the famous Henry Ford quote.

Jeff Sirkin:
Right, they’re never going to build your-

April Dunford: horse.

Jeff Sirkin:
Right, a faster horse, of course. I’m glad you bring that up because on the research side we see this all the time with our clients who immediately assume that the audience for the survey is going to be their customers. I say, “No, that’s not the growth opportunity,” right?

April Dunford:
Right.

Jeff Sirkin:
I see it as a bullseye. The center of that bullseye is in market prospects. Ultimately to your point, yes your customers can’t know everything and you shouldn’t rely on them to know everything. One thing that we do heavily lean on is they should know what pain points they have, or what challenges are they facing, what’s keeping them up at night.

April Dunford:
Right, the experts. The customer experts in paying.

Jeff Sirkin:
That’s right. They’re experts in what problems they have, and then you should be experts in the solution.

April Dunford:
That’s right.

Jeff Sirkin:
To me, the critical part of doing that research and uncovering those pain points, and specifically around the language they use because that’s critical too, is then that then becomes the raw material that allows you to position effectively against them to be able to say, “You’re having this specific problem and here’s how we help that.”

April Dunford:
That’s exactly it. That’s exactly it. I think it’s very important for a company to understand deeply the customer’s situation.

Jeff Sirkin:
Yes.

April Dunford:
Which includes what are their pains, what are the things that matter to them and things that don’t, what are their constraints, what have they tried already that didn’t work, what do they know and what do they not know, what do they already know and what do I have to teach them in order for them to really understand the thing that I’m doing? All of that insight is super important when we go to do positioning because we got to be able to pull this all together in a story that says, “Look, here’s the market. There’s alternate ways of solving this particular problem. But for companies like you, here’s the stuff you got to worry about.” I don’t know how to do that if I don’t deeply understand the customer’s situation.

Jeff Sirkin:
No, but I think to your point, that’s why it’s all about balance. It can’t be all about “Just ask your customers. They have all the answers.” It can’t be all about “We know everything,” because so often… I keep coming back to language, but so often even market category and things like that, or product naming, the way a lot of companies do it is very inside out. It’s basically, what do we know? The way you said it earlier is you eat, sleep, and breathe your industry. These buyers, they are not buyers professionally. That is not their-

April Dunford:
You’re right. Exactly.

Jeff Sirkin:
So you need to help them get there. If you can lean on what their pains are, what challenges they’re solving for, that then creates the ability to show them why your product is obviously awesome and positioned against that.

April Dunford:
Exactly.

Jeff Sirkin:
Are you ready for a couple of not-so-rapid fire questions?

April Dunford:
Yeah, let’s hear it. Let’s do it.

Jeff Sirkin:
The first one is, what would you say is the most overrated marketing activity? These days, what are marketers maybe doing a little too much of?

April Dunford:
I think the most overrated… This is controversial.

Jeff Sirkin:
Right?

April Dunford:
I think the most overrated marketing activity is the rebrand. This is a thing you see companies do when they hire new VP of Marketing or a new CMO. The new CMO comes in and says, “All right, we’re doing a rebrand.” And they’ll spend an extraordinary amount of money, time, energy, effort thinking about the brand tone of voice, and the colors, and the logo, and the whatever. They’ll do it. This rebrand will often be completely divorced from a business metric or something we’re trying to do, we’re trying to accomplish with the business.

Jeff Sirkin:
Yep.

April Dunford:
That’s why I think this is kind of baloney. It isn’t starting with “Hey, people think we’re this but we need to be this,” or “We have this particular metric we’re trying to move around acquisition, or retention, or something, and here’s how the rebrand connects to that,” it’s like I’m bored of the fonts, and the colors, and the logo, and the iconography, and the pictures. I just want to do rebrand because I think this is boring. I looked at the website and thought it was boring. I think that happens a lot, and I think in general those things are useless.

Jeff Sirkin:
I’m so glad you brought that up. I would argue I think a lot of times that happens whether consciously or subconsciously because it buys the CMO 12-18 more months to be able to do this whole project. It’s a whole big thing that requires budget and all these actual vendors. It takes lets say 12 months to finish, and then well we need to give it at least 12-18 months before we can see the impact. I’ve now bought myself two and a half, three years of job security fundamentally.

April Dunford:
Maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s it.

Jeff Sirkin:
But to your point-

April Dunford:
I don’t know, but I think these things are kind of useless. My friend, Anna Bazza, who up until recently the was the Head of Marketing for Shopify+, we were doing a fireside chat and I asked her that question, “What do you think is the dumbest thing?” She was like, “Rebrand, for sure. Rebrand.” She went on a big rant about it. It was amazing, and I’ve been thinking about ever since.

Jeff Sirkin:
To some extent, the way you explained it is kind of like, yeah it might be rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. One of the other things I always love is in hindsight it all makes sense. Companies’ names become obvious in market when the products are relevant. The opposite would be true too. Amazon is not Amazon because of their name. They could have been called just about anything, and we would think of them the way we think of Amazon.

April Dunford:
Obviously. Naming is a whole other kettle of things.

Jeff Sirkin:
Sure.

April Dunford:
That one, I just think is funny. I think people spend way, way too much time thinking about naming and whatever. One of my particular pet peeves is where, you’ll see this in startups, very, very small startup that’s not doing a lot of revenue, nobody knows them, and they’ll have all these really creative, funky product names. Then even worse, they’ll start naming every feature. So then instead of just name, I’ve got to remember 29 names because you’ve got a name for every little feature. It’s that cognitive overload.
Again, you’ve got these customers that are like, “I’m going to try to figure out this versus this. You can hit me with all this stuff.” I don’t know. I think like you say, company names are what you make them for the most part. Is a Yahoo a good name? No. Is Google a good name? No. Is IBM a good name? No. None of these are good names. Did it matter? Not at all. It didn’t matter at all.

Jeff Sirkin:
Let’s spin it positive then. What would you say is the most underrated marketing activity? What should they be doing more of?

April Dunford:
Most underrated marketing activity, I think for a B2B marketer, particularly if you have a sales force. So, if there’s a sales motion anywhere, is sitting down with the head of sales and fixing the sales pitch stick.

Jeff Sirkin:
Wow.

April Dunford:
It astounds me the number of times I see smart, capable marketing people run an amazing marketing team, and then you walk over to what’s happening in sales and it’s a whole different thing going on over there. You look at the pitch sticks and you’re like, “What the?” You’re telling this beautiful story over in marketing, and then it just splats up against the wall and some other story comes out the other side that has nothing to do with it. I think a hotshot VP of Marketing in B2B going over to look and see what’s happening over in sales, how they are selling it, how are they positioning it, what’s in the pitch stick, what do we do? When you click that button that says “Give me a demo,” what the heck happens at the end of that?

Jeff Sirkin:
Yeah, literally.

April Dunford:
I think that paying attention to that is a way to really move the needle fast if you’re a brand new VP of Marketing, your brand new in your job. That’s super underrated. I see people there and they’re pouring over the Google analytics and all this stuff, and whatever. But meanwhile, the house is on fire over in sales and nobody’s peeked over the wall over there to see what’s going on.

Jeff Sirkin:
The other thing I would add, just back to what we talked about earlier, in a lot of cases you don’t even realize, to exactly what you explained, of how different the story is in sales. I think it’s a perfect opportunity we always talk about sales and marketing alignment, but I think this specific example is probably the best simplest way where it is the most obvious reason for sales and marketing to collaborate. To your point around that will probably be the first instinct, that “Oh wait a second, these stories are completely different,” and so then you can kind of unpack what’s going on through the rest of the sales process, and product. That will probably be the first clue to find some of these disconnects too.

April Dunford:
Totally.

Jeff Sirkin:
What would you say from a marketer perspective, and I always think of this as somebody earlier in their career, what would you say is most skill or skillsets that a marketer can have?

April Dunford:
I don’t know if my answer would be different if it was a more junior person. As you get more and more senior in marketing, a lot of your success in marketing depends on your ability to get agreement and alignment across cross-functional teams. Good facilitation skills and negotiation skills, and being able to bring the people together and then get the people all singing the same song, that is an underrated skill. It’s a hard skill to build, but I think it’s super critical. Most of the hotshot senior marketing people I know are very, very good with this.

Jeff Sirkin:
I grew up professional as an analyst for 15 years, and I always used to say I never wanted to have a job in sales. To my credit, I’ve never had a job where sales was part of the title. What you realize is, you’re always selling. You need to sell your idea. You need to sell the alignment. I couldn’t agree more. It’s really that, because even as an analyst, I’m trying to sell my analysis. I’m trying to sell my interpretation of what happened and what I think we need to do as a result. If I can’t sell that effectively, it doesn’t matter how good of an analyst I am.

April Dunford:
That’s exactly it. The thing about marketing is it’s not just selling it. It’s a lot of times you’re going to have to compromise. You know what the right thing is, but you’re not going to get this guy to do this thing, or that guy to do this thing, and this guy to do this thing. Today, we’re going to settle for getting that sucker to the 40 yard line, and that’s as far as it’s going to go. We’ll take it at the later. But today ain’t the day.

Jeff Sirkin:
That’s it. Yeah, yeah.

April Dunford:
A lot of it is just figuring out how to make progress. You don’t always get your way and whatever, but as long as you’re making progress and you’re getting people closer to it, then I think you’re doing okay. A lot of times, marketing doesn’t have a lot of power in a typical B2B type company. In fact, I would say sitting on the executive team, a lot of times you start at the bottom.

Jeff Sirkin:
It’s a junior seat, yeah.

April Dunford:
You’re going to have to establish yourself, establish your credibility, prove that you’re super value add to the rest of the executive team, and then work your way from there. So if you come in guns blazing thinking that everybody should respect you because you’ve got that fancy title, you’ve got bad news coming for you.

Jeff Sirkin:
And because you showed up and said, “We need to do a rebrand.”

April Dunford:
Yeah, maybe you convince them to do the rebrand, but oh boy. I think that this ability to get agreement across people, facilitating stuff, knowing when to hold them, and knowing when to fold them is kind of a big skill, like figuring out how do we make some progress here even if it ain’t perfect, if it isn’t exactly the thing you want to get done, but it’s kind of the thing, so we’re going to go with it anyway. I think that’s a big skill.

Jeff Sirkin:
I couldn’t agree more. What resources, books, podcasts, newsletters, what’s out there that you would recommend to our audience?

April Dunford:
I wish I had more good books to recommend that are new. I always recommend the same set of books, and they’re decades old. They’re like, “Come on, people. We need some new marketing classics.” I’ll tell you, the new thing that I do think is excellent is a product management newsletter, but he hits on a lot of marketing stuff and it’s particularly product marketing stuff which is more closer to my heart. It’s this guy, Lenny’s List.

Jeff Sirkin:
Lenny, yep, yep.

April Dunford:
His podcast is excellent. I’ve really been impressed with his podcast. He’s got really interesting guests. He has a long form format, so you got to kind of be into that. It’s long enough that they sort of get into some crunchy stuff. I’ve been enjoying his newsletter and his podcast a lot.

Jeff Sirkin:
That’s great. I will certainly add Obviously Awesome in there because that’s something that I would recommend. To your point, I will say I read a lot of business books and 80-90% of them I’m left feeling a little cold afterwards.

April Dunford:
I wish I was reading more better books. The business books are funny. I think right now we’re at a particularly interesting time because it’s very easy to write a book.

Jeff Sirkin:
Oh, yeah.

April Dunford:
It’s easy to write a book and publish a book. Not all books are written to be widely enjoyed. A lot of books are written, because now you can self publish them, they’re written for kind of a narrow audience and maybe you’re not it. So you get the book and you’re like, “This ain’t for me.” It doesn’t mean it’s a bad book. It just means it ain’t for you. Then sometimes they’re written for other reasons. They’re written because the person’s trying to build a platform, or they work for a company and that company’s got a goal and this book can accomplish that.
Again, it’s maybe not for you. But yeah, I haven’t written a lot of books that I would super broadly… I haven’t read a lot of books that I would super broadly recommend other than there’s the classics. I really think Challenger Sale is an underrated genius book. The second one, which Challenger Customer, I think that was an amazing book too. When I think about doing customer discovery and how we figure out how customers buy and what they want, and what they don’t want, I’m going all the way back to Steve Blanks’ Four Steps to Epiphany, which is not the best written book and really hard to read and whatever, but it’s genius stuff in there.
For positioning, I think there’s the classic is, Positioning the Battle For Your Mind, which is Ries and Trout, which I think everybody should read that book. My book was written in a lot of ways as a response to that book, because that book was so good, but what they didn’t do in that book was give you a methodology for how to do it.

Jeff Sirkin:
That’s right.

April Dunford:
You’d get to the end of the book and it was like, “Okay, I get it. I’m hyped. I want to do that positioning thing,” and then I was like, “Wait. The book is over, and it’s not here. Dammit.” So my book was an attempt to sort of extend that work to say, okay if that’s what it is, how do we do it. I think anybody that’s really interested in positioning should go back and read the original book, which I thought was genius.

Jeff Sirkin:
That’s great. We’ll link to all of those in the show notes. Finally, where can people find and connect with you on social media?

April Dunford:
I’m @AprilDunford. I’m not super active on all the social media, but I’m more of a quality over quantity kind of person. I’m @AprilDunford on Twitter. You can find me on LinkedIn. I’m starting to do some stuff on LinkedIn because I’m a little bit worried about what happens to Twitter in this whole Elon Musk thing. I occasionally post over on LinkedIn too every couple of weeks or something. So, don’t expect a flood of things. My website is AprilDunford.com.

Jeff Sirkin:
Awesome. Well April, thank you so much for being here today, and thank you for sharing your story with us.

April Dunford:
Yeah, no problem. Thanks so much for having me.

Jeff Sirkin:
I really enjoyed my conversation with April. I read her book, Obviously Awesome, when it first came out in 2019, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. She does a great job of explaining the concept, and then gives a full detailed framework for how to do it. Positioning is so critical to every product, and we often take it for granted. We assume our buyers get it and that we know what matters most to them.
If you want to learn more about the resources mentioned in the episode, you can find them in our show notes. In addition, we’re publishing full text transcripts of our episodes on our website at SirkinResearch.com/podcast. Thank you for listening, and I hope you will join us for a new story next week on Long Story Short.

 

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