Your Positioning Is No Place to Play It Safe

Do struggle with authentically marketing your creative firm?

One of the Seven Ingredients of any successful company is Marketing. And at the heart of great marketing is great positioning.

How does your creative firm speak to the world? How well is your firm positioned?

First off, let’s define positioning. Your positioning is the sum total of what your firm says to the world about:

  • What you do
  • How you do what you do
  • Who you are

What’s ironic is that most creative agencies, motion design studios and production companies are brilliant at marketing the brands of their clients yet struggle to market – and position – their own firms.

Maybe You Can Get Away With a Weak Positioning

Let’s say you are running a world-class creative firm – a household name in the industry – that here we will call Hotter Than July Studios. Despite your positioning being uninspiring, boring and forgettable, you’re doing just fine. Hurray! Here is an actual positioning statement from one such company:

“Hotter Than July Studios’ story-driven approach to design inspires marketing solutions that engage consumers with brands and captivating narratives that entertain viewers across multiple digital platforms.”

Did you notice something? This positioning says an awful lot… yet means little. If you read it aloud, it doesn’t sound like the way humans actually speak.

It’s safe. Safe, that is, if you’re already a super successful firm.

Fortunately for Hotter Than July Studios, their portfolio – which backs up their positioning – is incredible. Who cares if their positioning is boring? All their jaw-dropping work screams, “Look at this! Work with us!”

Or Maybe You Can’t

But now let’s say you’re Upstart Studios, a young, up-and-coming firm. Crafting your elevator pitch is tricky. So you look at the big boys like Hotter Than July and you borrow / tweak their positioning. After all, it’s working for them, right? Here’s an actual positioning statement from one such company:

“Upstart Studios is a creative studio that is guided by a narrative focus, innovative storytelling and design-driven visuals. Our roster of award-winning directors, animators and writers craft stories that touch the heart and ignite the imagination.”

This is also a nice, safe positioning. However, the portfolio of Upstart can’t match the breadth, scope and prowess of Hotter Than July.

Hotter Than July Studios can get away with it. Upstart Studios cannot.

Put Your Positioning to the Test

Try this exercise: read aloud the positioning of your three closest competitors. Now read the positioning of your firm and listen carefully. If you find yourself stumbling over similar catch phrases and buzzwords, take note: your positioning is playing it safe.

Why do we feel the need to speak this way? What’s behind our compulsion to generalize using catch phrases and buzzwords?

If your positioning contains catch phrases and buzzwords, take note: you are playing it safe. Click To Tweet

Chalk it up to our inner fear of being excluded. We worry that if we tell the world we are a Purple Cow, a prospective client – who is seeking a Flying Pig – won’t stop and take notice of our fabulous bovine purpleness.

But as smart marketers, we already know that when we say we are all things to all people, our shiny colors become shades of beige. We sound like a generalist firm that is, well, like every other generalist firm.

We sound uninspiring, boring and forgettable. Maybe we aren’t such smart marketers, after all?

A Rare – and Blown – Opportunity

Does your positioning really matter? After all, when marketing firm, your portfolio is what really does the talking, right?

Years ago I had the rare opportunity: a 10 minute meeting with a Senior VP of Advertising & Creative Services at DirecTV. He asked me about my creative agency. I delivered my positioning in the form of a carefully practiced elevator pitch. He thought for a moment then responded bluntly:

“I’ve met with dozens of creative firms today. You know what? You guys all sound the same. Sorry, but if I’m honest, you all suck at marketing. So why should I trust you with marketing my brand?”

His candor cut like a knife. I was speechless. Because he was right. He had taken the meeting after seeing the strong portfolio of my studio. But when it counted, we didn’t click. I wasn’t a smart marketer. I sucked.

Yes, I had blown the rare opportunity. But I learned the lesson of a lifetime. For all those times I had recommended my clients follow Seth Godin’s advice, “Be remarkable,” I had not done it myself.

Avoid the Indefensible

If you want to learn from my mistake, where do you start? To move towards a narrow, authentic positioning, first avoid language that any other firm could reasonably claim as their own:

“_____ is an award-winning creative boutique…”

“_____ is a creative agency with disciplines ranging from _____ to _____…”

“_____ is a narrative-driven studio with a passion for…”

By avoiding clichés and buzzwords, your positioning is well on its way. What next? Can your positioning be even more unique?

Yes. Look inside yourself. Look to your story. Consider your mission. Listen to Simon Sinek’s famous TED Talk about speaking from your WHY. There you will find clues to a truly defensible positioning.

Don’t Play Small

Let’s go deeper. Take a look at your clients and your industry, then consider this: people don’t buy from companies. People buy from people.

Strangely, most Creative Companies try to speak to the world as a nameless, faceless brand. Why?

Well, you may find it curious to know that every business owner that I know is surprisingly selfless. As an owner, you love crediting the success of your business not to yourself but rather to your amazing team. You put your employees first. You say, “It’s not about me. It’s about the company.”

People don't buy from companies. People buy from people. Click To Tweet

This thinking lures owners into excluding themselves from their positioning. And although a self-effacing posture is admirable, it misses something essential. People don’t buy from your company, they buy – directly or indirectly – from a person. You.

You launched your business. Your energy, passion and chutzpah have guided it to where it is today. In moments of transparency, people vehemently remind you that you are its driving force.

You are the “raison d’être.” You are the reason it exists.

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Marianne Williamson poetically said it this way, “Your playing small does not serve the world.” With apologies to Ms. Williamson, I would rephrase it this way: “Your playing small does not serve your creative company.”

You are one of a kind. You are special. Your name, your story and yes, even your face, set you apart from everyone else. Your positioning should take advantage of that.

You are the soul of your firm. So put it out there. Don’t play small.

Some Remarkable Examples

Here are some sparks of inspiration, some nuggets of language and thinking from some smart studios. When I read these – yes, aloud – they inspire and excite me. They are remarkable. I want to work with people like this:

“Our mantra at (Name) is ‘Discard everything that means nothing.'”

“(Name) is a small but fruitful creative studio providing simple, striking solutions to complex problems.”

“(Name) believes in emotional connections made with a wink and a smile.”

“(Name) is after that punch in the gut, lump in your throat, laugh ’til you can’t breathe feeling that comes when you strike common ground and share a way of looking at the world.”

“We make sense of things. Like Tom Selleck’s mustache. Or Tom Arnold’s career. Together we are (Name).”

“We’re (Name), Loud & Clear.”

These statements are strange, spicy, and most of all, sticky. When you hear them, something inside you says, “Tell me more.”

Hearing Is Believing

“Okay,” you say to yourself, “An authentic, unique positioning for our firm is important. We should work on that.”

Don’t put it off. Because it’s not just your prospects and clients that hear you. Your staff hears you. Your community hears you.

But most importantly, you hear you. Listen to yourself repeatedly describe your firm as uninspiring, boring and forgettable… and you may just start believing it.

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