“How to position your product” is the biggest question.

“No matter how many times you explain, customer just doesn’t get it”

“We expect user to use our product in X way, but they use it in Y way”

We do ‘this’, but they think we do ‘that’ and starts comparing us with something ‘that’.

If this is your Kaifiyat (frustration), then you are not alone. Most of the startup entrepreneurs and marketers face this challenge every day.

“How to position your product” is the biggest question.

Shankar Maruwada, brand builder for Aadhar (UDAI project) and P&G products ran a very intensive round table discussion at TouchMagix office Pune. With Twelve entrepreneurs, primarily building global standard technology products to solve business and/or consumer problems echoing same problem – How to position my product without ambiguity.

Beginning of the session, Shankar made it clear that its not a “Gyaan” session, no checklist, best practices or a formula. There is no one pill to solve everybody’s problem. Infact, Shankar insisted, “You’ll walk away with more questions than any answers.”

Bob’s Story: Very first thing Shankar asked all the participants to write a brief story of our “Bob – The Customer”.

Imagine Bob is your most prominent customer. Bob has a problem, Bob uses your product, your product improves Bob’s life.

Rest of the day, Shankar used the “Story” as a base to have each participant pitch/sale their product to everybody in the room. As a participant pitches his/her product, rest of the group critiqued it as a customer. Since most entrepreneurs come from a background and/or experience where they could imagine a use of the pitched products, they were able to provide valuable inputs.

While one entrepreneur pitched his enterprise communication product, while someone else pitched their idea to implementation services business. Rest of the group found it difficult to understand “what exactly does it do”. Thats when Shankar helped with his expert probing questions to highlight the core problem these entrepreneurs are trying to solve. The group also helped highlight a critical situation where the product could make the most impact.

This exercise helped to understand “Although your product might be solving 10 problems or your may have 10 different features, it is important to understand which is THE MOST BURNING PAIN/PROBLEM your product help solve. Focus only and only on that. This helps creating a “Good positioning” in customer’s mind as he is looking for a solution for the same.

DSC_4659Curse of Knowledge

At this point, Shankar introduced a concept of “Curse of knowledge” which works in both ways. To prove a simple yet profound point, Shankar made us perform a group exercise. (I won’t reveal the details as it will spoil the fun and learning if you happen attend the session in future)

This exercise helped realize two things –

  1. What you think is easy for customers to understand, may not be that easy. So work hard at it.
  2. Once you “Know” something, it is difficult to Not know it. – Curse of knowledge.

Curse of knowledge may work in two ways. Based on what words you are saying in your pitch, your customer starts connecting dots in his own mind with his pre-knowledge and starts comparing your products against it. If your pitch helps tap into right knowledge, customer quickly gets the point. However, if your pitch distracts him on different line, then you face a challenge of not being able to convince him. Most importantly if your product is expecting to change his existing habits, then you face a real challenge as customer (in his mind) will always try to defend his own working habits and will be reluctant to accept/understand what your product does. Here Shankar gave an example of if someone try to change our deep rooted email behavior, will face a significant challenge unless you bring a real value proposition that customer cares about. Here one of the participants shared his experience of how people are looking at website updates as a “job to be done” whereas same users are perfectly comfortable in updating their status on social media.

“The hook” and “The Golden Circle”

At this point Shankar introduced the “Hook or Nail” concept by showing DropBox Product video. In this video, Lee Lefever has identified a common hook from day to day real life of need to organize things in one place. How this hook helps in relating to the need of organizing your digital assets in one place accessible anytime, anywhere. Followed by this Siman Senek’s Golden Circle emphasising on importance of “WHY” and how order of WHY-HOW-WHAT of could change the way people perceive you. The key message here was that “People dont buy what you do, people buy why you do it” and how this is at core of Apple’s success. Shankar also showed another video where complex concept of differential gear was explained with simple analogy of pared bike riders.

Now was a time for us to re-write our Bob’s story by identifying “Hook” and techno-jargon less clear messaging. A few more pitches/product-videos were reviewed and critiqued. This time, Shankar steered the discussion to gain more clarity by drawing mind map of every pitch. With his expertise in digging deep into core emotions, he helped participants to identify keywords that could help them refine their pitch to drive clarity. In this exercise, you want to identify all objectives, emotions, and needs related to your product. Now, arrange them in their priority, connect them with relevance, and eliminate those that add no value or create confusion. Here, asking “Why” is an important aspect of finding the truth and getting clarity. To supplement his point, Shankar shared couple of stories from his efforts while establishing Aadhar brand. How interactions with rural population simplified Aadhar’s positioning (“Pehechaan hi Jindagi ka Aadhar hai”) and help achieve massive adoption.

Framework to think: In the last spell, Shankar summed it all in a simple framework. Every concept has three parts.

Mindset (Belief) – A mindset or accepted/known beliefs of your customer

Benefit – The solution or value your product creates

Support – Social proof or reason to believe

Example: Afraid of wearing a black suit (Mindset) in a party as dandruff could expose you? Worry not, use our solution to get rid of (real benefit) stubborn dandruff and be confident (emotional benefit). Endorsed by these celebrities (Social proof), our dandruff solution builds the confidence to make you hero.

In five hours of intense group discussion, all of us had good understanding of what might be going wrong. Everyone has different product, different customer mindset, different challenges and different situations; but each one will be searching for one “Hook” around which a pitch can be built.

Product positioning starts in Customer’s mind. You need to find a hook where you could position the product with utmost clarity. Next time you struggle with “How come they don’t get it”, ask yourself – Did I find the right hook or have I tapped into wrong zone of knowledge?


Useful videos:

Guest post by Abhijit Mhetre founder at Canvazify – visual platform that helps entrepreneurs and design thinkers drive innovation through collaborative ideation. Abhijit is passionate about collaborative innovation and loves everything about running a startup.  

Product positioning is all about connecting emotionally to your prospective customers – Insights from the Positioning and Messaging PlaybookRT

The 50th PlaybookRT session was held at Helion Ventures in Bengaluru to brainstorm and understand best practices for positioning and messaging of startup products. This roundtable was led by Shankar Maruwada, who by virtue of his illustrious past experiences as the brand builder for Aadhar and P&G, and being a successful entrepreneur at Marketics ably anchored the deliberations. Twelve product entrepreneurs spread across IoT, mobile, social, analytics and B2B sectors benefited from the insightful interactions.

This roundtable was special for iSPIRT family, since it marks a milestone of a journey that began with the same person – Shankar Maruwada in April 2013, at the same venue as well! To mark this special occasion, Sharad Sharma, co-founder of iSPIRT was present at the start of the session. He traced back the evolution of PlaybookRTs and explained that these roundtables came to action to fill the need for honest and open peer to peer knowledge sharing and gaining among product entrepreneurs. Shankar recollected his experiences of running the roundtable on the same topic at various locations across India and narrated the differences and common patterns he observed amongst the participants across these sessions. Rajan wrapped up the pre-event activities by describing the metrics iSPIRT uses to measure the effectiveness of such programs, and the way forward.

The roundtable began with Shankar asking all the participants to jot down three things about their prospective customer Bob:

  • The problem that the customer faced/is facing
  • Solution provided by the participants to alleviate the above problem
  • The value/benefit that Bob, as a customer derives by using the above provided solution

Once completed, a review of the pitches that participants had written was done in the group. There was a lot of variety in the pitches. While one such pitch was crisp, succinct and focused on numbers/metrics to drive the value proposition of the solution for Bob, a customer in the B2B space, the other was a story that tried to explain the value provided by the participant’s IoT solution invoking a connect to the customer’s parents. This variety in the pitches generated a lot of discussion among the participants about the best/optimal way to pitch/position their corresponding products.

At this point, Shankar introduced the concepts of curse of knowledge*, and the Golden Circle* that helped the participants to understand the need to emotionally connect with their prospective customers, as well as, the need to keep in mind, the knowledge of the customer (not the know-how presenter of the pitch), while describing the key tenets of their products.

These concepts paved way for further brainstorming on the applicability of the inside – out or outside – in approach of the WHY – HOW – WHAT trilogy of the Golden Circle across different segments. For example, there were discussions on whether it is appropriate in the B2B context to start with an outside – in approach, and vice versa for a B2C context and so on. There was also an opinion that Marketing team in a startup would usually use the Why – How – What route, whereas the Sales team would go vice versa. A video of Steve Jobs addressing his internal marketing team about how they should reach out to their intended customers helped internalize these aspects.

One of the participants resonated with the ill effects of the curse of knowledge when he shared how he had assumed that all of his customer base would be aware of the familiar ‘Settings’ icon. Upon getting a support request from an aged customer, who cited inability to locate the ‘Settings’ option, he realized that he had not provided a text alongside the icon based on the assumption that what he knew would be also known to his customers.

As the group digested these concepts, Shankar nudged the participants to revisit the pitches that they had initially created, and explore if they could make any changes based on the learning they had on account of the above two concepts. This brought about a few revisions to the pitch each of the participants had made. At this juncture, the group listened to pitches from a few more participants and ideated on what aspects of the pitch resonated with them.

The group then moved on to understand in more detail, the art of explaining the core value of their products. This was done by reviewing the Dropbox advertisement* created by Lee Lefever and discussing about how the ad starts by establishing a common connect/chord with the audience (SETUP), and then, in common language (without jargons) explains the key benefits a user would get (SOLUTION) using analogies, and finally, reinforces it with factual details of its features (SUPPORT).

Some time was spent in explaining the importance of using analogies as a bridge to transition the customer attention from the initial few minutes to introducing the product/solution to the customer, while keeping his attention intact. The Dropbox video and another video from the thisamericanlife.org archives*, where a doctor explains the vulnerabilities of children who face daily abuse from drunken parents helped the participants to understand the power of using analogies to convey the right message.

These videos and a couple more on the book ‘Made to Stick’* by Heath brothers helped the participants to craft/revise their positioning and messaging pitches, which started with building a context to establish emotional connect, used analogies to describe the solution and finally strengthened the pitch with factual/logical and data driven narration to make a lasting impression on the prospective customer.

Towards the end of this roundtable, as a last aid, Shankar introduced the 6 tips of persuasion* which entrepreneurs could use to help build up customer connect. As the participants completed these deliberations, they had imbibed the knowledge that being able to connect both emotionally and functionally to the customer is key while positioning and messaging for their products to prospective customers. The participants spent more than four and half hours and not one of them moved till Shankar actually ended this session at about 9 PM.

The evening was very well spent, and the participants had an accelerated learning by virtue of this roundtable. Dinner, arranged by Rajan, courtesy iSPIRT and the friendly staff at Helion provided the perfect way to end a very eventful learning experience to all the participants as they ruminated about the things that they learnt and shared their thoughts about time well spent during the session.

* The following URLs provide additional information about the concepts and views expressed by fellow participants of the previous sessions on this topic. Skimming through these write-ups and watching the videos will provide additional context for those who want more insights:

  1. Simon Sinek’s ‘The Golden Circle’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l5Tw0PGcyN0
  2. Dropbox Intro Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w4eTR7tci6A
  3. Lee LeFever on the Art of Explanation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j6gyI7_j-1o
  4. Made to Stick–Review of the book (Part 1): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E7U74c0Hzbk
  5. Made to Stick – Review of the book (Part 2):


  1. Science of Persuasion: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cFdCzN7RYbw
  2. Steve Jobs – Think Different Speech:


  1. Summary of the PlaybookRT session on positioning and messaging products, held at Bengaluru: https://pn.ispirt.in/some-takeways-from-the-first-ispirt-playbook-roundtable-on-positioning-messaging-in-bangalore/
  2. Summary of the PlaybookRT on this topic, held at Bengaluru: https://pn.ispirt.in/ispirt-playbook-roundtable-positioning-and-messaging-lot-of-it-is-common-sense/
  3. Summary of the PlaybookRT on this topic, held at Mumbai: https://pn.ispirt.in/8-powerful-things-i-learned-about-positioning-your-startup-at-the-ispirt-round-table/
  4. Summary of the PlaybookRT on this topic, held at Mumbai: https://pn.ispirt.in/why-no-other-product-like-yours-is-not-cause-for-celebration-playbookrt/

12. Summary of the PlaybookRT on this topic, held at Delhi: https://pn.ispirt.in/the-best-things-are-simple-is-your-messaging-there-yet-from-playbookrt/