Hearts, Minds, and Positioning Statements

brown pelican, teetering

Positioning Statements: Simple, Not Easy

Sometimes, life takes you in odd and unexpected directions.

If you’d told me twenty years ago that I was going to be spending my days helping heritage sites do market research and audience segmentation, I probably would have cut myself. It really isn’t something that comes naturally to me. Target marketing is not the kind of thing I wake up excited about doing—but it’s something that I’ve come to recognize as crucial to the work that I love, which is connecting people to places in innovative and sustainable ways.

I have already spilled a fair bit of (digital) ink writing about the importance of understanding your audiences. Today I’d like to home in on a particular exercise that I’m finding really helpful in distilling the whole process down to its essence: the positioning statement.

Here’s what I’m talking about:

“For local young single adults, only the Suffolk Nature Centre offers cutting-edge challenges in a peer-group setting, unlike other regional heritage sites that offer old-style guided tours.”

“For regional active seniors, only the Suffolk Nature Centre offers original exercise for the body and mind, unlike other regional heritage sites that underestimate their abilities and interests.”

“For young stroller moms and their children, only the Suffolk Nature Centre offers safe, welcoming and relaxing programs at an affordable price, unlike other regional heritage sites that appear to discourage people with young children.”

Positioning statements are deceptively simple, to the point where they can appear glib, facile and pat (and if I ever open a law firm, I think I just came up with its name.)  It can appear a bit fatuous to sum up your whole relationship with an audience segment with a simple statement. But behind that statement should be a great deal of thought and research.

Let’s have a look at how a positioning statement is composed:


Now let’s look at the meat and potatoes behind these statements.

Your target market

This exercise assumes you’ve identified your priority market segments. If you haven’t done that, do it now. Your target market is defined as a discrete segment of your population, with behaviours, interests and needs that set them apart from other segments. You need to have a channel of communications with them—one that they will read, and you can afford. And you need to have something that meets their needs, which brings us to…

Their principal benefit

Do you know what benefit your target market is seeking from your site? This is a big question. The more research we do, the more we discover that it probably isn’t about gleaning knowledge from your exhibits and programs, though that may be a part of the picture. Active seniors, for example, are probably looking for a social experience. Many visitors are, in fact—the interaction with their friends or family is more important than the content of your attraction. Active seniors are also seeking, as their name implies, stimulation, both physical and mental.

If you’re not sure what benefit your target audiences are seeking, get to work and ask them. (And ask your social scientists, and your destination marketing organization, your census data, your colleagues, your front-line staff, and so on.) It may be the most important piece of research you’ll ever do.

Lastly, positioning statement often include that last clause, “Unlike the competition, who don’t do etc”.

Be careful with this one.

As someone who has worked in government for many years, I will take this opportunity to advise you to not commit anything to paper that you don’t want to see in the front page of your local paper. Do you really want your public to see you trash-talking another local business or attraction?

In the heritage business, particularly in a government setting, we don’t like to talk about competition. We try to be a cooperative, partnership-oriented sector, and it’s awkward to address the fact that our visitors inconveniently choose to not visit us from time to time, investing instead in the comparable attraction down the road.

But we do have competition, and it’s important to identify who they are. Sometimes I’ll hear a heritage site say something like, “We have no competition. We’re the only place in the region that features colonial weaponry of the latter 18th century.”

But it doesn’t work that way. To identify your competition, you need to go back to your target audience and the benefits they seek. If they’re seeking time outdoors with their children, you probably have a heck of a lot of competition, and the weaponry isn’t going to get you very far in closing the deal with them.

Likewise active seniors. Ask yourself (or better yet, ask them): when they’re not visiting us, where are they going? You might find that your competition isn’t even in the heritage tourism sector; it might be the local YMCA, the local Tim Horton’s, the local pub. How can you meet their needs better than those places can? Do you have the resources to go head-to-head? Is it in your mission to do so? Maybe, upon a bit of research, this particular target audience isn’t going to pay off. Maybe they’re not a match made in heaven after all—and that’s ok. Move on to a segment with a higher potential for a mutually rewarding relationship.

Positioning statements are simple, but not easy. The hardest part about them is that they need to be true. It’s so easy to dash off a statement that sounds perfect when you read it quickly… but you need to take a cold, hard, honest look at what you’re asserting. Are you sure that your target market is seeking that benefit? Or are you pushing a square peg (your existing product) into a round hole?

And can you really, honestly assert that you offer that benefit better than anyone else? I wish I had a dime for every time I heard a board member say, “We are the absolute BEST at offering blah blah blah”, without a shred of evidence.

Be honest with yourselves. Back your statements up with research. Test your statements, and refine them.

And then stay true to them, in your promotions, your exhibitions, and your programs.

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