Breaking The Wheel

Composite image for the covers of Mass Effect 2 and Dark Souls, two games that featured expert positioning

Market Positioning: The Art of Fighting Without Fighting

Perception is reality, as the saying goes. Market positioning is the act of managing consumer perception of a product. This doesn’t mean misleading people or bending the facts. It means establishing and controlling the context in which you want your customers to consider your product. And effective positioning can make a world of difference between standing out from or getting lost in the crowd.


By Reading This Post, You’ll Learn:

  • The definition of positioning
  • Why positioning is crucial
  • How effective positioning can help you avoid competition
  • The four elements of positioning: frame of reference, points of parity, points of differentiation, reasons to believe
  • How to craft an effective positioning statement

Market Positioning: The Art Of Fighting Without Fighting

One of my favorite scenes in Enter the Dragon is when Bruce Lee’s character, also called Lee, puts Peter Archer’s character, a boorish bully named Parsons, in his place. When Parson starts puffing his chest at Lee and demands to know his fighting style, Lee replies laconically that his style is the art of fighting without fighting.

Befuddled by this response, Parsons demands to see an example. Lee, pointing out that they need more room than the deck of the junk boat they’re currently on, suggests taking a dingy to a nearby island. As soon as Parsons steps into the dingy, Lee simply unmoors it. Parsons spends (presumably) the rest of the voyage dragged behind the junk by a single rope, tormented by the crew he had previously harassed.

I love this scene because I love when bullies get their comeuppance (which happens a lot in Enter the Dragon). But it’s also a victory of smarts over brute force. Lee neatly side-steps a fight with words. He came out on top without throwing a single punch.

And that’s market positioning in a nutshell.

Because Everybody Loves Candy

If you look at Milky Way and Snickers, you might think of the brands as direct competitors (even though they’re both owned by Mars). And there certainly is overlap in their target markets. And, let’s be honest, other than the peanuts in a Snickers bar, they’re practically the same god-damned product. But, much as in war and life, head-to-head fights between relative equals are self-destructive endeavors. One party may come out on top, but not before absorbing a lot of damage. Milky Way and Snickers get around this dynamic through positioning.

Think of a Milky Way commercial. What do they show? What’re they selling? Indulgence. Delicious, nuggaty, gourmet indulgence. Something soooooo good, it’ll make you forget you’re a tattoo artist. It’s not a candybar. It’s an escape.

Now contrast that with Snickers. Snickers doesn’t sell luxury. It sells Danny Trejo morphing in the Marsha Brady. Or Richard Lewis morphing into a lumberjack. Why? Because they had the “hangries”. Snickers – again, despite being almost identical to Milky Way –  isn’t a indulgence product. It’s a snack food. It’s the quick pick-me-up between meals.

Understanding the Value of Proper Positioning

Let’s walk through the analysis behind why two nearly identical products would use different positioning.

If Milky Way and Snickers position themselves as the same product, they have little differentiation to offer consumers, meaning each brands’ respective benefits cancel out. If Mars maintains both brands, it’s just cannibalizing its own sales. It could only increase sales of both by dropping the price, commodifying its own products.

But, if Mars positions one product as an indulgent candy and one as a really tasty snack, the products are now differentiated. They’re identical benefits are applied in different categories. Milky Way is competing with other chocolate bars, where its point of differentiation is its premium quality. Snickers is competing with pretzels and granola bars, where it’s point of differentiation is that it has lots of chocolate.

Again, these are essentially the same product. The “differentiation” is entirely psychological, based purely on positioning.

Rock – Paper – Scissors

To put it in game terms, positioning is about playing a really skillful game of Advance Wars. Sure, you can send you tanks against the other guy’s tanks, but they’ll just beat each other up. Instead, you send your helicopter against his tanks, your tanks against his AA guns, and your AA guns against his jets.

In short, you match strengths against weaknesses, and avoid head-to-head fights whenever possible.

The Four Elements of Positioning

Positioning consists of four components: frame of reference (what is this?), points of parity (why is it as good as the competition?), points of differentiation (how is it better?), and reasons to believe (prove it!).

Frame of Reference

Your frame of reference is as crucial to strategy as the 5-Cs. It defines your potential target audience and your competition. Your frame of reference IS NOT your product’s inherent category. Snicker’s frame of reference isn’t candy bars, and Wii Sport’s frame of reference wasn’t pro bowling or sports games. Your frame of reference is the context in which you want gamers to consider your game. Mars wants you to consider Snickers in the context of snack foods. Nintendo wanted you to consider Wii Sports within the context of video games in general: it was fun like other video games, but not as complicated.

You can define your frame of reference in several ways. You can reference an entire category (eg, positioning Mass Effect 2 as a shooter), a competitive product (eg, positioning Killzone as a “Halo-killer”) or a goal (eg, Dark Souls “Prepare to Die” positioning was aimed a people who wanted a hardcore challenge).

I cannot emphasize enough that your frame of reference is a strategic choice. As such, it deserves careful thought, as each approach has downsides.

Broader categories have more competition (there are lots of shooters out there). Competitive products can leave you perpetually defined as an also-ran (Killzone is like Halo, but…). And goals can invite competition from unpredictable directions (lots of games are crazy hard, so if challenge is your main selling point, then your competition is not only Dark Souls, but also Super Meat Boy and Mega Man 9).

Points of Parity

Your points of parity are how your justify your frame of reference. Mass Effect 2 had fluid game play, cover-based mechanics, a variety of weapons. Killzone had FPS mechanics, a sci-fi setting, and cohesive art design. Dark Souls had ruthless difficulty, a lots of secrets, and a deep-combat system.

You need to think through your points of parity carefully. If they’re not credible, you’re taking yourself out at the legs. If you’re making a mobile game, and your frame of reference is console shooters, you’ve got a tough sell on your hands. Console gamers will ask how a mobile device and a touch screen could possibly match the fidelity and controls of their PlayStations. You will need to spend a lot of time and/or money getting over that credibility hump, and with diminishing returns to boot.

If find that your points of parity aren’t convincing, then consider other frames of reference.


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Points of Differentiation

These are your reasons why gamers should pick your game over the competition. They’re what make your game unique within your chosen frame of reference.

Within the shooter frame of reference, loyalty missions and a wide-open galaxy differentiated Mass Effect 2. Dark Souls offered “groundbreaking online features” and a “seamless dark fantasy universe”.

The points of differentiation also provide a loop-hole for your choice of frame of reference. In the mobile game reference above, using console shooters as a frame of reference will undercut your points of parity. But, if you use mobile games as your frame of reference, and then console mechanics as your point of differentiation (rather than parity) it’s a different ball game. Instead of saying “We’re as good as console shooters”, you’re saying “Forget other mobile games. We’re so good we approach the quality of console games.”

In other words, rather than trying to convince console gamers that you’re just as good as they preferred platform (which is a tough sell), your trying to convince mobile gamers that your game is so good, it approaches the quality of consoles.

Reasons to Believe

These are, quite simply your pieces of evidence to support your positions. Mass Effect 2 supports its shooter frame of reference by listing things like “a wide range of devastating weapons” and pictures of combat. Dark Souls supports its claim of innovative multiplayer by listing elements of that multiplayer (leaving messages, viewing player deaths, and invading other players’ games).

Put simply, these are your back-of-box bullet points.

Encapsulating Your Market Positioning: The Positioning Statement

The purest acid test for your positioning strategy is the positioning statement:

For target audience, your game is the brand of frame of referencethat point of differentiation because reason to believe.

Using Mass Effect 2 as an example:

“For sci-fi afficianado gamersMass Effect 2 is the shooter that offers players a wide open galaxy to explore because the game plays out over more than 30 planets.”

Or, alternatively:

“For gamers who love stories, Mass Effect 2 is the shooter that puts players at the center of a galaxy-wide drama because it lets players influence the course of the story through their actions.”

Meanwhile, for Dark Souls:

“For hard cord gamers, Dark Souls is the challenging game that offers a groundbreaking online experience because players can invade each other’s games at any time.

Positioning Statements Are NOT Advertising Copy

Yes, the language above is stilted. But it’s not advertising copy. A positioning statement is not the same thing as a slogan. It’s not what you put on the box. A positioning statement is your elevator pitch. Its the most straightforward way to communicate what your core value proposition is.

And, if you can’t encapsulate your market positioning strategy in one clean, concise positioning statement, then go back to the drawing board. It needs more refinement.

Positioning Accentuates, It Doesn’t Fix

People are not stupid. Spurious positioning will get you into a shitload of trouble. If people buy your game with an expectation of one frame of reference and you give them another, you will hear about it (see: No Man’s Sky). A well polished positioning strategy will not make up for bland, boring,or otherwise compromised value propositions. As the saying goes, you can’t polish a turd. Positioning isn’t about conning people, it’s about putting your best foot forward. Treat it as such.

And, in all positioning exercises, remember Crossing The Chasm author Geoffrey Moore’s guideline. The goal of positioning is not to make your game easier to sell. It’s to make it easier to BUY.


Recommended Reading If You Enjoyed This Post

Strategic Design: Why Dark Souls is the Ikea of Video Games

Marketing Games: Sun Tzu and the Fine Art of Succeeding Before You Begin

Game Marketing Strategy: Mapping Out Your Path to Success


What’s Next?

Now that you have a positioning strategy for your game, you can start thinking about how to advertise it. But before you run out and cut a trailer (or hire professionals to do it for you) you need to establish an advertising – wait for it – strategy. And that’s where we’re heading next!


Key Takeaways

  • Positioning is the act of setting the context in which you want gamers to consider your game
  • Effective positioning can enable you to avoid costly head-to-head fights with similar games
  • Positioning consists of a frame of reference, points of parity, points of differentiation, and reasons to believe
  • The frame of reference is the category in which you want people to consider your game
  • The points of parity are the attributes you hold in common with that frame of reference
  • The points of differentiation are the attributes that set you apart from the competition
  • The reasons to believe are the elements that support your positioning
  • The most amazingly effective positioning strategy will not fix a bad product
  • Positioning is about putting your best foot forward, not blowing smoke

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“Market Positioning: The Art of Fighting Without Fighting” by Justin Fischer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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