The Principles of Great Positioning with Jamie Barnett, Silicon Valley’s Word Nerd

Over the past two decades, Jamie Barnett has designed, launched and built multi-billion dollar categories for companies including Netskope, AppZen, McAfee and Citrix. The common thread across all of her success stories is consistent, distinct and empathic positioning that hits a nerve. 

I recently sat down with Jamie to discuss the power of positioning and to get her advice on how to approach the process. Here are excerpts from our conversation: 

I talk with a lot of CEOs and CMOs who have aspirations to create a new category. Where does the category design process start?

Category creation happens after doing the hard work. CEOs get stars in their eyes about building a brand, but you can’t just pay Gartner or an expensive consultant a bunch of money to create your category. There are no shortcuts or silver bullets. It’s a marathon that takes a tremendous amount of discipline and consistency to do well. 

Creating a consistent experience across all corners of your brand takes a lot of focus and time. Every experience with a company is a brand experience. Whether you’re visiting a website or social media page, chatting with a sales rep, or using the product, it’s all about the brand. 

Positioning is your foundation. It’s the kernel of your brand OS. Positioning is where category creation movements start.

"Positioning is your foundation. It's the kernel of your brand OS. Positioning is where category creation movements start."


A lot of people conflate positioning with messaging. What’s the difference? Where does narrative factor into the mix?

I think of positioning in two ways. First, how do you determine what your position is? This is the intersection of your customer needs, your white space and the unique value that you bring. Second, once you know what the intersection is, then how do you articulate it? 

I use a three-part framework for this second part. Great positioning statements clearly and concisely express what you do differently (your differentiation), who you are (your identity) and for whom (your customer). The brand Writer does a good job of modeling this framework with its positioning statement: 

“Writer is the AI writing assistant for the world’s smartest brands.”

Messaging is the language and voice you use to articulate your position and to describe the other elements about your company and products. Another way to think of it is that positioning is your core identity and messaging is the content bringing that identity to life. 

Your narrative is your story. Like all great stories, it features protagonist and antagonist characters—your founders, your customers, your competitors and other forces working with and against your vision. Corporate narratives typically fit into one of the seven story archetypes

"Positioning is your core identity and messaging is the content bringing that identity to life."

I see a lot of valuable companies—multi-billion dollar companies—with mediocre positioning. What's the upside of getting it right? What’s the difference between good and great positioning? 

The difference between a good brand and a great one is an order of magnitude. That $10 billion B2B software company with an undifferentiated position, message and narrative could be many times more valuable.

The swing factor for startups, B2B in particular, is a consistent brand. A 30% lift in revenue and brand value are associated with brand consistency. 

Brand consistency is more important than ever because of a new industry dynamic for purchasing products created by digital. The customer journey is so much more self-directed today. Customers do 70% of their homework before purchasing a product. They go to your website, your competitors’ websites, they talk with peers, and they visit peer review sites like G2. This is where they learn about you and others like you. 

When three different people say the same thing about your company or product, that’s everything. 

"The difference between a good brand and a great one is an order of magnitude. That $10 billion B2B software company with an undifferentiated position, message and narrative could be many times more valuable."

Brand consistency is really hard. Why is that? 

Being consistent means you’ve got to be utterly simple so that different people talk about your value pillars in exactly the same way, with the same phrases, in the same order, every time. 

Most companies don’t do this well. They get bedazzled by a new idea or they’re too reactive to what others like them are doing. A CEO comes back from an investor meeting saying, “Eureka, I’ve had an epiphany!”

It might be a brilliant idea, but does it really work? Does it look right on the website? Does it roll off tongue for the sales team? When a sales rep is challenged in a demo, does it play? How about when your weakest channel partner sales person is giving the pitch? 

These are the tests of a great message. 

In addition to consistency, what are the other principles of great positioning and messaging? 

Did I mention that consistency is critical?

Beyond that, great positioning needs to be about your customer, it needs to be distinctive, and it needs to hit a nerve. Hitting a nerve happens when you describe the problem blocking your customers from what they are trying to achieve in a way that emotionally connects with them. 

"Great positioning needs to be about your customer, it needs to be distinctive, and it needs to hit a nerve."

Can you give an example?

Figma does a great job hitting a nerve with anyone who’s ever managed a design review process. Everyone has an opinion. Versioning hell is actually hell. I get hives just thinking about it.

Figma’s brand—from their website to their product experience—is beautiful and consistent.  Their positioning statement is simple and all about the user. 

“Figma connects everyone in the design process so teams can deliver better products, faster.”

I also love the tagline on their website. 

“Nothing great is brainstormed alone. Designed alone. Built alone. Made alone.” 

So taglines really do matter? What makes a great one?

Absolutely. Rule number one is always put the customer at the center. Rule number two is, for the love of god, don’t start your tagline with an -ing verb, because that makes it about you and not your customer. When you remove the -ing, you get a much stronger message. 

Asana’s tagline is also great. 

“Work on big ideas, without the busywork.” 

Customer at the center. Strike a nerve. No -ing. 

What are the common positioning mistakes companies make?

Bad positioning and messaging models the opposite rules of great positioning and messaging, and we see it all of the time. It’s all about you, not the customer. It doesn’t hit a nerve. It’s inconsistent. It’s complicated. It’s not authentic to the brand. 

You need to see three very consistent brand experiences when you visit a company’s website, social media, and use their product. A common mistake is when a company uses stodgy words like ‘leverage’ and ‘synergy’ on their website but tries to sound cool on social media. That never works. Even worse is when the website and social properties are actually great, but you get a really bad experience with the sales person on the phone. 

"You need to see three very consistent brand experiences when you visit a company's website, social media, and use their product."

What are your biggest positioning pet peeves? 

I thought you would never ask!

Don’t use a quarter word when a nickel word will do. Unless you are talking about debt financing, say ‘use,’ not ‘leverage.’ ‘Utilize’ is another really overused and lame word. 

Inconsistent capitalization is the pits. Just pick a lane and stick with it. 

Overexplaining is bad. Be simple. Go back to fifth grade and reduce those fractions. Kentik keeps it really simple. 

“Kentik helps you plan, run, and fix your network.” 

Let's talk about the process. What are the main steps companies need to take to design the right category position? How long does this typically take?

People think great positioning and messaging can be spun in a week. That’s not possible. I’ve done it in as fast as a month but it can often take three months. 

Great positioning processes are built on three common pillars. 

First, significant research on your competitive landscape and market dynamics is key. You need to really understand what you bring to the table vs. what others bring. 

Second, internal insights are really important. I always focus on gathering these insights from customer-facing people. The CEO’s input is nice, but more often they need to talk less and listen more. Customer success insights are a critical piece of the puzzle as are customer support, SDRs (sales development representatives), and sales. Ask them to tell you about the customer. When prospects say ‘no,’ what are their objections? Get them to explain the customer’s dynamic within their organization. 

The third pillar is customers. I use the Five Ws approach: Why now? What does it get you? What can you do now that you couldn’t do before? Who is pushing back and who is advocating? Who are winners and losers? 

Ask them five different ways how they would describe it themselves. Give them options: Does A or B more accurately describe your product? If a decision-maker or end-user is pushing back, how would you argue why they need the product? Most importantly, watch the customer work in some way. In an ideal world, watch how customers use your product to fully understand what they do and why your product makes a difference. Ask, ask, ask. 

"Watch how customers use your product to fully understand what they do and why your product makes a difference."

Some positioning experts argue that the CEO needs to lead the process. Do you agree?

The CEO is the person whose support you need to make the process successful. They get multiple people to show up and are an important agent in the process. If they’re not feeling it, there’s probably something wrong. Some people are better at driving the process, though. This might be the CMO or the COO. 

While the CEO’s voice is essential, sometimes they have strong opinions and can overshadow the process. If the CEO’s team isn’t empowered to push back, bad positioning can happen. You know—positioning that’s inconsistent, jargony, all about you, complicated, and doesn’t strike a nerve. 

Can you recommend any reading for those who are interested in diving deeper into the principles of great positioning? 

There are a few books I get value from: Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind by Al Ries and Jack Trout; Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek; Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip and Dan Heath, and anything by Dan Roam.

I also get a lot of inspiration from legal professionals who are some of the best storytellers in the world. The stakes for legal narratives can be life and death. The collection In Defense of Justice: The Greatest Dissents of Ruth Bader Ginsburg includes some of the best examples of narrative that exist today. The same is true of legal arguments for voting rights. 

Follow Jamie on Twitter, LinkedIn and Medium. Check out our prior interview with Jamie on crisis-era fundamentals, and visit other Dispatch posts from our Corporate Reputation practice.

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