Every decision is a marketing decision – Joel Kelly | Guest Talk

‘Every decision is a marketing decision’ with Joel Kelly was recorded at our SEO Brunch (September 2020). Joel Kelly is a life-long marketer and strategy enthusiast. He’s been a senior leader in creative agencies, a content marketing director, a SaaS product marketer, and a PR and crisis consultant. He currently runs the boutique strategy firm The Family Knife, and he publishes a weekly newsletter on using marketing strategy to build a better business, and a better life, at TheStrategyYouWant.com.

There’s this great book called, “On Looking Where: Eleven walks with Expert Eyes.”

The author goes on a walk around Manhattan with I think a dozen or so different people with different jobs – from her own toddler to a biologist, to a graphic designer, to a botanist – and everyone sees that same walk but they go through Manhattan completely differently because of their jobs, because of who they are and the lens through which they see the world.

This form of cognitive bias speaks to me because this is how I see the world – I do see the world through a marketing strategy, which on the downside can often make me a reasonably boring dinner companion.

But on the upside, it can be helpful in business.

You need to understand how marketing works

We can often think that the core element of our business is the thing we make – the product that we’ve created, or the service that we offer. But that’s only part of business. The thing that makes it business is the selling things, is the marketing of what we’re doing and how we’re getting people to buy from us. Which means to be effective, we need to understand how our marketing works, we need to know what’s working for us.

This isn’t about a flashy ad campaign and it’s not about putting a coat of paint on something and trying to make it look more expensive. This is about focusing on what we’re best at and what our best customers like most about us so that we can carve out a real, true advantage for our business that makes us less substitutable. And that’s the essence of market positioning.

This is important in my opinion because this is what creates motivated customers. And motivated customers are what create profit. And profit is what creates freedom in your business. And if profit is important, that’s why positioning is important.

What is market positioning?

We need to define our terms a little bit. There are many, many definitions of a market position. David Ogilvy in the 60s said that, “it is what your product does and who it does it for.” We’re really just going to boil it down to market positioning is what you do and what the customer is truly buying.

Ideally, real positioning, when it’s at its best, is something that is unique and that people truly want. If you can do those two things together, that’s a great market position to have. And that’s what you want to be reinforcing over and over and over again.

I have a few examples of market positions from companies I’ve actually never worked with but really like their positions. It’ll help us figure out what we can be doing with our own marketing to make it more successful and how we can see every decision as a marketing decision.

Locally in Halifax, let’s consider “Real Fake Meats.”

Market Positioning Example – Real Fake Meats

This is the vegan butcher shop. In my opinion, what they sell is not fake meat, what they sell is the big city, butcher shop experience. The unique way they offer that to their customers is using all plant-based ingredients and to whom they’re offering this to are the vegan, the vegetarian, and the veggie-curious.

Most importantly, who they do not spend a lot of time and money or resources on marketing to are people who don’t care about fake meat or are not interested in it. There is not a word on their on their website about why you should want fake meat. They’re talking to people who already eat fake meat, who already know it’s interesting, who already want it. They’re telling you to come to us – to them – because we’re going to give you that butcher shop experience you don’t have because you don’t eat meat.

This makes them quite unique in that space. And they’re quite valuable as a result because they are not very substitutable. Think about it – if I am looking for an all plant-based butcher shop experience, I don’t have a lot of other options – certainly not in a city like Halifax.

That’s what position gets you into. And if you’ve gone to Real Fake Meats, you know it’s not the cheapest place to buy anything. But you’re not going there just for the “fake meat,” – you could get that at the grocery store.
You’re going in there for the experience and for that, people are willing to pay a little bit more as a result.

Market Positioning Example – Netflix

An example on a much larger scale is Netflix, a company with whom we all have an intuitive relationship, who have always been marketing instant entertainment. As we all know, Netflix wasn’t always an Internet streaming video service. [Netflix] started out sending its customers DVDs within two days of ordering; keeping in mind that back then that was effectively “instant.” With help from technological advancements, the way they do it now has obviously changed but they still use an unlimited catalogue of cross-device videos to serve you instant entertainment. Casting a wider net, their marketing is much more focused on, “we got something for everyone; you want something to watch? You can come to Netflix.”
We can compare this to a similar company: Disney Plus. A similar strategy but for a much more finite customer base; those who are happy to revisit classic animated films, avid Star Wars fans – essentially if you’re signing up for a specific selection rather than a broader catalogue that appeases the masses.

Market Positioning Example – iPhone

Looking even larger we have, of course, the iPhone. This is just just one sliver of Apple’s business. What are they selling to me? At the end of the day, they’re selling me an all-in-one communication entertainment device. Clearly, the phone was never the point. How do they sell it? They do that by focusing on user experience and delight. And who do they do it for? People who want an easy, beautiful experience. And, frankly, to say they have an iPhone.

Market Positioning Example – Android

So the opposite of Apple’s idea is the Android approach. They are offering the same solution – an all-in-one communications entertainment device but with a vastly different focus. Their focus is on features, customization, and price. If you’re in the Android ecosystem, you have many more options across the board for everything; for the hardware you want; the customization of your experience, and price point – it is much more varied in the Android space.

Who do they sell to? People who want a customizable, controllable experience for a smaller price tag. However, if I was able to switch out of the Apple ecosystem with a click of a button, I’m still unlikely to go buy some other phone, because I like the way Apple does it and their marketing to me and people who like their experience over the other experience.

As business owners we can often find that you know where we’re spending most of our time is on customers who don’t actually value us the most, or we can spend a lot of time on work that isn’t very profitable. Meanwhile, there are profitable customers who like working with us, who see what we do is very valuable, that might get less attention because we have all of these other customers that really aren’t our core audience.

We want to figure out who our best customers are and what they want most from us.

It’s about creating that true difference that is worth paying for, not just about a flashy brand, a big ad campaign that does little more than make our product seem more expensive. It’s about that true advantage with a proper focus.

Every decision is a marketing decision

You may be thinking we’ve switched focus from marketing to simply how to build a product.

It’s important to keep in mind that every decision is a marketing decision. And that’s because everything you do reinforces or damages your market position. What your product does, how it works, the specific way it behaves, how the app performs – whether it’s slow, whether it’s fast – is reinforcing or damaging a specific market position.

It could be as detailed as how fast you respond to customer service messages is either reinforcing or damaging your market position in the perception of your best customers.
A way to think about this more holistically, is to use what Alexander Chernev calls the Five C’s:

The Five C’s

  1. Company
  2. Customers
  3. Competitors
  4. Collaborators
  5. Climate

Reflecting on those throughout the levels of your company – from the staff you hire to the sign out front – can drastically help discover if you are reinforcing or damaging your marketing position.
Making sure our messaging for our customers brings them value.
The way we respond to what our competition is either going to reinforce or damage our market position; they lower their price than we lower ours – that is unlikely to help us in a meaningful way.
Collaborators: meaning the vendors, the suppliers, the software you use and the people you depend upon to make your business succeed.
Who you choose, what you choose, and how you choose it is either going to reinforce or damage your marketing position.

Why context is important

And then finally, there’s the context. We’re living in a very contextual time in that there is a pandemic that has essentially forced everything online with a huge uptick in interest in virtual reality and augmented reality. There’s a lot of context happening around us and it is vital to focus on how we respond to these changes; how we do virtual meetings, how we service our customers without necessarily being able to have them in our shop all the time. How we handle these times will undoubtedly damage or reinforce our market position.

Your market position is your overall content strategy: what you’re doing, where you’re doing it, whether you’re spending money on it or not. Is it helping or hurting your market position?

This is a question we used to get a lot, but because of recent events, we get it a lot less often, which is, “should my company be on Tik Tok?” That may sound like a social media question not a marketing question. And in many ways it is. But more than that, it’s a positioning question.
Is Tik Tok where your best customers would expect you and are your best customers even there? Is being on Tik Tok, and the content you would put on Tik Tok, going to help or hurt your market position? Because at the end of the day, everything we do makes us more or less in line with what our customers believe as “best” about us, it makes us more or less differentiated from our competition, and more or less focused on what you’re best at.


In the end, I really do believe that marketing builds position, and position builds profit, and profit is what builds businesses that last.

Participant’s Questions

How do companies commit to attracting the best customers when that means leaving business on the table?

That is something that comes up I would say quite often, especially as it relates to the relationship between sales and marketing teams. You know that the feeling of leaving money on the table can be a very strong resistance point to making a pivot when it comes to position. So I don’t know that I have a one size fits all or perfect solution to this. But I’ll say what we end up trying to work on is that just because something looks like an opportunity doesn’t mean it’s going to earn revenue; rather it may just keep you busy. 
I always recommend two things: try things out and never make a bet that’s going to take you out of the game. If you lose it, dip your toe in and try to get that motivation wheel going. And that usually takes us from there. However, there are always exceptions. But that’s often the approach we take.

What have you learned so far from taking a shot at creating something new with this weekly newsletter, especially during these times?

The idea that there’s content; there’s types of marketing you can do that make you better and better and better and also there’s types of marketing you can do that feel like they are just robbing you of something. Those are harder and harder and harder. I focus on position – and that, I have found, is what’s keeping me going with the proper strategy for me. That makes this very, very, I wouldn’t say easy, but that makes what I need to write the ideas are come easily. 
Every time I finish a post, I know there are eight more I’ve got to write that connect to this. And why I can do that, I think, is because my positioning for the strategy. I know to whom I’m talking, and I’m often talking to a “me” from a couple years ago. But that makes it makes it very easy in that sense.

What are some common red flags you see for identifying your best customers?

If the sales process feels difficult, or that you’re banging your head against the wall, that’s probably a bad sign. If you feel like you’re trying to talk someone into something, this isn’t the right customer for you.
The other thing to think about is about similar engagement – a similar type of client and find out if this will be profitable for me financially. And if not, that’s okay, as long as it is profitable for us emotionally. 
Check in: Are we going to get something out of it to the extent that this is going to make me feel good about my business? Will this make me feel good about what I’m doing every day? Than that absolutely counts.