In an increasingly competitive B2B world, positioning has never been more important. Nevertheless, despite its significance, businesses of all sizes struggle with developing a substantive methodology to approach positioning work. In the B2B world, buying decisions are more complicated, and companies struggle with how to approach and streamline their messaging strategies, often turning to methodologies that are intuited or based on disciplines not designed for communication effectiveness, like design thinking or brainstorming.
By contrast, a small marketing consultancy known as Manchester Street has developed an innovative approach to this complex issue by recruiting a team interested in a more rigorous, and academically rigorous methodology.
Argument for the Win
Manchester Street’s unique approach to positioning starts with its focus on argumentation. As founder Ken Rufo, PhD explains, “Argument has always served a clarifying function. People confuse argument with conflict, but the truth is that argument provides an extremely effective way to develop clearer, more persuasive appeals.”
And the importance of these persuasive appeals cannot be emphasized enough. Marketers have a tendency—especially with digital marketing efforts—to think about marketing as the accumulation and aggregation of points of contacts, amount of engagement, impressions or click-throughs. However, in the arc of a buying decision, no matter how compelling a certain brand’s narrative or storytelling is, at some point during the consideration phase of the buying process, one of the people who makes up the buying committee is going to ask: Why this product? Why this company? Why now?
And as critical as touchpoints and engagement and digital metrics are, answering those “why” questions represents the gateway to the next stage of the funnel. As Ken explains, “This is where argument becomes so important. It works as equipment for buying the way stories sometimes work as equipment for living. The reality is that someone in that room, someone who is not one of your sellers, has to be able to present an argument on behalf of your offering. And if you do not equip them to make that argument effectively on your behalf, then you are missing out on the opportunity to influence one of the most important moments in the buying decision journey. “
It turns out, there’s an abundance of research to back up the power of argumentation. In a study designed to analyse the dynamics of group creativity, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, Charlan Nemeth, grouped a sample of undergraduates into groups of five and gave them all the same problem-solving task. When it was done, the group taught to use arguments outperformed groups taught other methods, producing more ideas, many of which were more complex than those generated by other groups, and in continuing to evolve those ideas on their own in the week after the initial session.
Argument as Method
For companies, then, the question is how to tap into the power of argument for their own positioning and messaging benefit.
Dr. Jarrod Atchison, the John Kevin Medica Director of Debate at Wake Forest University and one of the key writers at Manchester Street, says, “The best arguments have a clear structure. It’s called the argument chain and it’s made of three parts. There’s the claim, supported by the warrant, supported by the data. The claim is the thing you want someone to believe is true. The warrant is the reason they should believe it, and that data is the evidence that supports that right. Not all arguments do this explicitly—many of them imply or leave unspoken some of these elements—but they’re always there in some way or another.” He notes that many companies talk about why their product or service is so great, but never take on the role of making the arguments fully explicit, and this leads to gaps in the messaging.
Ken explains this further: “A great example is that a lot of organizations, when they’re asked what makes them different, will say, ‘It’s our people. Our people are great or better or whatever.’ The problem is this is a terrible argument. It’s impossible to generate experiential data without actually having those people do the work, and everyone else can (and does) say the same thing about their people. No one says, ‘Our people are pretty inexperienced, but they make up for their lack of skill with effort.’ Every organisation is going to brag about their people; it’s presumably why they hired them. But if we’re trying to get a buyer to invest in a service offering, we need an argument that makes a company or vendor stand out from what everyone else says, and that can have clear warrants supported by data.”
Instead, Ken suggests that companies work harder to develop warrants that will compel prospects without prior experience as a customer, to better explain what differentiates their offering from the competition, and why that difference matters.
The Enemy Always Gets a Vote
It doesn’t stop here. Ken emphasizes, “It’s also important to also make arguments on behalf of your competitors. You have to be willing to articulate the most charitable version of their claims, the most charitable take on their products and the most aggressive take on why your own product or solution might fall short. Why? Because that competitor’s marketing and sales departments are likely making those same claims in front of the same decision makers that you’ve been pitching to. Positioning never happens in a vacuum; it’s always a function of a terrain populated by other entities.”
In the military, strategists like to note that when it comes to strategy, “The enemy always gets a vote.” If you haven’t adopted a position that takes advantage of the best arguments in your favor, and that preempts the most significant objections to you, then you’re leaving room for doubt and you're likely limiting your overall prospects. Through better argumentation, you can align your positioning strategy in a way that puts your differences that matter front and center.