Creating Tension in Your Startup's Marketing Positioning

Tension in the air for this Soapbox racer at a Redbull Soapbox race.

When I first met Jen Grant, Looker’s CMO, she told me a story from early days of Box, where she was SVP of Marketing. Jen spoke about the importance of creating tension in the marketing message.

Aaron Levie, Box’s CEO and founder, spoke at conferences about the future of collaboration. His message: Box will transform the way employees work. But if you had visited www.box.net, you would have found another positioning for the company. A very simple one. Box replaces FTP.

How can a business have such different positioning in two different places? This is the tension. As Jen explained to me, each positioning served a particular purpose.

When Aaron presented on stage, his audience comprised C-level executives at Fortune 2000 companies. The goal was not to sell to them immediately, but to position Box to them for sale in a year or two or three. After all, the company and product were still quite early. This strategy educated enterprise customers well in advance of a sales process.

In the meantime, the Box.net website focused on solving immediate problems for visitors. How to move large files easily. This immediate value proposition optimized the conversion funnel for the product at the time.

As the company grew, the product deepened and broadened. Each year the offering approached the ultimate vision Aaron shared on stage. Several years later, Box approached those same enterprise buyers with the same vision. But, this time the product delivered the brand promise: the future of collaboration.

This is an insightful story for two reasons. First, it demonstrates how to create tension between the marketing message and the product. Though the product may not be there yet, the audience understands where the company is headed. So when the product matures, the buyer is receptive.

Second, the anecdote underscores the importance of customer segmentation. Customer segmentation is a powerful tool to divide your startup’s customer base. Customers may fall into SMB, midmarket, enterprise. Or horizontal and vertical. Or any other ontology that suits the business.

In Box’s case, the enterprise customer segment heard speeches about the company vision. Meanwhile, the current customer base, an SMB segment, received much more tactical campaigns.

Customer segments become part of the language of a startup. They help focus a marketing message to each. Those messages influence products, sales, engineering, and customer success. In other words, every part of the business.

Marketing is a continuum. One of the key disciplines is determining which customer segments matter, what messages to distribute to them, and how to create a tension between where the product is today and where the company will ultimately be.

Published 2017-03-27 in Marketing  SaaS 


I'm a partner at Redpoint. I invest in Series A and B SaaS companies. I write daily, data-driven blog posts about key questions facing startups. I co-authored the book, Winning with Data. Join more than 18,000 others receiving these blog posts by email.


Read this next: