I’m chairing what may be the first ever marketing-oriented session at the annual Flash Memory Summit in August 2013. A lively panel of experts, editors, and analysts will be discussing product differentiation in a growth market in a session called: Differentiate or Die – Marketing Flash-Based Storage Systems. So as part of a primer on product positioning I thought I’d explain the concept of positioning.
Playing Mind Games
Positioning starts with a product. In this case, products typically include a solid state disk, a Flash-enabled appliance or caching software. However, in marketing, the term “product” can include services, a person, an idea, and a vendor.
I’d be hard pressed to name a service, person or idea that should be included in this specific post, but the 75+ vendors competing for the attention of the enterprise buyer with Flash-enabled storage solutions are definitely relevant. I’ll narrow the field to those competing for enterprise buyers. In most cases, the solution is a hardware product that uses Flash memory, but not always. Some vendors develop software products that mitigate the need for additional hardware, essentially fulfilling the same customer need. This June 2013 list includes some newborn vendors (not yet shipping) and some undead vendors (they look dead, but still might bite.) In general, I excluded those selling only hard disk drive form-factor SSDs (e.g Seagate, sTec) and Flash chips (e.g. Toshiba, Samsung), but I included PCIe SSD vendors if they claimed to have a product for enterprise servers.
Aberdeen, Amax, Arkologic, Astute Networks, Assurance, Avere Systems, BiTMICRO, BridgeSTOR, Cachebox, Cisco, Condusiv, Coraid, DataDirect Networks (DDN), DataON, DDRdrive, Dell, Dot Hill, Echostreams Innovative Solutions, EMC, Enmotus, Fastor, Foremay, Fusion-io, GreenBytes, Hitachi Data Systems, HP, Huawei Symantec, IBM Systems and Technology Group, IceWEB, Infinio, Imation, Intel, iXsystems, JetStor (AC&NC), JBOD, JDV Solutions, Kaminario, Kove, LSI, Marvell, Micron, NetApp, Nimble Storage, Nimbus Data Systems, OCZ, Oracle, Panzura, PernixData, Pivot3, Proximal Data, Pure Storage, QLogic, Qsan, Radian Memory Systems, Reduxio, Renice Technology, Runcore SSD, SanDisk, Scalable Informatics, SeaChange, Skyera, SolidFire, Soligen, Starboard Storage, sTec, StorageQuest, Super Talent, System Fabric Works, Tegile Systems, Tintri, VeloBit, Violin Memory, Virident Systems, WhipTail, and X-IO.
It’s possible that a majority of enterprise storage products are purchased, not because they are the best, but because they are adequate and have a particular vendor’s brand name on them. The vendor’s reputation is an integral part of what’s purchased.
That said, position is not so much about the product as it is about how the product is perceived in the mind of the prospective purchaser. Your position is whatever an individual prospect thinks it is, not what you think it is. Your position is relative — worst, worse, good, better, best product for the problem the purchaser is trying to solve. Also, your position can change.
“Marketing is Too Important to be Left to the Marketing Department” (David Packard) — Good CEOs and CTOs Step Up
Positioning or repositioning is about trying to influence what others think of you and your product. These tasks usually fall under the purview of the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO). But in reality, positioning is one of the most important responsibilities of the Chief Executive Officer (CEO), whether he or she acknowledges that responsibility or not. It’s the CEO’s responsibility because the engineering department does not report to the CMO. That’s a key point, because in the IT industry the founding Chief Technology Officer (CTO) has by far the most influence on a product’s positioning. In most cases, the foundation for a product’s position is set long before a marketer is even hired. To succeed in the positioning game, the product needs to be designed to be the best at something — something that buyers care about enough to pay for.
4+1 Must-Have Features of a Strong Product/Position
A successful and sustainable product and/or position:
- Is valued by the market. Customers have to want it and be willing to pay for it.
- Can be differentiated from similar products. It has to have a unique valued quality that makes it stand out.
- Is defensible. Others can’t (credibly) make the same claims.
- Is promoted consistently and frequently. People can’t buy what they don’t know about.
There’s one other factor that is almost always critical to a strong position, especially for those selling enterprise IT products. That factor is: Time. It is possible that a product and company can burst onto the scene and immediately establish a strong position, but when this happens it is definitely an exception. Sorry, but that inaugural press release announcing you as “the leader in …” is just the beginning of a long process that usually requires a great product line, as well as consistency and frequency of communication to the right people, at the right time, through the right channels.
In a nutshell: Customers = Innovation x Marketing.™ More realistically, Customers = Innovation x Marketing x Time.
Parameters for Positioning Flash-Based Products
So what product features are valued by enterprise buyers of flash-based storage products? Here’s a high-level list that almost always starts with performance and price:
- Performance – IOPS, Latency, Cache
- Price Range – $1K to $100K+, TCO
- Capacity – TB, Data Reduction (compression, de-dupe)
- Power – Low Watts, Sleep Mode
- Persistence (reliability) – Wear leveling, component redundancy, ruggedness
- Form – PCIe, Rack, Software
- Interface – PCIe, Infiniband, Fibre Channel, SATA, DIMM
- Application – Features applicable to Big Data, Cloud, Virtualization, High Frequency Trading, Oracle Databases, etc.
- Assurances – Vendor, warranty, endorsements
Interestingly, price is not always a key factor for Flash-based products. For some industries, performance trumps everything because high performance is critical to their ability to succeed in their own marketplace. Examples include High Frequency Traders and some online retailers. Persistence, reliability and ruggedness are key for many military and industrial applications. However, as the market grows and matures the percentage of one-feature buyers diminishes. For most, a mixture of performance, price and additional features determines who wins the positioning game. I’ll add more about market stages in a later post.
An Example of Solid Positioning: Texas Memory Systems
Texas Memory Systems (TMS) is a textbook example of strong product positioning, in any market, not just the the solid state disk market. Before they were bought by IBM, TMS marketed themselves (with the help of my firm, Marketingsage) as “Makers of the World’s Fastest Storage.” Here’s how TMS met the essential features for a strong sustainable position:
“World’s Fastest Storage” — Simple as it may seem, TMS said they made storage products. It’s important to inform people about the type of product you sell. Although I suspect some would disagree with me.
Here’s a positioning statement from another firm: “…a global leader in enabling businesses and service providers to transform their operations and deliver IT as a service.” Can you guess what they sell? It’s a big firm. Who are they? If you don’t work there and haven’t looked it up, leave your answer in the comment box below.
Performance is the most valued feature for many SSD purchasers, especially those in the early phase of the market. Being the fastest is the best possible position. It’s a differentiated position because no one else can be the fastest. Most importantly, TMS took steps to defend its claimed position. First of all they trademarked the “Makers of the World’s Fastest Storage” phrase and successfully prevented competitors from using it. However, it takes more than trademarking a statement to hold a position in a prospect’s mind. TMS consistently backed up their claim by releasing product after product with record-breaking performance specifications. They backed those specifications up with independent benchmarks and customer testimonials. Additionally, it helped that they were selling high performance products for over 30 years. It takes time and consistency for a position to stick.
Although TMS claimed the pole position for those interested in fast storage, it does not mean that everyone was aware of them or accepted their claims. In my biased opinion, TMS punched above its weight but could have done better. Promotional budget aside, a stubborn refusal by the owner to adopt some basic marketing practices left them with a website and trade show booth that made them look out of place alongside the principal suppliers of enterprise IT products. This made it unnecessarily difficult for TMS to convince some of the prospects they reached that they were the success they claimed to be.
About this Series on Positioning and The Flash Memory Summit
Join me and a lively panel of experts, editors, and analysts at what may be the first ever marketing-oriented session for CEOs, CTOs, and marketers at the annual Flash Memory Summit in August 2013. We will be discussing product differentiation in a growth market in a session called: Differentiate or Die – Marketing Flash-Based Storage Systems on Wednesday, August 14, 9:50-10:50 am. This is an Open Session so you can register for free up until 8/11/13.
You can follow this blog by signing up in the left sidebar. You can find related posts like these by clicking the Flash Memory Summit 2013 category:
- Flash Memory Summit 2013 Session: Differentiate or Die – Marketing Flash-Based Storage Systems
- The Positioning Game: 75+ Vendors Promoting an Enterprise Solution that Uses Flash Memory
- Market Changes Impacting Flash-based Products – A Positioning Primer for CEOs, CTOs and Marketers
- Positioning and Hype for Flash-based Products – A Primer for CEOs, CTOs and Marketers
About the Author
David X. Lamont is an accomplished marketer of IT products and a partner at Marketingsage, a PR and lead generation firm that specializes in marketing data storage, data management, and enterprise software products. He can be reached by email at blog [at] marketingsage.net. Fellow marketers and IT professionals are invited to join his network on LinkedIn and to subscribe to this blog (see sidebar).