PSM Show Episode140

PSM Show – Episode #140: Positioning

What does it mean to position your A/E/C firm? Is it a noun, or a verb?, the podcast for A/E/C marketers, host David Lecours and I had a conversation on the importance of positioning, along with a couple of examples of firm positioning statements. Take a listen and see what we had to say.



Announcer: Welcome to PSM, The Professional Services Marketing Podcast. It’s insight applied.

David Lecours: Hello, I’m David Lecours, and I’m joined by a special guest, Elke Giba, and Elke is here to talk to us today about positioning. So, welcome to the show Elke.

Elke Giba: Thanks for having me.

David Lecours: Before we learn more about Elke I would just wanna remind our listeners that we are sponsored by SMPS, who reminds us that business is transformed through marketing leadership, and if you wanna find out more about SMPS, got to

Announcer: This is PSM. It’s insight applied.

David Lecours: Alright, so this is the second time we’ve talked about positioning, and I don’t think we could positioning enough. Frankly, I think we could almost have every episode talk about positioning because I think it’s so important. But before we get into the topic Elke, maybe just give our listeners a little background on how you got here. The short story.

Elke Giba: Yeah, thanks. I am in my 8th year now as being an independent consultant specifically to marketers and AEC trades. And I started my professional career as a graphic designer and then, moved into web design and did a lot of work outside of the industry. But as I was looking at moving into starting my own firm, I really wanted to position myself in a group of people that I thought as though would benefit from having my experience and skill sets.

I specifically chose this industry, and it’s a little unique in that, simply because I’m fascinated by the trade craft and, I think you’ll appreciate this David, that we as designers, graphic people, we spend a lot of time creating material that doesn’t have a lot of- It doesn’t stay around very long, right? Especially if it’s a website or digital platform, it can be gone easily and in just a few seconds.

But within this industry, I’m just really amazed and awestruck by the craftsmanship that it takes to create these facilities that people use on a daily basis. And so, I intentionally wanted to be a part of that. So that’s what got me to this role. And I agree with you that I think that, we couldn’t talk about positioning enough. We need to talk about it often. Specifically within this particular industry. There’s a lot of room for improvement within positioning.

David Lecours: And you said something that really sort of struck out of me, is that you made this conscious decision to position yourself in the industry. So maybe mention the difference between the act of positioning versus the- So the verb versus the noun, which is like a perhaps a positioning statement.

Elke Giba: Yeah. This is a traditional marketing aspect. It’s a part of our marketing theory, is knowing who you’re serving, knowing what they need, what they care about, and really being intentional about your message whenever you’re choosing that topic. For me and choosing AEC it was a way to say, this group, this industry has a very unique problem. Especially when it comes to marketing. It’s a relatively new field, where people are really trying to figure out what it means, we have leadership who aren’t really sure how marketing could fit into their firm and their practice and how to really take advantage of it, and use it to their best benefit and in growing the company.

So, I think there’s a huge opportunity to focus on your target market, your niche, figure out what their problems are, and then use your language to tell them how you can solve the kinds of problems that they’re facing. And that’s true. If you’re a doctor or If you’re a surgeon, you will specialize in a specific area. Or if you’re a graphics firm, a marketing firm, you’ll target a specific audience. Or if you’re an architecture firm, you’ll choose a very specific niche that you can focus on and really be intentional about who you’re serving so that you can position, right. That’s the first part I have. Is that language to let those kinds of people, those kinds of clients know what you can do for them and how you do it.

David Lecours: Yeah, absolutely. So I’m guessing you have a formal definition that you like to use when you define positioning. What is that?

Elke Giba: I would say that it’s . . .We talk about positioning statement, and generally speaking that’s how we- If we’ve heard the term positioning, that’s where it comes from. We have a positioning statement.And I’ve heard you talk about it, sometimes there’s a formula that you can use to create your positioning statements. But I would also think that positioning is in fact, the act of choosing your market and being very intentional about the kind of work that you can do for them, how you can solve their problems. So that’s not necessarily a formal definition, but it is maybe a more granular level of how I would define positioning in terms of just a statement. It’s actually a practice. It’s part of you’re intentional messaging that you might do around your firm and what you actually practice.

David Lecours: Yeah. And I think it’s a way of differentiating, right? It’s taking a conscious choice to position yourself as unique in the marketplace. Because we as marketing practitioners, the last thing we want is to be known as just a generalist, a one of many. Because then of course the only way we can compete is on price. And we don’t want to compete on price because we don’t want to be a commodity. So we have to differentiate ourselves. But not just be different, ’cause being different is easy, but being different in a meaningful way is something that really means something to the client.

Elke Giba: Yeah. There’s oftentimes we’d hear the whole notion, well, we’re a full service architecture firm, we’re a full service engineering firm and you and I both have this perspective that we need to get more intentional about that language and get really focused on the kind of work that they can do and the kind of problems they solve. And that’s where that uniqueness, that’s where that positioning actually comes up to the service and makes that differentiation really stand out.

David Lecours: So I think we’ve kind of defined it, but maybe we could say what it isn’t too. I think you have some thoughts around that.

Elke Giba: Yeah, I do. Because we see this often. Because it’s not necessarily the easiest thing to grab a hold of at the very beginning will resort to the things that are easy. For instance, we’ll talk about, where are the only firm that’s located in central Texas that does “xyz”. Well, you’re close, if you’re gonna get really specialized in saying what you do, that you’re the only firm in central Texas, but more often than not, where you’re located doesn’t really help you with positioning. That’s not necessarily going to be something that is unique enough to make you a differentiator.

David Lecours: So not a literal geographic position.

Elke Giba: Right. Not where I’m located, or even how long I’ve been in business. For me that doesn’t necessarily tell me anything about the firm. It’s simply says, you’re doing it successfully because you’ve been able to be in business that long, but really 35 years in business doesn’t tell a perspective client anything more about what you do and, just how long you’ve done it.

So the other thing that I would say that positioning is not, it is not how long you’ve been in business. I would also say that I’ve seen a couple of times where firms will talk about, well, we’re the only- we’re a woman owned business. That’s great, but probably not unique enough to be a differentiator within the kinds of services that you provide. There are gonna be times when partners are looking for a specialty firm like that to make sure that they’re being judicious in their projects. But for the most part, it’s not going to tell a client anything about what you do or what kind of problems you can solve for them. So for me, those three things are things that do not qualify as they shouldn’t be part of your positioning statement. You should not worry about where you are or what kind of firm, you’ve corporate structure or, how long you’ve been in business. Those three things really, they don’t tell the client anything more about your firm and what you can do for them. So I wouldn’t include them.

David Lecours: So one of the classic formulas I’ve heard for positioning is we do x for y. It’s pretty basic and that’s a great start. But I dunno about you, but I’ve found it challenging when working with our clients is that a lot of times they’re x is a lot of things right? They have a couple of different services and then they’re y is a couple of different things they work in a couple of different vertical markets. Does a firm have to pick just one, one service in one market in order to be effectively positioned?

Elke Giba: No, but I think it’s critical that they know what those unique, what those differences are, because it changes the message. To that end, you could in fact have a couple of different positioning statements and what that would do is just simplify the kinds of messages that you’re going to give to that particular market. So, if you are a multidisciplinary firm and you have lots of different services, then my recommendation is to try to simplify it. If you can focus on one that you use the most frequently, that clients know you for most frequently, then that might in fact be the one that you would work from the most. But it makes a lot of sense to have a couple of other ones ready so that you can be responsive to the different messages that need to be put out there. Your clients are different. Right? So that’s probably how I would approach that situation. I think that you can have . . . We can start with one, be a little bit more general, but then get really granular in your services.

David Lecours: Like that one is your leading statement, the majority of your work comes from this, this is what we’re gonna lead with, but it doesn’t cover everything that you could do. It’s just gonna be putting you in in a solid position so the client can get their head around it and then that’ll help create other opportunities. That makes total total sense.

Elke Giba: And lemme just add right here that that’s the key part. That’s a key thing that we wanna focus on when you and I are talking about positioning it’s not really to the benefit of the firm. It’s to the benefit of the client. The client is the one who has to understand what it is that you can do for them before they can decide whether or not they wanna choose you as a teaming partner or have you on their project. They need to be able to hear your message and evaluate for themselves specifically, this answers my problem. This firm will take care of my problem. And that’s all that they really are concerned about. And I think that opens so many other opportunities to you when you can communicate to potential clients, these are the kinds of problems that we solve. And if you’ve got that problem, we can solve it. It’s a different shift talking, letting the customer, the client pick you based on how you can solve their problem as opposed to, it’s an outward message. We are this, we are that. So that’s another way to think about positioning is thinking about it in that way. How’s the client? But what are they looking for? What are they hungry for? What are they searching for? And then using that as a way to position your firm.

David Lecours: Awesome. Hey, so I did a little research knowing we were gonna talk about this and, I found two or three positioning statements and I would love to read them to you and just get your take, as a fun exercise. Are you down with that?

Elke Giba: All right, I’m ready. Let it on me.

David Lecours: Here we go. We designed the places where people love to be together. This is for a firm called Populous and they are architects. They designed stadiums, arenas, and convention centers, which maybe I should or shouldn’t tell you, but I did. So, now you know.

Elke Giba: I like it. The thing that I like about it as a marketer that I’m responding to directly is, the sense of emotion that comes into the positioning statement. Right? Their already attributing what it is that these spaces- They’re really connecting to their “why”, which I love. I’m all over that. The impression that I got when you just read the statement had more to do with, family homes and maybe even house of worship. It was an interesting spin when you added arenas and . . . Okay. Yeah, I can see that. So I think . . .

David Lecours: That’s a really good point. I think that this positioning statement rarely lives in isolation. It’s often gonna be combined with imagery, or be placed on a website. And so that will give context.

Elke Giba: Yeah, absolutely. Again, we’re talking about if we were going to use the criteria, is this addressing a problem that a client might have, right? Are they trying- Will they choose this firm to help them solve this problem about- or I’ve gotta have this really big space and it needs to be flexible enough to host a concert, and a big ticket sporting event. Well, there’s different questions around that. So depending upon who their audience is and how they’re trying to get to it, I think it’s a really strong start, and I like a lot of things about it. So I’d get the past.

David Lecours: And since they do olympic stadiums and they do large convention centers and master plannings for like giant spectacles and events. I think they can get away with sort of having that the more minimal and not being- And maybe a little more poetic too. I think they should have that.

Elke Giba: Well I was just gonna tweak it if I’d said [crosstalk 00:16:25] where people celebrate together.

David Lecours: That’s interesting.

Elke Giba: Anyway. We’re not doing free work. That’s [crosstalk 00:16:33].

David Lecours: I’ll read one more to you and [crosstalk 00:16:37]. Okay, this one is, we’re not architects who do healthcare. We are healthcare architects.

Elke Giba: There’s a whole range of practice, right? When you talk about- well, we focus on health care, but they’re actually practicing the skill set behind it. So I like this one. I think I’ve seen this one. I think I’m familiar with this firm. So, I’m thinking this is a really strong start too, I’d like to see them get a little bit tighter for each of these in terms of what kinds of health care, health care is a huge [inaudible 00:17:19], right? I mean, it is a- Or usually [inaudible 00:17:22] are you talking about health care facilities? Are you talking about research facilities? Are you talking about the local clinical facilities? All of those things. Is it multi-disciplinarian? So, I think there’s an opportunity to get a little bit tighter, but it’s a really good strong start.

David Lecours: And, part of this I think is also beginning the conversation, where you’re not gonna give all the details and so, you’ve gotta be intriguing enough so that someone will want to have a followup conversation.

Elke Giba: Yeah. I’m gonna push back a little bit on that because, positioning I think- What I understand and I would imagine you have to is that, it can be really scary, because it’s the reverse of what we want to do, especially when we talk about new business acquisition, how do we find new clients? When you position your firm, you have to have some courage doing it because you will be, and you talked about this earlier when you wanted to talk different lines, but when you position your firm, we really need to stand on- This is our core practice. This is how we are known, this is our expertise. And that takes some courage. You have to be able to stand away and say, ‘that’s okay. I don’t need all this extra pieces or extra work that’s coming in that doesn’t directly align with what it is that we do’.

And sometimes that can be really scary to do that depending upon the size or shape, or age of your firm. So sometimes that can be a real challenge. And so it’s easier to be generalized and just have a very general positioning statement. But the more focused, more hyper focused you can become on that positioning statement means that you can get really aligned and very focused. You will become an expert in that field. Right? So we’re talking about vertical versus horizontal. Are you gonna be really hyper focused on that? And to be honest it just takes a lot of courage to say, ‘that’s okay. We used to do this kind of work in the past and we’re not going to do it anymore’. Even individually. Right? I don’t do websites anymore. Having to say that for a while was a bit of a challenge just to say I’m cutting out that business line out of my practice, but it’s better to send it to somebody else too. So anyway-

David Lecours: It makes total sense. And I wanna follow up on this idea of courage, but before we get too far along, I just wanted to clarify the firm, and I would just wanna give credit to the firm who’s positioning statement that is called Array Architects. They happen to work in all their multi offices, hundreds of staff people. So, they do work in almost all of those markets you mentioned. So I think for them it did work pretty well.

But you bring up this idea of courage and I think- Well I’ll let you answer the question. So what do you think is the single best hesitant, reason for hesitance, or resistance that you get maybe when you’re working with clients? Why do they fear positioning?

Elke Giba: It really comes down to- Well the single biggest thing? I have not found a single answer for that, it really depends on the leadership and what their used to doing, and where they’re coming from. If it’s a newer firm, If it’s a very broad based firm, they may be hesitant, and very focused simply because it cuts out some of their business line already. And that is a change in their business structure. So it’s a position to have a really firm strong position within a single core that, that’s a change in their business structure. And that can be really challenging.

David Lecours: I know offline we talked about fear. Speak to that a little bit.

Elke Giba: Fear gets into so many of these levels. I mean there’s the fear of not being able to take on new clients that come in the door, but the counterpoint to that is, if you take on everybody, then you’re never going to be able to be an expert.

If you position yourself for a very narrow target, then you’re not gonna have a lot of projects variety either and [inaudible 00:22:13]. But again, you can’t be an expert if you are all over the board and you can’t really focus on a specific project type, or clientele, then you’re serving lots of different clients and you’re never really gaining expertise that you need to have. And honestly, it requires some uncomfortable navel-gazing. We’re not really used to doing this. And that’s why I think it takes some practice and it takes some comfort to say, well I’m going to start here and then I keep refining and getting hyper, keep refining that positioning statement. So fear for me is- that’s the biggest thing. It could be. I don’t wanna limit the number of clients I have.

I can even have a client that I really but they’re outside of my positioning that I want to go for. So I don’t wanna lose them. How do I . . . Well, that’s a whole different client relationship question. But that comes into it, right? We’re humans, we’re just trying to get aligned and make sure that we’re doing- But ultimately it comes down for me, it has to do with running your business, running your firm in a smart way so that when your clients are looking for people who can solve that problem, they can see you’re firm and recognize they can solve my problem. So it’s not for everybody, but for those that they’re ready to make that choice and really get hyper focused on their firm and what they practice, then it’s the right place for them. Did that answer your question?

David Lecours: And the idea that there is this fear because you’re asking people to narrow their focus and they feel like by narrowing their focus, they are going to limit their opportunities. But I would argue, and I think you would too. The converse in that by narrowing your focus, you’re going to be so good and develop so much expertise that it’s going to create opportunities that you don’t even know exists, called this adjacent possible. Right? You go into a room, you don’t know what’s in there, but by excelling it opens up these new doors that just never had existed prior. But it’s a huge leap of faith and I get it. And I think it requires that navel-gazing and some introspection in order to get to a place where you’re ready to move forward in a great way.

Elke Giba: And when you’re thinking about leadership, the firm leadership and how they’ve built this practice, they’ve done it but with blood, sweat and tears acquiring clients one at a time and new projects to their list, and some of those are really hard ones. It’s a little uncomfortable to say, I’m not gonna try to get everything. I’m just gonna focus on specific areas, specific niche, and serve them. So that I can be an expert. So it can be really- It takes some courage.

David Lecours: And as are our friend David Baker likes to say, it’s about the work that you seek, not necessarily what you accept. And so, you’re gonna have other opportunities that if your pipeline isn’t filled and it’s a little bit outside your positioning, of course you take on that work. And actually probably because you’ll be so well known in one area, it might bring up other people that hear about you and to go, I really want to work with that expert. Cool. So let’s get a little more practical. And what might affirmed you to get started on positioning their firm, do they have to do this at the very inception or can they do it mid track?

Elke Giba: Yes, they can do it mid track. I was talking about my own practice and what I did. I did have a period where I was doing- I was trying to be a “full-service” marketing agency. For me it happens while I was in the middle of things, in the thick of things really evaluating the kind of work that I wanted to work on consistently and frequently and, and really become an expert in that area. So that’s part of it.

You can start it when you launch your firm, think about the kinds of experience that you serve. The kinds of things that you’ve done, that kind of projects that you’ve worked on, the things you’ve enjoyed, the things you don’t enjoy about that work. There’s no reason you have to position yourself to work on stuff you don’t like working on. But I do think that it’s a constant refinement. I don’t think that your positioning is ever really fully fixed, right? That technology and the industry changes so dramatically and frequently. And, talking about fear, there’s probably even an aspect of if you pick a market that is no longer viable, I began to wonder if some of the firms that are serving large retail shops. They’re starting to think about, maybe we should shift a little bit and see if we can move this practice to another area that’s not quite so volatile, or government work when the budgets are down.

Any of those things, it can be something that would be a part of it. But your question was, when can we do this? Yes, you can do it at the beginning. You can do it in the middle, but you should do it often. I wrote a column last month — the way to test to your positioning and I think that that’s actually a really good way to start to think about, “am I positioned properly to be in with?” And that’s just a visual exercise for you. Think about the clients that you served over the last 12 to 18 months and you’re thinking about them in groups, in stacks, and you categorize them according to either project type or project size or market, and then get a picture of where your work concentrates. What are you doing the most of?

If you’re positioning phrase, if your positioning statement reflects that bulk of your work then you’re positioned correctly. If not, then it’s time to refocusing a little bit and practice it, polish it off, and get a little bit closer to being a true reflection of what you’re doing now. Or if you don’t, then stop picking those projects and start moving towards what you want to be positioned as. That’s, that’s the other way to do that. So, it can be done in the middle, and also at the beginning. But if you’re starting out and you’ve not done any of that work, how do you know that that’s really what you want to do? I think that’s probably the cautionary tale on doing it at the beginning.

David Lecours: We’ll link to that article in the show notes. If you go to, we’ll provide a link to that. So I guess what I’m hearing you say is that, the positioning statement is not forever. And I think that’s one of the fears clients have is when they attach themselves, they’re like, this is going to be us forever. And I think what you’re saying is that, no things will move around, but by the same token, it’s not something that you change from one proposal to the other because it just that makes you a little bit flighty.

Elke Giba: And keep in mind what you and I both talking about here is the reason that we feel so strongly about positioning, is that we want to help these firms get to the point where they’re not commoditized. Positioning removes that and- or at least avoids the opportunity for being commoditized. ‘Cause then you have a specialized skill, you’re really focused on, on your craft. And you can say we’re experts at this and then you can price a little bit higher than you would if you were just a run-of-the mill. We do everything, Jack of all trades, master of none. Then you’re just gonna get whatever is given to you, and you’re not gonna be able to pick and choose.

David Lecours: So our audience for the show are marketing professionals, specifically in the architecture, engineering, construction. We’re well positioned. So who should they be leading the effort for positioning, or should it be the c-suite, or a combination? Like what have you found is the best mix?

Elke Giba: This really needs to come from the leadership. It’s difficult for marketers, marketing managers, marketing coordinators to really be able to bring this to the table without them, without the leadership already thinking about it. Now, there are ways that I feel you can have that conversation with your leadership and have them start thinking about it. And that would simply- There’s a couple of reasons why you do this. One, it would give them an idea that you are invested in the success of the firm and that you want to know more about it. So simple question to the leadership like, tell me what you think is our best skillset. What did we do the best? What kind of projects do we excel? And start to have that conversation internally.

If positioning is not already part of your practice, if it’s not already part of something that you’re doing. If you’ve moved a little bit further down the way and you have a positioning statement that you feel like as a pretty solid thing, then this is an opportunity when you have the next meeting where you’re talking about goals and kinds of projects that you want to go after, you can have this conversation even during the go no go phrase. Does this project really aligned with the kind of work that we wanna do?

Yes or no. Well, if it’s not, then let’s not do this kind of work anymore. So those are little ways that you can start to have the conversation with your leadership. But my experience has been that, in order for it to really take hold and for everybody to be on the same page, the leadership really need to be the ones that are ready to make this change and to bring it to the table, and work on it as a group. ‘Cause it’s not just a statement, it’s an act. It’s a way of that you’re pursuing new work. It’s a way you’re pricing work. It’s all those different things and those are oftentimes spearheaded by the leadership team and not necessarily the marketing department. Although it should be, maybe.

David Lecours: I think marketing can take the lead and, if we follow the SMPS tagline ‘business transformed through mass marketing leadership’, marketers can lead and bring it to the attention and say, Hey, I’ll help facilitate this. But you definitely need to be involved and it can’t just be marketing driven totally. It’s gotta also come top down.

Elke Giba: Just for [inaudible 00:33:21]. One the ways that you can help the leadership figure out whether or not your positioned correctly is, look at the wind ratio. How many of the projects have you won, and how fair is your from aligned with that kind of work? So that would be a way for you to say to leadership, well, I noticed we’re getting a lot of these projects, we haven’t won them. I think it’s because we don’t talk about how’ve done that kind of work before. So that’s another way to broach the conversation with leadership and say, I’m really- I wanna get us to a better win rate, wanna make sure that really thinking about the projects that make up a fit for our team. So that would be another way to bring them into the conversation.

David Lecours: Okay. So, I gotta ask, does that the Giba Group have a positioning statement?

Elke Giba: Yes. Yes we do. And it comes with hard work, right? You and I both will say that we have spent our own hours thinking about the kind of work that we want to do. And so it takes work on refinement. I noticed from the beginning that the kinds of things that I’m talking about it, and I’ve already mentioned it a couple of times before, is that I’m looking toward those courageous firms, those firms that are ready to make the decision. In my positioning statement, I talk about that I’m moving courageous AEC firms from being generalists to being specialists. And then I do that with foundational marketing strategy and activities. So that’s my- it’s not rote, that’s my- it’s moving them from, from being really generalists into a specialist and making sure that they’re taking advantage of that expertise, so it’s had one. I’ve worked really hard for it.

David Lecours: How bad. No. I hear you.

Elke Giba: Let’s put it out there.

David Lecours: And so if people wanna learn more about you and your firm, where should they go?

Elke Giba: Well, I would say go to the website. Or find me on LinkedIn. That would be the other place where you could find me. And it’s Elke Giba, G-I-B-A. I’m the only Elke Giba, so I think if you get close, you’ll probably find me. But, there’s the website that might be the best way to find me.

David Lecours: I like it. All right, so that’s it for this episode of Love talking to Elke about positioning. So big thanks to her, and to our sponsor SMPS. If you, our audience, have any questions, or comments, or suggestions about future guests. That’s how we found Elke. Write to us via Just scroll down and there’s a simple form there. So, from Elke Giba and myself, David Lecours, we’re outta here.

Elke Giba

Elke is our chief facilitator — helping A/E/C clients uncover insights about customers and services to define a unique marketing position. She is equally at home in Dallas or Nashville, but oddly enough cannot two-step to save her life. When she isn't researching, interviewing or facilitating, she is practicing the delicious art of baking.

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