Harvard Business Review was live with an interesting case study on how small companies with a social mission could compete with the Goliaths of various industries. The case study was interesting because people from all around the world shared how they would deal with, what Harvard’s best case studies are indeed! a stew of dilemmas.

The study was focused on how a young company  would position itself in a market where 60% of the market share is controlled by a well established company that has already positioned itself- which makes it nothing less than a behemoth competing for a bigger piece of the same pie. Questions such as why is positioning important? What is it really? How should they position themselves? Were discussed from the perspective of the protagonist, the young company.


Harvard Business School senior lecturer Jill Avery and HBR contributing editor Amy Gallo gave the audience four positioning options- 1) Social Mission 2) Authenticity 3) Affordability and 4) A combination of all three? The pros and cons of each option along with the combination of these options was also discussed.

The obvious and what’s wrong with it

The popular option among the audience during the live session was a combination of social mission, which was not surprising because they target emotions, and affordability. They then moved on to a combination of authenticity and social mission, both of which could be appealing to the emotionally driven audience, but here’s where vertical differentiation- where you stake a claim that says I am better than a competitor in a shared attribute- also bringing some negativity in our marketing campaigns and horizontal positioning where you say you are different, not better, but different in what you offer come into play.

An important mistake that they pointed out was how, many companies try to do social mission positioning within authenticity. This is particularly risky in today’s digital age because of how easy it is for your customers to figure if you really are what you said you are, said Jill Avery who also added that this combination of social mission with authenticity could be a public relations disaster because your value proposition is itself at stake.

The underdog approach

Another insightful mention of an observation from research from Jill Avery of HBS was the proven way of how small brands could benefit from positioning themselves as the underdogs, leveraging all the marketing support that the larger brands puts out into the market place. Driving increased interests and purchases.

Everything from how the founder is going to keep passion alive, how all the employees should be able to live through the value proposition, hiring the right people, training in the right way, how the biggest test of your value proposition comes from the customers, what competitors products are your customers using, if smaller companies spend too much time on competing, or how and at what stage companies should consider customer focused products and the points of parity etc. were taken up.

In about an hour long discussion, all the emphasis on positioning was justified because of proven examples of how often companies and startups lose out  in spite  of their extraordinary products.

The freedom to experiment is thin and mistakes are not affordable. A combination sounds appealing but is extremely fragile when it is put in practice. There is no undo button, there might be a second chance at positioning right, but never without you having to face the consequences of your first choice.

So, how would you do it?