Reference Marketectures & Platform Positioning

When you need to sharpen up your positioning or reboot it because you’re launching a new product, have a tough competitor, or enter a new market, you can get to better positioning, faster, by taking a reference marketecture approach.

A reference marketecture is a drawing of the capabilities offered by all the main vendors in a market. It diagrams the superset high-level platform offered by those vendors, identifying facets of functionality in a way that helps you see how most vendors are positioned, and how buyers are seeing the market… All so you can see opportunities to re-position yourself.

Here’s a sketch of one I did for Bell Labs Design Automation (BLDA) in 1998.

Bell Labs Reference Marketecture – Before

BLDA had a unique technology for chipmakers to fully test new semiconductors before shipping them to market. In the wake of the Pentium bug and recall, chips had grown so complex that old ways were provably failing.

BLDA’s technology was super cool. The math is way beyond me, but it let a chipmaker mathematically, logically verify the function of millions of transistors as a whole, without the brute force approach used by the legacy approach, synthesis, which would take years to exhaustively verify a single chip – given that transistor counts per chip were now in the millions.

But Bell Labs was in a crowded market with lots of established vendors, so they needed a way to reframe the situation for buyers. Their “better mousetrap” was DOA, unless they could change how buyers thought.

Buyers were trained to assume they’d use synthesis tools (e.g. Synopsys) that had been the state of the art for years. These legacy tools tested every possible combination of transistor states, but the number of state permutations to be tested increased exponentially with each increase in the number of transistors on a given chip. What BLDA needed to do was re-frame the buyer’s task, in order to get included in tool evaluations and drive sales.

Here’s what we came up with:

Bell Labs Reference Marketecture – After

This change to the picture of the world – inserting a new pre-synthesis layer (Formal Verification) let them position their capabilities as a critical step that would allow chipmakers – for the first time – deliver a 100% tested, functioning product to market, within a viable time-to-market time window.

Putting Reference Marketectures to Use for Your Company

To build your own reference marketecture, do a deep dive into the platform/product sections of all of your top competitors’ websites & content. Do your best to forget everything you know about your own platform.

  1. Build a bulleted list of main capabilities for your #1 competitor/incumbent
  2. Draw a simple block diagram that groups those capabilities
  3. Write a bulleted list for the next competitor
  4. Draw a diagram of that competitor’s marketecture
  5. Rinse, repeat for the next 3 competitors

As you build your diagrams, you’ll start to see a pattern of the superset of capabilities. Draw a new reference marketecture that outlines all the pieces (not all competitors, including you, will have all the pieces).

With this reference marketecture, you now get to put your creative brain to work. 

  • Can you insert a layer only you have?
  • Can you redefine an existing layer so you have a big advantage?
  • Can you collapse common-to-all layers into fewer, to make your advantages in other layers stand out?

Now draw the new reference marketecture to tilt the ground in your favor, and identify the ways in which you are unique, stronger, weaker than your main competitors.

Putting a Reference Marketecture to Work

Focusing on the layers where you have advantage, back out from that to

  • Why those layers are of value to the buyer
  • How the world has changed such that these layers are now more critical
  • How you can structure your positioning to make your platform stand out

Reference marketectures are a great idea-generating approach to defining great positioning, and they’re a lot of work.

When Stephanie Buscemi, Anna Rosenman and Ben Pruden were working on the launch of Salesforce Wave (now part of Salesforce Einstein) with me, we spent weeks on this, because entering the BI market was such an important, high-reward, and high-risk launch for the company. 

This positioning helped us line up terrific beta/launch customers like General Electric and EMC. We did more sales in the first month GA than most other products had done in their first few quarters.

Feedback? Questions? Comments? I’m always excited to talk positioning with fellow pros.

From the front porch in Moss Beach,


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