It’s human nature to automatically classify things in relation to other, similar things: political candidates, cars, colas, even dates (who you naturally compare to everyone else you’ve dated, right?). In a cacophonous world, it makes the world feel more orderly. In fact, studies show that the brain automatically and subconsciously takes everything you experience and places it into a file.

That’s why defining your product's position in the category it occupies—and how it’s different from that of your competitors—is critical. If you position your product well in the minds of your customers, well, that’s half the battle of getting them to think of your company when they're ready to buy.

Effective product positioning involves not only how and where you advertise, but also what you say. (Product positioning is not to be confused with branding, by the way, which I’ll tackle in a future column.)

In the blinds business, for example, almost every seller claims it’s the cheapest. At my company, we’ve proved that “cheapest” isn’t the best position to occupy. Sure, our pricing is important. But that’s not compelling enough for customers to choose us. Without a clear distinction in our customers’ minds, we would just look like everyone else. Instead, we believe that most people are more concerned about screwing up and choosing blinds that either make their homes look horrible or make themselves look like idiots for having chosen them—or both.

So we position ourselves as the experts that we are. Our prices may be lower than those of our competitors. But we think it’s more important to stress our expertise in order to create buyer confidence. That position puts us head and shoulders above the big boxes, whose service tends to be nonexistent or inept (at least that’s what our customers say). It also pits us favorably against designers, who tend to be perceived as eager to impose their personal tastes and ideas or pressure the buyer. Online, with us, the buyer is in control.

Positioning works best when your prospects already have an idea about your competitors and so are better able to rank you in a hierarchy. On the other hand, if you must explain something brand new, you’ll find that you’ll have a very hard time—unless you have a lot of time and a lot of money. But beware: Simply pitting yourself against the competition is not enough; you need to offer something different that customers really want. Remember, one buyer option that always exists is to not buy from anyone.

A final tip: Positioning isn’t just about saying you’re the expert (or the cheapest). You have to prove it. If you position yourself as an expert, make sure that every one of your employees receives continual training. (That’s crossing the boundary into branding, by the way.) If instead your position is price, then if your advertising speaks to quality and expertise, you’re probably creating some confusion. So, which is it?

Have you found a unique way to position your products? Please share your story in the comments.