Picture this — it’s a sunny afternoon at a seminary when a priest greets his bishop with an unusual question. 

“Your eminence,” the priest asks, “Do you mind if I smoke while I pray?”

The bishop’s eyes narrow. “Of course I mind,” he barks. “Praying is a sacrament! I refuse to allow you to defile it by smoking.” 

A few weeks later, the same priest pauses as he passes the bishop. 

“Your eminence,” he says, “Do you mind if I pray while I smoke?” 

“No, go right ahead!” the bishop responds. 

Now, some readers might be wondering why the bishop would have two different responses to the same question. But take a closer look — the two questions aren’t quite identical.

The questions are similar, yes; however, they reflect drastically different motivations. 

In the first question — can I smoke while I pray — the priest’s motivation for asking comes from a desire to smoke. In the second version — can I pray while I smoke — the priest is motivated by a desire to pray

Now, let’s consider the bishop. As the seminary’s spiritual leader, his goal is to encourage prayer and piety. If a priest is going to pray with or without a cigarette, the bishop is naturally going to forbid smoking. However, if he believes that the act of smoking will lead to more prayer, he’ll be more inclined to approve. The framing of the second question answers a need for the bishop because it offers an avenue for more prayer. The priest tailors his approach to the bishop’s needs and motivations when asking his second question — and receives a more positive response as a result. 

I present to you, Spin and Positioning 101. 

In marketing, how you say something is often as important — or even more important — than what you say. The way you approach your audience will establish how they perceive you and will help them to determine whether they buy into your pitch or shut you down. 

Let me give you a non-seminary example. A few years back, a Silicon Valley investment banking firm connected me with a technology company that was trying to make it big in the high-end battery market. They had created a home battery that blew Tesla’s out of the water but couldn’t seem to get anyone’s attention. 

By the time they came to me, the company had hired two marketing consulting companies and still come up short with their audience. 

“Let me guess,” I said in our first meeting, “Those companies each gave you a comparison chart that showed how your disruptive capabilities make you better than Tesla, correct?” 

“Well, yes,” the CEO answered. 

I explained that if their team classified their battery as second-best in comparison to Tesla, they would forever be classified as the “also ran” or “second tier” brand.  

Here’s the problem. By making their first pitch a straight comparison, the battery company inadvertently implied they needed to justify their competition with Tesla. As a result, their audience viewed the more well-known Tesla as the baseline; everything the company offered was described in the context of Tesla, rather than standing on its own. With that positioning, how could you blame someone for seeing the startup’s batteries as knockoffs? 

The battery company needed to adjust their positioning. Rather than justifying their equivalency to Tesla, they had to make their approach from the other side and change the audience’s initial perception of their brand. 

To accomplish this, we added a line to the top of the chart that said, We Are Committed to Helping Tesla Raise the Bar on Home Batteries. We then wrote a subhead stating, Come on, Tesla. We know you can do it. The chart itself stayed exactly the same — a bar graph that compared the two companies’ batteries and depicted the startup as towering over its competitor. 

See the difference? It’s the same visual and message, but the confidence projected in the approach changes the audience’s judgments. Instead of trailing in perpetual second place, the startup was able to proactively position itself as being ahead of Tesla and put the other company on the defensive. As a result, the audience perceived the startup’s battery as an equal or greater-than product, rather than a wannabe. 

“But what if Tesla does rise to the challenge?” one of the executives asked. 

I answered, “You respond by saying, ‘Congratulations, Tesla. We knew you could do it. You still have a ways to go, though, because we’ve raised our bar as well. Give us a call; we’re glad to help.’”

Spin and positioning will determine how people view your brand. The way I see it, starting any business effort with bad positioning is pretty much the same as shooting yourself in the foot before a race — you’re sure to lose. 

Too many people, skilled marketers included, try to fix bad positioning by riffing on their original approach. But if you really want to set your brand up for success, you need to be willing to blow up your initial strategy and think differently. The battery startup was able to fix their positioning problem because they came 180 degrees around; instead of pitching their battery as an “also ran” to Tesla’s product, they framed themselves as the innovative achiever and Tesla as the runner-up. If you’re viewing a problem in two dimensions, look for the solution in three. If your positioning looks faulty from the front, try coming at it from the sides, top, or inside-out. 

As a marketer, your task isn’t just to share the reasons your audience should buy — it’s to position the brand in a way that convinces your customers you’re worth listening to in the first place.