On Messaging & Positioning

As software developers toss around bigger and bigger chunks of code, the capital costs of building new technology companies (whether fruit flies or thunder lizards) goes to zero. This is not a new argument. Consequently?

The “everything as a service” paradigm means that new categories fill with combatants more quickly than ever before. With a little data fabric and high-performance glue you can do a whole lot with extraordinarily little.

Technological “moats” are usually temporary. The most enduring advantages for companies large and small lie elsewhere — namely, in marketing.

Standing out is awfully challenging. Standing out is, if anything, the challenge. Communicating clearly and compellingly can be the difference between drastically different business outcomes.

Consider this: the right language and vocabulary, tone and tenor can make you or break you. Messaging and positioning is where things are most often won and lost. Growth is as much a rhetorical riddle as it is something that can be engineered.

At any given time we have between 20–30 clients here at JDI. We meet with over 250 companies a year in an advisory capacity. In almost every case, messaging and positioning is the focus of our work together (both early and often), and for good reason.

Here are three maxims to follow if you are to achieve superior messaging and positioning. Everything you put forth should apply these principles rigorously.

Note: most of the examples used abide by all three, but are included in one section or another to support a particular point.

Maxim #1

The best messaging has the courage to be incomplete.

There’s a reason you see so many exhaustive, run-on descriptors, littered with jargon-filled, comma-separated lists — usually in vapid triples to boot.

Too many of us lack the courage to give imagination a seat at the table. We’re afraid of omitting an important fact or advantage. We try too hard. We write and we speak desperately.

You have to give me a reason to click “learn more”. You have to give me a reason to watch a video, read a blog post, or join an online demo. Whether you’re operating at the top of a funnel or well within one, the right kind of incompleteness can motivate in ways no amount of accuracy and comprehensiveness ever can.

To an audience, your paranoia is trying. It’s exhausting. It’s unbecoming. What is sex appeal other than the discipline to stage a reveal over time?

Unless a product comes with a strong endorsement from a close relationship, it’s the process of investigation that motivates me to act. The more time and brainpower I invest, the more likely I am to try, or buy.

Cerego is the world’s first memory management tool. I can notionally project what memory management might be, but it’s an interesting concept, and I am naturally led to seek more information.

Nest similarly is the world’s first learning thermostat. I know what learning is and I know what a thermostat is, in the same way that I know what a horn is and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen a white horse before. But the combination turns out to be…magical.

“What is sex appeal other than the discipline to stage a reveal over time?”

You don’t have to be “the world’s first”, however.

Evernote helps me “remember everything”. That’s a bold statement. Bold is good. Is it possible to remember everything? If so, how? Evernote has always had a kind of gravitational pull, because it doesn’t market a “notetaking app” or a “bookmarking tool”.

To do so would be to reduce the product to something extraordinarily mundane. You can’t hide from the particulars of course — living in the clouds, emphatically scant on detail is just as bad as forgetting to be evocative. Evernote does both well. Their hook is incomplete in all the right ways, and yet they’re wonderfully pragmatic once I’m ready to take action.

Maxim #2

Don’t message to what you do.
Message to what you do for me.

The first is about inputs. It’s navel-gazing. It’s about you, and what you do well. You probably do a lot of things well. That’s great. But in truth, you’re secondary. To you, what you do seems like the most important thing in the world, but it’s not.

Outputs are far more important. You have to leave your ego at the door. You only make money if you make someone else happy. Don’t tell me what you are, or how you’re different. Tell me what I get out. Tell me how I benefit. If I’m going to give you my time, effort, energy or money, I damn well want to know that my resources will be well-spent.

I get to be selfish. You have to be selfless.

We love to use examples from non-technology companies when we can. Technologists can learn a lot from more mature industries who may be less innovative product-wise, but as a result have to be more effective marketing-wise.

Decoy, the affordable sister wine to Napa standout Duckhorn follows this maxim extraordinarily well. They are positioned as “the everyday wine for the well-informed”.

That’s about as good as it gets. They don’t tell me about the wine. It’s everyday wine — banal, almost. And trust us the wine is, in fact, awesome. They instead tell me about…me. What I get out of buying and drinking Decoy is confidence, and standing.

ASICS for their part says “better your best” — it’s a message of continual self-improvement.

They refuse to use any celebrities in their marketing, electing to use normal everyday runners instead. They don’t want me to be like Mike, or Lebron. They want me to be like…me.

Once I dig in, I can reveal all kinds of ways in which ASICS gear is technologically better, ethically better, etc. But that’s them. At the outset, they worry about me. Whatever my best is, ASICS wants to help me better it.

Even Wal-Mart combines “save money” in their tagline with “live better” — they know that saving money isn’t satisfying unto itself. Saving money is a means to an end. That end is living a better life — one that your paycheck might not otherwise support. Wal-Mart is selling an outperforming quality of life.

Maxim #3

Assume the outcome you desire.

Such is a pillar of American jurisprudence. The founding fathers believed that the assumption of innocence was inherently just. The same goes for marketing.

Maxims #1 and #2 above require a certain composure to pull off. We used words like “courage” and “selfless” to suggest a certain posture towards your audience.

It’s easier to personify those qualities if you always assume the best in the people you are marketing to. Never look down on your audience. Instead, do just the opposite. Empathy and optimism matter.

You should assume that they are going to try (or buy) until they indicate that they are not.

This kind of “positive psychology” (loosely invoked) can transform your messaging and positioning for the better. Sell to upside. Don’t sell to mitigating downside (even in a tense, fear-ridden market). Sell to net-new possibilities instead of prevention, or intervention. Think in terms of “yes, and…” instead of “no, but…”.

This is especially hard for non-marketers because you’re taught to be obsessed about pain points. Entrepreneurs in particular walk around the world and often see it in terms of problems (which they see everywhere they go).

When you start marketing in earnest, it’s tempting to talk about problems, because that’s your emotional template. Problems are what get you out of bed in the morning.

People want their problems solved. Companies want their problems solved. That will never change, nor should it. But that doesn’t mean that flaunting problems and pain points is necessary. I wouldn’t have showed up at your site, app, service or store if I hadn’t already self-selected for a given problem. I may not yet be at the point of a purchase, but I’m seeking.

Here’s a great example in practice. Personal finance software basically gives me pretty charts and graphs about my poor spending habits, and how much debt I’m (still) in. The assumed problem is that my financial health is generally poor, or mediocre at best. But making me admit that embarrassing fact as a condition of engagement? That’s just rude. That’s pedantic, even.

Mint.com promises to help me make “money decisions you feel good about.” To us that’s a sub-optimal choice in terms of this maxim. Mint’s language seems innocent at face value, but it rhetorically implies that I’ve already made decisions that I don’t feel good about, and that without Mint, I’m likely to continue making decisions I don’t feel good about. I’m forced to wade through that reality (whether consciously or unconsciously) in order to engage with Mint.

Don’t assume that I’m bad at money. Assume that I’m good at money. Propose instead to make me even better. Be purely additive. That’s a win-win.

If it turns out I’m bad at money, it’s refreshing to just look to the future instead of the past. It’s motivating to get the benefit of the doubt from a company I’ve just met.

And if I’m already good at money? In that case the “make good decisions” message doesn’t resonate as well as it might. Mint strikes me as a remedial product that might not be for me. In contrast, the market for being awesome is…infinite. There’s always room to improve. Going from good to great is always more alluring than going from bad to good.

“Rewarding good behavior instead of trying to change bad behavior is empirically more effective.”

Mint is a successful company but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have ample room to improve. Zappos is of course a classic example of following this maxim very well, but there are many others.

Too many companies assume the worst. Marketing interactions start off adversarially. They begin under the influence of an unmistakable paranoia. You won’t pass the proverbial sniff test. You’d be surprised how many people bounce from a site or delete an app just because something doesn’t feel right. The affinity isn’t there. The chemistry just wasn’t…right.

Begin instead as you mean to go on — monogamously, respectfully, loyally.

To draw further on the romantic metaphor — your audience is single, but wants to be in a relationship. Think about all of the dating advice you’ve received over the years. Here’s one piece in particular:

Not sure if your partner is “the one”? Try assuming that you’re getting married until it turns out that you’re not. Too many people do the opposite — they assume that they’re not getting married until it turns out that they are. That decision colors everything.

If you do end up getting married, you will have spent far too long believing the opposite, and you’ll regret the time lost in limbo. If you don’t end up getting married, you’ll always wonder in the back of your mind whether you’d sabotaged the relationship from the get-go because you never really bothered to believe. Either way you lose.

A similar best practice goes for marketing to people who are already your users, or customers (retention, engagement, upselling). Rewarding good behavior instead of trying to change bad behavior is empirically more effective. Accentuate the positive, always. Marketing at its core is a promise of something fundamentally better.