Friday, June 24, 2005

Developing the Value Proposition Statement

One CMO I recently talked with hit the issue on the head: “I know we’re different, I just don’t know how to say it.”

Adding to his woes, the company had something like 35 different products that could be purchased individually or as an integrated solution. The company sold these products into multiple vertical industries – each of which had different situations, language and issues. And there were multiple different kinds of customers who came together to form the buying committee – and each of these people had different roles and therefore different axes to grind. Without spending a fortune, how does this CMO possibly get a handle on his company messaging strategy? How does he resolve the cost of message validation against the value of the message?

Most large B2B companies like the one I work for … but you can name scads of others from 3M, to Cisco and HP to Toshiba Electronics … most are very complex organisms that are hard for customers to understand. So we engage in message development and validation research to boil our complexity down to a simple, understandable, relevant and valued message that can be stated so that it differentiates your business into one unlike any other.

Getting this message right is critical to long-term business success. Said wrong and prospective customers will not include you in the set of companies that they consider relevant to their needs. We tend to make this hard on customers. They have to wade through piles of vendor literature and websites, all making the same claims.

I look at Value Messaging as arriving at a paragraph that provides four essential statements.

Defines the business the company is in
Describes the value delivered to customers
Delivers proof that you actually deliver this value
Provides differentiation … unlike any other

This should not be confused with writing a company tagline, or an advertising campaign strategy. A Messaging Strategy precedes all that creative executional stuff that in the end will serve to make the message memorable. The 4-point message strategy likely will be a matrix of statements that descend from the company message to the divisional message to the product message. Everything should hold together, like a giant jigsaw puzzle.

The error most companies make is developing messages that are corporate-centric. They make the few people at the top feel good. They tend to ignore what it is that customers seek. Such messages tend to be descriptions of the products or services the company sells or an embellishment of product features. Booooring! Irelevaaaaant!. Meaaaaaningless!

Value Messaging requires input from key opinion leaders within the company – especially those that have customer-facing contact. If these people do not feel they had input in the message strategy, they can well stand back and subvert it later. There usually are lots of opinions, many of which conflict with each other. And there is usually very little in the way of facts to back up any of the opinions. And each opinion carries with it a potential for political bias. But the information gathered will play an important role in the final message strategy.

Getting there demands conversation with prospective and current customers. The customer’s voice can come only from the customer. It calls for qualitative research, analysis, interpretation and word crafting and visualization. The work involved is time-consuming and costly. It is demanding, often dealing with subtle nuances and fractional points of difference.

The customer will tell you the obvious. I want a bigger return on investment. I want speed to market. I want to increase shareholder value. I want to cut costs. Listening skills are essential … remember Peter Drucker: "The most important thing about communications is hearing what isn't said."

After all the research is completed. After all the customer comments are tabulated and scored and ranked. Then this process requires the skilled marketer to interpret the meaning and to write up what I would call the “message hypothesis.” With this in arm, we head back to the internal team and the customer to get validation and buy-in. This re-testing of the hypothesis hopefully proves out the message; if not, it is necessary to determine where the concepts went wrong and edit to get them right.

Or you can do as so many others who have come before us – screw the investment of time and money and pull out your pencil and use your experience to craft the message. So many others have done this. So many failures. So much wasted opportunity.

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