This post originally appeared on the American Express OPEN Forum.
Messaging is an important part of branding. Your marketing messages must capture your audience’s attention and compel them to action, whether they’re shopping in the store, browsing on your web site or recommending your product to a friend. And yet even the most seasoned marketers sometimes struggle to develop effective messaging.
“Many communicators forget that great messaging begins with their audience’s core values, not their product,” says Whitney Greer of branding consulting firm Brandularity. “When you’re not honing in on what people truly care about and coming across as authentic, your messages will miss the mark.”
Here are five common reasons why messaging fails, and tips for avoiding these mistakes.
1. Not Speaking to Customers’ Values
Too often, marketers orient messaging around what they believe to be the most important features of their product or service, instead of looking into what’s actually important to target customers. Take the time to understand your customers and their values, then align your messaging accordingly.
One way to get insight into customer values is to ask them to complete a short survey, either in your store or online using a service such as SurveyMonkey. If your primary interaction with customers is in-store, you could even load up your online survey on an iPad and ask people to take the survey at the point of check-out for an instant discount.
For example, a small chain of discount tire stores might use an in-store survey to compare what customers value. For example, the store may find out that while cost is important to its customers, “family” and “safety” are the two things they value most. The company could then shift its messaging from “lowest cost” to “keeping your family safe on a budget.”
2. Relying Too Heavily on Buzzwords
Everyone wants to be part of a major trend, whether it’s being a “big data” company, a “slow food” restaurant or a “mompreneur.” The problem with relying on these buzzwords to define you is that the more popular they become, the less impact they have. People begin to simply tune them out.
This doesn’t mean you can’t use popular category phrases at all. Just use them sparingly, and pair them with words that differentiate you and pack a unique punch.
For example, natural skincare company TruKid does a great job of using the term “sustainable” in its company messaging in a subtle way that feels authentic:
“TruKid nurtures kids through their daily play and is paving the way to innovative, sustainable body and hair care for the whole family — from babies to big kids!”
3. Failing to Make Your Messages Portable
Many companies rely on word-of-mouth to drive business. Is your messaging “portable” enough for these customers to easily spread the word?
One way to check is to try boiling your messaging down to just one or two sentences, creating the same type of “logline” Hollywood uses to sum up a movie or TV plot (such as “A young man and woman from different social classes fall in love aboard an ill-fated voyage at sea.”) If you can’t tell your story in 50 words or less, chances are your customers won’t be able to, either.
Your logline should give people an idea of what you offer and provide some sort of hook to stimulate interest. For example, “a boutique PR agency that specializes in launching hot emerging tech companies” or “an accounting firm that deals exclusively with small-business audits.”
Once you’ve got your logline, go back through your marketing copy and make sure these simple messages come through loud and clear. You can also use the logline itself in your marketing materials, on your web site and social media properties, and in conversations with customers and prospects.
4. Forgetting To Excite
You know that sensation of arriving home after a short drive and not remembering any details of the drive?
Much of our life is spent in this “auto-pilot” mode, making decisions based on our habits, emotions and gut instincts. It’s up to you to wake people up and inspire them with your messaging –- so infuse your language with as much excitement and energy as possible, and use action verbs rather than the passive voice.
Here’s a great example of action-oriented messaging from cleaning product company Method: “It's time to clean happy ... with biodegradable products that clean like heck, smell like heaven and leave nothing nasty in their wake.”
5. Messaging By Committee
When you fill a conference room with senior managers for a messaging session, it’s not unusual for everyone to have a different opinion about what the company does, accompanied by a strong need to be heard. The problem with this approach is that it often results in statements such as this one: “Our mission is to help innovative leaders in the CPG industry increase the velocity of their business and drive engagement with their social communities to inspire meaningful change.”
This mission statement is likely suffering from “whiteboarditis”: the inflammation that occurs when someone crams everything from the whiteboard into one sentence. (It may also have a case of groupthink, in which fresh concepts surfaced by the team got boiled down into familiar jargon out of the need for consensus).
Compare the clunky mission statement above to this simple, powerful example from Bristol-Myers Squibb, whose mission it is “to discover, develop and deliver innovative medicines that help patients prevail over serious diseases.”
Your messaging shouldn’t sound like it was fused together in a lab. While it’s valuable to get multiple opinions, don’t fall into the trap of trying to please everyone in the room. Stay true to your audience’s values, be authentic and communicate in straightforward terms.
By the way, even Fortune 500 companies make these mistakes –- check out this list of Fortune 500 Mission Statements and see which ones you think miss the mark. It’s worth noting that some of these have already been improved since the list was created.
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