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How To Formulate Marketing Messages

by Roger L. Cauvin

One of your primary responsibilities as a product manager is to work with the marketing communications (marcom) department to formulate the key messages for marketing programs. The goal is to establish associations in customers' minds between your product and messages that will persuade them to buy.

The messages you formulate find their way into:

  • Advertisements
  • Brochures
  • Websites
  • Tag lines
  • Press releases
  • Sales pitches

The following 3 approaches typically determine the key messages for successful marketing programs.

1. Portray your product as an antidote to a problem

Identify the top prospect problems in your target market and choose messages that portray your product as the antidote to these problems—which are those that prospective customer of your product would likely experience. The most powerful prospect problems are those that:

  • Are urgent
  • Are pervasive
  • Customers are willing to pay to solve

To determine the top prospect problems, go to your market:

  • Interview prospective customers one on one.
  • Conduct surveys that give respondents the opportunity to identify problems you may not anticipate.

Example: If frustration with a steep learning curve is the biggest problem for people trying to make copies, then present your copier brand as "people friendly".

2. Highlight the strength within your product's weakness

Identify your product's biggest weakness and highlight the strength within that weakness. To improve the image of your product, you sometimes have to embrace its weaknesses and use them to emphasize its strengths.

As positioning gurus Al Ries and Jack Trout advise, "When a company starts a message by admitting a problem, people tend to, almost instinctively, open their minds.... Now with that mind open, you're in a position to drive in the positive." (The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, HarperCollins, 1993.)

Since a product can't be all things to everyone, product strengths usually come with the expense of product weaknesses. Your challenge is to identify the benefit of your product that trades off against your product's biggest weakness.

Example: A mouthwash tastes unpleasant, but its medicinal taste instills confidence that it kills germs.

3. Attack the weakness within your leading competitor's strength

Choose a message that exploits the weakness within your competitor's biggest strength. To select such a message:

  • Identify the leader among your product's competitors.
  • Determine the competing product's biggest strength.
  • Find a weakness within the competing product's biggest strength.
  • Choose a message that exploits the competing product's weakness.

It is difficult for a competitor to respond to such messages, because doing so usually attacks part of what is its own product's biggest strength.

Example: The market for computer and digital hardware is commoditized (mass-produced and unspecialized). The leading companies have focused on price and functional features and have sacrificed style. Apple has exploited this weakness by offering products that are fashionable. The company's website uses phrases such as "look like a rock star," "stylish" and "music in color" to describe its products.

Using these approaches, you should be able to identify several possible messages. You then need to select the messages that will have the most impact in your marketing programs. Note several guidelines as you are paring the list:

  • Narrow the list to 3 or fewer key messages. Your messages must be memorable; if you communicate too many messages, the prospective customers in your market will not be able to remember them. Sometimes you can formulate a single, overarching message or attribute that encompasses most of the other messages you've identified.
  • Avoid emphasizing low price as a benefit of your product. A lower price often leads to a perception of less benefit. More importantly, it puts you in competition with your own profitability. You don't want to be in a situation where the only way to compete with a lower-priced competitor is to lower your own prices. Making low price the centerpiece of your campaign forces you to do so.
  • Ensure that the messages you select clearly distinguish your offering from competing products. As Jack Trout counsels: "differentiate or die."

Above all, don't choose marketing messages based on whim or personal preference. Educate your product team about these three approaches to formulating messages. Work with marcom to identify and hone the messages.

You'll find that consistently communicating these messages will help brand your product—and, if your product actually delivers its promised benefits, will increase sales over time.

Roger L. Cauvin is founder and principal consultant of Cauvin, Inc., based in Austin, Texas.


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