Messaging – the Holy Grail of Marketing

[Guest post contributed by Cathy Martin]

Have you ever read a company’s website or marketing collateral, or had a conversation with one of its execs, and come away from the encounter with absolutely no idea what the company does – or why you should care? Me too, all the time.

Obviously, the company in question has major issues with messaging. 

What troubles me most when I encounter ineffective messaging is that it’s usually an indication that the company lacks a solid positioning foundation. A well-defined positioning strategy is mission-critical for any business. For entrepreneurial companies, it’s pretty much a make or break deal.

Let’s talk about positioning for a moment. 

Positioning can be defined in many different ways. I often explain it to clients like this…

Okay, imagine the ideal impact you could have on your ideal target customer. Now, imagine marketing that conveys this impact in a way that creates the ideal perception in the mind of that target customer. The process of defining this perception, the “mental position” you want to occupy (in the mind of the customer), is the fine art of positioning.

Al Ries and Jack Trout said it best in the classic, The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing: “Marketing is not a battle of products, it’s a battle of perceptions.”

Positioning is key because it shifts your focus from the internal issues of building your company/product, and aims it squarely on your real “reason for being” – the unique customer value that you offer (your secret sauce and greatest competitive advantage) Once your positioning approach is defined, then it’s a matter of crystallizing this positioning into clear, concise, consistent messaging that inspires and engages the target customer.

How’s your messaging working? 

Here’s a litmus test, in case you’re wondering… the most common messaging mistakes I see:

Kitchen sink messaging: When your messaging tries too hard to cover all the bases (be everything to everyone), the end result is that it speaks to no one. If your target customers can’t identify, quickly and easily, how your product offering relates to them, they’re off to the next contender (over and out).

Head scratch messaging: If your messaging is overly complex, vague or confusing – if it contains acronyms, “tech speak” or language that doesn’t readily resonate with the target customer – then you’ve lost a precious opportunity to create a connection with them. They quickly throw in the towel and move on.

Kool-Aid messaging: It’s all too easy to get caught up in your own world, aka “drink the Kool-Aid”, where the center of the universe is the product you’re delivering. After all, those bells and whistles are very cool, right? Unfortunately, folks aren’t going to care about all that, unless your marketing makes them care – by clearly conveying the unique value that you offer and precisely what it means to them.

Yeah, right messaging: Sure, your messaging should absolutely put your best foot forward in a way that’s bold and compelling. However, if it makes claims that seem too grandiose or unbelievable, then target customers are left to wonder about the reality of what you’re offering and the truth of your promises. Obviously, that’s deadly.

Me too messaging: I know, sometimes your competitors say things that you believe are “more true” about your company or product than theirs. But, if your messaging mimics theirs, or generally sounds like everyone else, your target customers are going to see you as just another sheep in the herd (or is that the flock?).

Messaging du jour: Here it is, the  #1 Hall of Fame messaging pitfall… messaging that changes as fast, or as often, as central Texas weather. When your messaging is constantly shifting – without a validated reason or managed approach – nothing sticks, nobody gets it, you stake no clear ground in the marketplace. Game over, time to pack up your toys and go home.

Any way you slice it, creating messaging that captures and conveys your unique customer value, with precision and impact, can be a challenging endeavor. If you suspect that your messaging isn’t working quite right, don’t take it lightly. Find a way to remedy that situation – and fast.

This post was provided by Cathy Martin, owner of Cathy Martin Consults, an entrepreneurial marketing consulting firm based in Austin, Texas. Over the last two decades, Cathy has worked with dozens of companies – all shapes, sizes, stages and flavors – to define positioning strategies, messaging platforms, practical marketing plans and programs. For more entrepreneurial marketing insights, see: www.cathymartin.com.

 

 

 

 

Breakout Strategies

The best time to evaluate the direction of your business is while it is thriving. I’m currently rethinking 20/20 Outlook’s strategic positioning, and it’s focused on creating breakout strategies.

What are breakout strategies?

The work “breakout” implies constraints. Most companies fail early, a precious few like Amazon, Google, and Facebook rise meteorically, and the remainder become “established” businesses. These established companies often hit a plateau in their growth, resulting in flattened revenue and profit. At that point, it’s common to find a CEO frustrated by a period of constrained growth and experiencing the “CEO dilemma.”

Breaking out of a growth plateau implies change. Most CEOs are visionary, so it’s their business vision that defines targeted outcomes for the company. The CEO’s vision may point the company toward an inspiring destination, yet without clear strategies, employees may be clueless about how to get there, or even worse, may waste resources by taking conflicting routes.

Maybe the CEO’s vision is unrealistic given a changing market environment that he/she fails to recognize. Maybe good strategies are hampered by bad or non-existent external communication. Maybe the company hasn’t learned to properly leverage relationships with other companies in order to expand their offerings, open new markets, or gain access to a broader prospect base.

In every instance, breakout thinking is needed to create breakout strategies that:

  • provide a deep understanding of the market situation,
  • develop a clear picture of the competitive landscape, and
  • provide credible data on which to base plans
  • give a clear rationale for action from which detailed department plans will flow,
  • lead the company to an optimal return on investment of its finite resources
  • last but not least, create energy and enthusiasm.

Truly visionary CEOs sense when an outside catalyst can challenge the status quo and illuminate new possibilities, then they act decisively to introduce change that leads to breakout strategies.

Too Broad, Too Narrow, or Just Right

Driving down a major boulevard in a city where we lived at the time, my wife spied a new restaurant in a place where many others had failed. In the window, it advertised food from multiple ethnicities, including both Mexican and Chinese! I’d be surprised if “Bueno Wok” lasted long.

There’s a truism about how a lack of focus can kill an enterprise. Being “a mile wide and a quarter inch deep” is widely recognized as a cause of failure.  Typically, a desire to increase revenue leads to pursuit of business that doesn’t leverage the company’s strengths and results in lower margins and muddled branding. But, are there instances where too narrow a focus can be just as harmful?

The diagram below categorizes organizations according to two attributes, focus and potential. The Focus axis ranges from single domain to multiple domains through all domains, while Potential ranges from restrictive to growing through saturated. Companies focused on several verticals are distinguished from those whose offerings are truly horizontal (i.e. domain-independent). Of course, each axis represents a continuum so that an infinite set of combinations is possible, allowing for the unique positioning of any specific company.

Back to the original question: is it possible to be too focused? Consider the example of a company providing a niche offering to several vertical markets. In the diagram it would be classified as “saturated domain-specific.”

Suppose you’re advising a new CEO hired to grow this “plateauing” company, Your first inclination may be to assess each of the company’s currently targeted vertical markets in hopes of focusing on the one with greatest growth potential. However, if the frequency of opportunities within each vertical domain is found to be sporadic and sensitive to changing business cycles, it may make more sense to remain diversified. Finding additional verticals that the company can target may represent a more fruitful direction.

So a key factor in opting to narrow or broaden our focus ia available market opportunities. Other factors include strength of brand, plus the company’s ability to execute (e.g. capitalization), integrate, partner, and acquire. These affect companies in each of the diagram’s nine categories in different ways. (NOTE: future posts will consider how, so if one of the nine categories is of particular interest, let me know when you sign up on this page to be notified by email when the next post is available.)

Translating the CEO’s vision for growth into breakout strategies requires careful thought to determine the best way to target and deploy finite corporate resources. Too often a new direction is based on an unrealistic view of the company’s position and capabilities. While it takes an optimist to run a company, it takes a realist to lead one toward its highest value.

 

Two Reasons for Five Common Strategy Mistakes

Growth relies on having a superior strategy, and in her recent HBR post, Joan Magretta identifies five common strategy mistakes. In reading the piece, two common antecedents became apparent. Hopefully, naming them will amplify rather than oversimplify her points, since she expertly explains how to correct each of the five.

The twin antecedent causes are a lack of clarity and a lack of focus:

  1. Confusing marketing with strategy – While good marketing is important, simply identifying your value to customers is insufficient to win big and often. A clear understanding of why you’ll win using focused execution is vital.
  2. Confusing competitive advantage with “what you’re good at” – Just being good at certain things isn’t enough to win business. Most companies are good in multiple areas, but sometimes the “strengths” they identify are merely minimum requirements to stay in business, like good customer service. Clarifying what you’re uniquely good at and how your unique blend of products, services, and relationships delivers higher value than competitors’ offerings leads to real growth.
  3. Pursuing size above all else, because if you’re the biggest, you’ll be more profitable – A young, smaller company with a clear and focused strategy can maintain higher margins than larger competitors. It happens in many industries, and Joan’s example of BMW versus GM makes the point.
  4. Thinking that “growth” or “reaching $1 billion in revenue” is a strategy – Desiring to “grow the business” and “enhance revenue” constitute objectives; they don’t identify the strategic moves needed to fulfill them. As discussed often in this blog (e.g., see “Attacking Business Entropy“), clarity about positioning is crucial and fundamental to a successful strategy.
  5. Focusing on high-growth markets, because that’s where the money is – The retail sector was not a high growth market when Amazon entered it. It’s a classic example of finding a new, better way of attacking an old, slow growth market to take share from existing competitors.

Why is it important to get strategy right? Operations-focused CEOs sometimes wonder if strategy is about hiring high-paid consultants to create pretty slides and well-written plans for consumption by boards of directors and investment bankers. As pointed out here before, clear and focused strategic thinking is the key to effective execution. Clarity and focus provide the foundation, and the value of the results – accelerated growth, higher margins, and increased understanding of the market – profoundly surpass the value of a new presentation.

Stuck? 5 “Non-Urgent” Paths to Growth

In companies who have plateaued, the leader may be absorbed with urgent matters like managing finances and addressing operational issues, while neglecting less urgent but critically important issues. In our work advising CEOs, five common “non-urgent” factors repeatedly arise that can hinder or accelerate growth.

Take a few minutes to think about where your company stands on these 5 issues:

  1. Clarify (who are we, and what sets us apart?)   A shared understanding of purpose and unique assets increases efficiency. With a crystal-clear picture of who the company targets, what problems the company uniquely addresses, and other elements of strategic positioning, managers and employees can act faster while reducing the number of meetings and emails; in short, more gets accomplished.
  2. Comprehend (what direction will lead to increased value?)  Finding the right direction in a complex and competitive market accelerates growth. By comprehending the needs of potential acquirers, acquisitions, and partners, you can identify and target those market segments with the highest growth potential.  
  3. Communicate (what key messages will attract prospects?)  In an interconnected world filled with noise, every business needs a brand that associates the company with its unique qualities. Identifying key messages that flow from the strategic positioning and repeating them frequently will reinforce existing customer relationships and open new ones.
  4. Connect (which relationships will help increase our reach?)  Too often CEOs have been burned by partnerships that fail due to poor planning, unrealistic expectations, and unmonitored execution. Self-fueling partnerships with potential acquirers and industry leaders drive new revenue through access to new markets, extended geographies, enhanced product and service offerings, and staff augmentation.
  5. Convince (how can we improve sales execution?)  Too often significant time is wasted on non-buyers. Eliminating them early through rigorous qualifying saves time and money. Based on clear positioning, high potential markets, strong messaging, and self-fueling partnerships, the right qualifying questions lead to rapid elimination of “no’s” and enable a focus on “maybes” – real prospects.

Obviously, other important factors (e.g., operational excellence, product and service strategy, customer relationship management) impact success, but less obvious, non-urgent issues are often the root cause of stagnation.  Dealing with them may be the shortest path to getting your company unstuck.

Three Steps to Growth Through Clarity

So many companies I meet aren’t getting the results they expect. The most common reason is a lack of clarity about (a) who they are, (b) what to communicate, and (c) how to accelerate sales. Correcting the problem enables a level of focus and efficiency that’s otherwise impossible to attain.

Here’s a three-step process to increase clarity in your business:

  1. A successful business begins with clear objectives, but that focus erodes over time as the mix of customer relationships evolves. To accelerate growth, resharpen the company’s current market positioning and gain alignment from your team. You’ll enhance their ability to evaluate potential growth initiatives, and the byproduct will be renewed energy and commitment.
  2. Based on the updated positioning, identify three key messages to communicate through all forms of marketing, including social media. This short list will quickly permeate everything written about your organization: web site, blog posts, sales presentations, tweets, analyst interviews, white papers, and articles. All interested parties – prospects, customers, employees, analysts, investors, press – will speak more clearly and forcefully about the company and its products and services.
  3. Once key messages are identified, develop five key sales qualifiers. Many organizations send salespeople into battle with shotguns instead of rifles. The result? Huge amounts of time are wasted on prospects who could have been eliminated early on. What seems like a tactical issue – qualifying statements for Sales – is often a strategic one. Armed with the right qualifying questions, Sales can quickly eliminate prospects that will never buy, thereby allowing them to spend most of their effort on promising prospects.

While creating this post, I received an unsolicited email from a current client who has used this process. “We have worked on several projects where we needed clarity and proper visual communication in areas of sales, marketing, business development and strategic corporate dealings” and he talks about how our work together has refocused the company.

Need a tuneup? Follow these three steps and lead your team to better execution!

Defining Product versus Services Businesses

The genesis of this post is a comment I made about product companies at a large networking event earlier this week in Houston:

“If you think you’re a product company and you haven’t developed a repeatable sales model, then you’re a services company.”

In other words, if every deal closed is in a different vertical market and/or solves a different problem, then the transition from a services company to a product company is incomplete. What is the effect on the value of your company?

How to grow a company’s value is a topic I spend a great deal of time thinking about, and the 20/20 Outlook process focuses on aligning a company with others in the industry to grow a private company’s valuation. While that’s a vital driver of any corporate strategy, let’s consider how the form of a company’s offerings (specifically, products versus services) impacts its market value.

One attraction of starting a product company is the relatively rapid growth in valuation possible in comparison to that of a pure services company. To see why this is a critical issue, go to Yahoo Finance and compare the ratio of revenue to enterprise value for half a dozen public companies that derive most of their revenue from either products or services. For example, the well-run government services company Raytheon’s trailing twelve months’ revenue is $25 billion yet their enterprise value is only $18 billion, a ratio of 0.7. Compare that with your favorite products companies and you’ll find much higher ratios for well-run products companies.

Of course, customers demand varying amounts of service to accompany product purchases, thus few so-called product companies are successful without offering services as well. The percentage mix of product and services revenue can determine profitability and valuation, so it’s important to characterize the difference between products and services.  Products and services both solve problems, but in their purest form, they do it differently. The chart below depicts these differences.

Cost – Any problem can be solved with enough services, but the cost may not attract any customers. Creating a product to solve the problem is an alternative, and the gap for customers who want more customization than the product offers can be filled with services.

Fit – Services by their nature enable delivery of customized solutions. Products exist because enough problems of a certain class can be solved well enough to satisfy most needs with a generalized solution.

EBITDA – Earnings vary widely, yet as a general rule, the EBITDA of a well-run product company can easily double that of a well-run services company of similar size.

In the software industry, for example, it’s fairly common for a services company to evolve into a product company over time. Consider the continuum below that depicts such an evolution, starting on the left with totally service-based solutions (“Custom Services”) and incorporating product-like characteristics as we move to the right and end with Product/Service solutions.

To the right of Custom Services is “Packaged Services.” Once you’ve solved the same problem several times, you can package a partial solution (60%? 80%?) that can be customized for each customer. Basing the price of the solution on value rather than level of effort (hours), profitability increases.

Continuing to the right, next to Packaged Services is “Product-Related Services.” If your staff becomes expert at designing, implementing, integrating, and managing solutions using highly desirable but complex products, the result is a scarce resource that can be sold at a premium and that raises your margins. The classic historical example is a services company that became a leading expert at implementing SAP systems.

If yours is a well-run product business or is evolving into one, the benefits include higher EBITDA and a higher valuation than those of a similarly-sized services business (“product only”). And finally, the highest valued companies are often those that have desirable products with an abundance of product-related services available, whether supplied internally or by partners.

As the line between products and services blurs with the introduction of new types of products delivered in new ways, it’s important to understand how value is derived. Does the statement about claiming to be a product company without developing a repeatable sales process ring true?

I ask forgiveness for some sweeping generalizations. Certainly, exceptions to this high-level look at valuation abound. Feel free to point them out and elaborate or disagree.

Every Portfolio Has (at least) One

Every private equity and venture capitalist investor I talk to has at least one portfolio company that stalls out. The company survives the original investment rounds to become an “established” business. Soon thereafter, the management team opts to focus on a single aspect of the business, e.g., “we’re going to focus on growing the customer base.” The monthly mantra becomes “keep the pedal down on sales, manage operational issues, and carefully manage cash.”

These activities are crucial to survival, yet the danger is that the CEO and management team can get comfortable working in the business and forget to work on the business. Neglecting to put a rational plan and adequate resources in place to enhance company value (including growing revenue) often leads to an abrupt plateauing of valuation that takes months and even years to recover from.

Initiating and maintaining productive relationships with relevant organizations at the right time establishes a decision-making context that maximizes the valuation of technology businesses. Created specifically to increase shareholder value, the 20/20 Outlook process enables a CEO to:

  1. view company value through the lens of potential acquirers,
  2. adjust market strategy and offerings accordingly, and
  3. initiate and maintain strong ties with key companies that can drive valuations ever higher.

The key is to intervene well in advance of a slowdown and put an enlightened process in place. Not doing so risks the ultimate loss of mega dollars and significant market share.

Surprise: Clients Tell It Best

It’s been awhile since the last post was published. Client deliverables, non-profit activities, and family priorities, as well as continual business development, have made it a hectic time.

The 20/20 elevator pitch is that “it is a process that helps a company get ready and stay ready for an exit,” but it’s more than that. While helping shoot some videos during that non-profit work, we were close to Infoglide’s offices, so I asked CEO Mike Shultz to stand in front of the camera and share his thoughts on his use of the 20/20 process.

Mike has started and sold several companies, which enables him to speak with authority in this 2:47 of unedited footage. With just one take, Mike captures the essence of the process better than any marketing firm I could have hired. Enjoy.

Attacking “Business Entropy”

Not long ago, I wrote a post on how clarity affects the bottom line. It emphasized the importance of a sharing a common vision among a company’s management team and laments how often it’s inadequate. “The lack of this understanding is so common among $10-50M companies that I’ve stopped being surprised when they can’t articulate a clear positioning statement.” The point has since arisen in several CEO discussions, and as I continued to ponder how it happens, a relevant term suggested itself from the fields of physics and cosmology.

Entropy. According to Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary, entropy is defined as “the degradation of the matter and energy in the universe to an ultimate state of inert uniformity” and as “a process of degradation or running down or a trend to disorder.” These words could also describe how the purpose, meaning, and direction underlying a successful business can lose strength over time.

When brand new ventures pursue funding, investors want to understand the business and seek answers to questions like:

  • What category of business is this?
  • What is its primary offering?
  • Who are its competitors?
  • What are the competitors’ weaknesses that can be exploited?
  • What makes the company’s offering unique in the market?
  • How will it gain advantage in the market and keep it?

and so forth.  In a well developed business plan, these questions are answered clearly and formulate the company’s strategic positioning.

As a business grows, it naturally changes, causing the strategic positioning to evolve. New competitors enter the market. The product strategy and product mix react to external economic forces. Customer requirements result in development of new products and services. Acquisitions occur. Partnerships are struck.

Such changes affect the strategic positioning of the company and also the shared management vision. If the company positioning is ignored as these changes occur, the business equivalent of entropy can begin and proliferate. The previous “uniformity” of vision gradually erodes. A “degradation” of the company’s messaging about itself, its products, and its services follows a “trend to disorder.” The lack of shared vision within the management team causes inertia and delays in execution.

Thankfully, the remedy to this “business entropy” doesn’t involve a comprehension of cosmology.  All it requires is foresight and a willingness to take action. Periodically, especially during and after significant game-changing events, the company’s strategic positioning must be reviewed and revised. Senior management and other key players should reach a consensus vision about the company, its market, its competitors, and its direction. And of course, outside assistance can facilitate the process.

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