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The Importance of Owning Your Narrative – Lessons from Carlos Ghosn

There’s a common expression in the marketing jargon – “owning your own narrative”.

Owning your narrative means that you make sure what is told about you matches the way you’d like it to be told, i.e. without distortions, mis-interpretations, half-truths or false perceptions. 

I was reminded of the importance of owning your own narrative, as I watched the press conference recently organized by Carlos Ghosn, after he was able to freely speak his mind and set the record straight pertaining to the circumstances surrounding his sudden arrest in Japan in late 2018. Carlos Ghosn’s press conference was a great example for how you can own (or his case re-gain) your narrative.

During the event that was organized by his PR team, and in the presence of 120 global media correspondents, Carlos Ghosn gradually started reclaiming ownership of his own narrative, and he did that like a pro. For him, it was an important first step in clearing his name and refuting the allegations behind his detention. Sadly, for the 14 months prior to January 8 2020, he was not able to communicate his own side of the story, whereas the Japanese media and prosecutors were allowed to control his narrative freely without checks.

From a process point of view, his staged counter-attack consisted of three parts:

  1. A solo presentation lasting one hour, where he laid out his facts; immediately followed by…
  2. An hour of Q&A with invited media, where he answered or rebutted claims disguised as questions; immediately followed by…
  3. Private 1:1 interviews with a handful of selected media from around the world, such as CNN, CNBC, France Inter, France24 and others. 


There are some lessons we can draw from the Ghosn process. 

Plan your event with your own rules. 

It is your message, so make sure it is “your” event. Plan it to your advantage. The location and agenda were chosen by Carlos Ghosn’s team.

Screen who you choose to communicate with

You can favor those that are fair with you, and you can avoid the media that you think doesn’t cover you objectively. 

In the case of Carlos Ghosn, his team screened the media that would be allowed into the room, and they declined those that were biased. 

That strategy clearly came to light during a Q&A interchange with one of the Japanese media as the person was “surprised that few Japanese media were here as others weren’t selected”. The person ended the question by “were you angry at them?” Ghosn responded “I have nothing against Japanese media, and I know many of them are outside, but frankly if you were selected, you were part of the few that were being objective while others were mouthpieces for the prosecutors. Introducing people that are relays to the prosecutors views in this room is not beneficial to me. I prefer to talk to those that can analyze the facts for themselves and can report accordingly. That doesn’t mean I’m running away from them. I will go and speak with them later. But you all have a responsibility to be factual, and I’m counting on you to carry the message.” 

There is a big and important lesson here. If you know that some media is biased against you, leave them alone initially. Work with the media who is friendly or at least neutral/unbiased and let their reporting rub off on the other ones.

Correct statements that are not true

Don’t let statements remain unanswered or un-rebutted. A couple of times during the Q&A, Carlos Ghosn objected to questions that seemed to be prefaced by a wrong assumption. Paraphrasing, he would say: “I’m sorry but you didn’t accurately understand what I was trying to say. What I was saying is …”

When you read something that’s not accurate about you, or when a development has a chance to take a negative turn, you need to come out early and refute it immediately. In the case of Carlos Ghosn, when reports came out that his wife masterminded his escape, he immediately came out and asserted that he acted alone in orchestrating his own escape, without any help from his family because he didn’t want to endanger them. Therefore, he distanced his family’s culpability from him. When he was summoned by the Lebanese judiciary in light of his Interpol warrant for his arrest, his lawyers immediately came out publicly saying that he was “very comfortable” with the judicial path in Lebanon, therefore removing negative doubts about this development.

Take-aways for Startups and New Projects

As the size of your audience grows, it becomes commensurably important to own and retain complete control of your narrative, and not be passive about it.

In the blockchain space, Ethereum gets critiqued for having lost control of the Ethereum narrative because when dissident voices banter around their own definitions (or limitations) of Ethereum, their claims often go unchecked. Unfortunately, the Ethereum Foundation has been notorious for not responding to attacks or media characterizations that aren’t so accurate, as they do not prioritize communicating their key messages to the public in non-technical terms.

Another example of company/project whose narrative has been somewhat taken away from them is Kik/Kin. Due to the pending SEC lawsuit and the ensuing media attention it has received, Kin’s own narrative has been weakened. Every positive discussion about their amazing progress ends-up being muddied by the story of the SEC’s cloud hanging over their head.

Luckily, for both of the above examples, the organizations are aware of the situation, and there is ongoing work to regain ownership of their narrative. I am involved with both cases in helping them, via my active/leading role in the newly formed Ethereum Marketing DAO (for Ethereum), and via my board position on the Kin Foundation (for Kin). Stay tuned on both fronts.

How do you own control of your narrative and why is it so important? 

It is counter-productive to not own control your narrative, because you have to work extra hard to regain it, after you’ve lost it.

The best way to keep owning your narrative is not let it slip away from you. But sometimes, things go wrong (SEC lawsuit for Kik), or you face a crisis (Carlos Ghosn was arrested), and your narrative slips away, because the “bad” story takes over the “good” story. 

Of course, Carlos Ghosn had the advantage of being well known. Given his many existing media relationships and high profile case, he could command immediate global attention, which isn’t as easy for others.

To regain or claim your narrative, you need to carefully craft your messages, paint a credible story and regularly chip away at narrating it and communicating them relentlessly, while rebutting inaccurate characterizations as soon as they arise. (I have written extensively about Messaging and Positioning).

When you are successful, others will write about you, and your stories start to reverberate throughout the world, directly via media coverage, and indirectly via social media amplification.

Owning your narrative is not just storytelling. It’s telling the whole thing: how you want to be perceived, and how you expect others to play back your position and messages in the most accurate and beneficial manner possible. 

When someone (or events) steal your narrative from you, you want to bring it back as soon as you possibly can, and you need to do it professionally and methodically, just like Carlos Ghosn is doing.

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Messaging, Positioning, Branding for Startups: What Happens After Product/Market Fit

Many startups do a poor job explaining crisply what they do, especially during their early stages. They often confuse or ignore messaging, positioning, and branding.

But as soon as product/market fit is achieved, and you enter a phase of predictable, steady growth, the stakes get higher, and you need to up your marketing game. Maybe that happens at about 20 employees, or maybe at 50 employees, and I’ve even seen 100-employee startups who still haven’t given serious attention to their strategic marketing efforts. I’d like to help them change that.

Messaging, Positioning, and Branding are intricately related concepts, and represent 3 important slices of startup marketing. Messaging is the series of orchestrated and planned communications tidbits you want to tell the market about you, in the simplest and clearest possible way. Positioning is what you do to the mind of the prospect, not what you do to your product. And Branding is a promise you make to your market and something you deliver in your product that makes your customers love the experience you give them.

Until your product speaks for itself, you have to do the talking, and you need to follow through with an easy to defend position, crisp messages and a brand promise that you live up to.

Sometimes the narrative takes care of itself by users who define well what you are about. Sometimes it doesn’t. The message is not always embedded in your product unless you are Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat or Facebook. But these are anomalies.

The bigger your footprint becomes, the more formal you need to be about your messages, and the more you need to keep repeating them, accurately.

So, I’m starting to write this long awaited book that I’ve signed-up for at FG Press, a few months ago.

This book is going to help startups quickly assess and develop unique positioning that transcends the very essence of their brand, and that evolves out of an effective messaging strategy.

A common mistake that startups make is they forget to reach their prospects. Instead, they cozy up to their customers and users, and stay there, because it’s more comfortable. But Positioning is not aimed at your customers. It is aimed at your prospects, i.e. the market you want to reach and the minds you want to penetrate. How you reach them is a concerted effort, because you can’t just rely on virality and referrals.

Done well, a brand will tilt demand towards your products and give you an unfair advantage.

Branding is not about the color of your logo or the font you adopt. That’s called visual identity, and it is part of implementing your branding, but only one element of it.

Branding is not just what the market knows about you, but more importantly, it’s about the experience they are left with, when they use your product or are thinking about it. That doesn’t happen overnight, nor on its own.

In this book, some of the questions that will be answered include:

What is positioning? Does the market define a position for you, or do you play a role in shaping that position? How do you orchestrate the positioning and messaging delivery internally and externally? What role does your product have in your market position, at each phase of your evolution? What is the relationship between positioning, messaging and branding? How do you implement consistent messaging via content marketing, your website, media, influencers, and anything that touches the market? When do you seriously need to think about positioning? How do you link positioning to your go-to-market approach? How can your positioning help place a premium on your value (and valuation)? How do you turn your brand into a competitive advantage?

I will draw upon my life long work experience at large and small companies. I will subtract what’s not relevant anymore, and will add what’s new and applicable today for the world of tech startups.

Hewlett-Packard and Cognizant were the source of my classical schooling in marketing, but those years were augmented by several more recent years of startup experience, and the whole thing is complemented by researching, observing, interacting with, advising or mentoring a couple of hundred startups in the past year and half. The uniqueness I bring is how I’ve combined traditional principles of messaging, positioning and branding by known visionaries such as Jack TroutAl Ries and Scott Bedbury, and applied it to the world of startups.

Startups don’t have to re-invent everything, but past learnings are here for them. Those that mix it up with their current experiences will get ahead of others.

So, here’s the book structure I have in mind. Your feedback can help to shape this content.

BOOK STRUCTURE

Messaging

  1. The Hierarchy of Messages
  2. Honing Your Value Proposition
  3. ​Segmenting your stakeholders
  4. Developing a Messaging Matrix
  5. Implementing Messaging

Positioning

  1. The Mind is the Battleground
  2. 8 Principles for Positioning
  3. Common Mistakes
  4. Re-visiting Marketing Warfare
  5. Go-to-Market Linkage

Branding

  1. Easy Brand Building Steps for Startups
  2. Your Competitive Context
  3. Your Brand Attributes
  4. Implementing the Brand
  5. Living the Brand

+ Tools, Templates and Samples

The Only 5 Types of Messaging You Need

The “thin edge of the wedge” is a popular analogy in startup development to explain how you first need to hook your users with a sharp feature that’s easy to try. If you don’t, customer acquisition becomes a lot harder, if not impossible.

The same metaphor applies for your communications efforts when you’re trying to explain what your company does. The right words matter a lot. Yet, I see many startups not being clear enough with their messaging, in part because they don’t approach it from the point of view of how it all fits together, and often for not applying the rigors of simplicity.

Just like every new product feature relates to another, every messaging component needs to take it further where the other one left off, from the simple hook, to the substance, to the sticky part. This is how our brain’s logic works when it tries to comprehend something that is new. And it’s done that way, the trickle down effect is harmonious instead of messy.

Put Some Order in Your Messaging!

There is a hierarchy for the various messaging components, and the best analogy I could find is to compare it to the structure of a rocket. A simplified list of components that make-up a rocket include 1) the nose, 2) the guidance apparatus, 3) the propulsion system, 4) the fuel reserve, and 5) the fins. The equivalent of these components are 1) the elevator pitch, 2) the market positioning, 3) the value proposition, 4) the product messaging, and 5) the supporting testimonials. These are interrelated, and most importantly they should not be overlapping. They should be additive and synergistic. Your goal is to stimulate the mind of the prospect long enough to grab their attention, and to make them take your product seriously.

The HOW

The Elevator Pitch is the hook, the intrigue, and the door opener. It should answer why it matters, in a simplified way. And it should leave the listener with a sense of intrigue and wanting to know more. It is best delivered face to face, and should take 10 seconds to blurt out in one single, cohesive sentence. Some examples:

  • We help marketers measure their return on investment.
  • We’re a market place for funding your ideas.
  • We help consumers find the best deals according to their interests.
  • We facilitate buying event tickets online.

The WHAT = Position + Value Proposition

The Positioning Statement is very important because it is what you want your customers and prospects to remember you for. I have written a long post on Positioning: The Battle for Your Startup outlining 8 concepts related to understand it. In a nutshell, positioning starts with your product, but it is not what you do to the product. Positioning is what you do to the mind of the prospect. It is the position you want to occupy inside their mind. You need to create a position in the prospect’s mind that takes into consideration not only your strengths and weaknesses, but also those of your competitors as well. So, it’s relative to what is already known out there. Good examples:

  • A better way to do marketing (Moz) – It’s original, despite being ambitious.
  • A/B testing you’ll actually use (Optimizely) – It attacks the competition.
  • Build, publish & A/B test landing pages without I.T. (Unbounce) – It attacks I.T.

Not so good examples:

  • Online Behavorial Insights (Qualaroo) – It’s not defensible and it is easily copiable.
  • Bootstrap 3.0 Templates Starter Kit (Bootstraptor) —  It’s not grabbing enough. A better one could be: “The easiest and fastest way to start using Bootstrap 3.0”. The templates belong to the value proposition or the product messaging parts.

The Value Proposition is probably the second most important piece (after the Positioning), but you can develop it before the Positioning statement, because it’s easier to do so. See this recent post I wrote, Introducing Product-Value Alignment: What Comes After Product/Market Fit that goes into how to develop the value proposition. The value proposition is a simple, clear statement of who the target customers are and precisely what key benefits and prices will be delivered to them. In the eyes of a user or customer, value is defined as benefits minus price (or pain/effort)Good example:

  • Chango helps the world’s largest advertisers find new customers and boost conversions using a combination of our exclusive data and real-time buying technology. (Chango)

Missing something example: Connect your app to everything from Dropbox to Gmail in just 2 lines of code and let the Ink File Picker handle the mess of uploading files – we give you a clean, short URL that is easy to store and read from. (Ink File Picker) – This one is missing the target audience: who is this for? Not good examples:

  • “Macaw provides the same flexibility as your favorite image editor but also writes semantic HTML and remarkably succinct CSS. It’s time to expect more from a web design tool.” – It’s mixing the value proposition with a potential positioning statement: “expect more from a web design tool”. A better value proposition would have been: “Stop writing code. Start drawing it” which they have used later. “Code-savvy web design tool” which they have used at the top of the page isn’t powerful enough, and is too passive. (Macaw)

The HOW = Product

The Product Messaging is the set of messages that goes into the details of explaining the features and benefits of your platform, product or solution. For example, you can list here the main functions of your product and what they enable the user to accomplish. It’s typically under the Features section, and it can also include how your technology is different, innovative, or part of your solution. This is where you can also get into more segmentation and tailoring of the messages by industry, solutions or customer roles. You need to make clear the differentiation elements of your product, and you need to influence your prospect that the evaluation criteria to consider is one that fits your view of the world. I’m not providing examples, because this is a long section, and it’s typically an area that most startups do well. Look at the Features or Platform sections typically to find these. But I will add one thing: make sure you are including the Benefits of each feature, and what Advantage it gives the user. We call that FAB: Features Advantage Benefit. It’s a staple of product messaging.

The WHY US

The Customer Testimonials are the ultimate supporting statements you can get for your product or company. There are three types of people you need to be concerned about: prospects, customers and advocates. Advocates are often a neglected segment, but gaining in popularity, especially if they are properly managed as a select group. A small army of motivated B2B advocates is the equivalent of what millions of loyal users can do to your consumer App when they help it to spread virally.  With customer testimonials, it’s important to focus on their quality, not quantity. Preferably, list only advocates testimonials, and make them available to speak to your prospects when appropriately needed. It is a known fact that prospects are influenced by their peers more than by your sales reps when making purchasing decisions.

How to Apply This

If your product is for consumers and they are visiting your website, they will likely be only interested in a positioning statement and a clear value proposition, before they decide to try your product. There is no need to lay out elaborate messaging, unless you have a B2B product where the decision-making process takes a little longer. If your product is a B2B product, then you would use the Positioning Statement to grab their attention, and the Value Proposition to let them quickly realize if your product is for them. Then, the Product Messaging and Supporting Testimonials will help them decide if they want to try it or contact you. If the positioning and value proposition aren’t strong enough, users won’t make it past that stage.

Where to Place this on the Website?

Typically, you place the Positioning Statement and Value Proposition above the fold at the very top of the home page. Below the fold, you can display 3-4 most differentiated Product Messaging elements, along with the most credible Customer Testimonials you can get. A separate Features page could dive into more detailed product and technology differentiation. But if you have a known product that has already gained awareness, you could dive straight into your service offering and make the positioning/value proposition the headline for that.

Common Mistakes to Avoid Checklist

  • Too many messages on the home page. (limit it to 2 above the fold, with an offer)
  • No messaging hierarchy.
  • Positioning is not aimed at the mind of the prospect.
  • Repetitive statements (in meaning).
  • Offer to try is disconnected from the value proposition.
  • Omitting to name the audience segment or type of user/buyer you are targeting (very common mistake). Don’t assume it is obvious.
  • Positioning statements that are passive, or not original.

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