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Proposition, Messaging, Brand & Values – A brief summary for tech startups

Designing and perfecting you branding and messaging can be challenging. Why? Because it forces you to really hone and define what you are and who your customers are, which is why it’s so vital to get it right!
Get it right and your dream customers will align themselves with you, get it wrong and you become a wishy-washy version of lots of things… not good.
Rob Moffat from Balderton gives us some simple, down to earth tips and ground rules on how to go about creating yours.

Proposition

Your proposition is what you do, which customers you serve, what pain point you are solving for them, how you are different from competitors.

To <customer>, <your company> is a <your product>, that solves <pain point>, because <features >, delivering <results> We are different from competitors due to <proof points>.

This proposition should be concise, matter of fact and brutally honest.

Timing is important: is this your proposition today, or X years in the future? Both are worth spending time thinking through, but don’t fall into the trap of comparing your 2017 product to where your competitors are today.

The CEO/founders need to set the proposition, this is not something to delegate to a CMO and certainly not an agency.

Messaging

Your messaging is how you describe your proposition to your current and prospective customers. It is what you put on your site, in your ads, in your emails, on your social media,

Your messaging is designed to persuade and will be more emotive than your Proposition. It will focus on your strengths and gloss over your weaknesses. However it still needs to be specific and factual, and avoid hype/jargon (there is a rarely a valid reason to use words such as ‘leverage’ and ‘unleash’). It should also be simple, focused on the 1–3 things that make your product truly unique and valuable. In this age of information overload, you need to keep repeating the same message to penetrate the noise.

Brand

Your brand should be a reflection of your messaging, and should be concise, memorable and visually appealing. Obvious stuff. Two challenges:

  1. Finding a brand where you can secure the trademark and URL without spending crazy money. This is less important than it used to be, given the increasing importance of apps over web, and proliferations of different domains. It does still require work and time. This may well feel like wasted time when you need to build a product and win your first customers, but every company needs a ‘minimum viable brand’.
  2. You choose your company name early on in developing your business, after which your proposition and messaging evolve substantially. A common problem is a brand that pigeon-holes your business into too narrow a sector. This is where abstract brands such as Apple and Google are helpful. If you haven’t been lucky enough to do this, re-branding is a costly and risky exercise at any stage of a company’s evolution. The option is to subtly evolve your brand into something more generic (e.g. Yellow Pages becoming Yell, America Online becoming AOL).

Values

Your Values are the key features of your organization that are not directly related to your product. This could include your company culture (humble, quiet, high energy, young) how you manage yourselves (no hierarchy, engineering-led, international), your communication style (‘tell it like it is’ vs being very polite), your offices, your volunteer work, your green credentials, how family or dog friendly you are etc.

99% of the time, your customer does not give a damn about your Values. Don’t clutter your messaging by talking about them. They are important for attracting and retaining employees, but save them for your jobs page.

Ground rules:

  • Develop your proposition first, then your messaging and brand. Too many companies do this in reverse, and end up unclear on what makes them unique and/or believing too much of their own hype.
  • You should revisit your proposition (and messaging) regularly, as your customers and market are always changing. But not too often, so that your team and customers aren’t clear on what you do. Annually is probably about right, with the proviso that the the right decision is often not to make a change.
  • It is important that your proposition is informed by your current and prospective customers, by what your competitors are doing and saying, and by influencers such as the press and industry research.

Tips:

  • Messaging can be tricky when you are replacing large/old incumbents and also competing with other startups, as you have different USP’s in each case. It is perfectly acceptable to have two different explanations on your site and in your pitch decks, but you still need to lead with one clear overall message. Make the call on who your customers are most often going to be comparing you to, and focus your messaging on this. For example, Box lead their messaging with security as they are more worried about Dropbox than Microsoft.
  • Your investors can be very opinionated about your proposition and messaging. Give them a fair hearing, but bear in mind they are only one data point and have their own lens.
  • The more concise the proposition and messaging, the stronger it will be.
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