The Press, June 2004

When you hear the word marketing, what words come to mind? Hype, noise, buzz, lies, exaggeration, gimmicks, glitz, glamour? Companies that rely on this sort of approach to their marketing usually do so because they haven't developed a compelling story for their customers. Doing the hard work to uncover this story is one of the secrets to sustained, successful marketing.

"Most corporations . . . only know how to talk in the soothing, humourless monotone of the mission statement, marketing brochure, and your-call-is-important-to-us busy signal. Same old tone, same old lies," says the controversial Cluetrain Manifesto about our efforts to tell customers a story.

Developing a story about your product that really resonates with customers is a marketing fundamental. It's not just something that forms the basis of marketing communications (advertising, public relations, publications, web etc), but something that influences many other aspects of your business. Once you have a compelling story, you can use creative agencies to come up with clever ways to verbally and graphically express it. But you shouldn't hand responsibility over until you have this platform, it's simply too important.

I Beg Your Pardon?

A story is not something made up, but a compelling articulation of what your customers think is unique about your product. Many companies work hard on their story but articulate it from their perspective rather than the customer need. Technology companies can be some of the worst offenders. Here's a few examples from a quick trawl of some New Zealand technology company websites:

  • Company X "offers document solutions that are fully integrated with business dynamics and customer needs" (translation: you'll never lose a document with our system)
  • Company Y "provides the most comprehensive, scalable, and cost effective end-to-end business management solutions specifically designed for mid-sized businesses" (translation: our accounting software costs less and has more functions)
  • Company Z "produces internet enabled end to end enterprise solutions" (translation: if you do business over the web we can help)
  • Product A "helps companies cultivate profitable customer relationships through every phase of the customer lifecycle" (translation: we can help you get to know your customers better).

Confused? You should be. This kind of jargon-ridden language simply betrays that the companies haven't done enough work to look at their value from a customer point of view. Like anything with marketing, the answer is always, always, always with the customer. Your story will emerge, using a few key questions.

The Purpose

A starter is working out the purpose your product serves in the life of your customer. What is the main contribution that your product makes to them? Taking the example of the companies mentioned above, a telephone would be described as an amplification device connected to a telecommunications network delivering end to end voice connection. But the purpose of a telephone is communication with other people, plain and simple.

The Proposition

Once you've determined what the customer sees as the purpose of your product, you can work out its 'proposition' to them. A proposition is the promise you make to them about your product every time they experience it. If a story is fundamental to marketing, then the proposition is fundamental to your story.

If this promise is strong, you don't need hype. Imagine your product is a formula for alchemy. "Turns stuff to gold" is a pretty strong proposition. You don't need a lot of hype and nonsense around that. The same is true for your product, if you can dig down to that strong, unique, clear promise to the customer, you can really connect with them.

The Packaging

The final part of the story is the packaging, or the way your story should be told. This isn't the bit where you introduce hype to the product story, it is about expressing it appropriately to your audience. A story to sell a large, complex product to finance managers needs to be packaged quite differently from a service for the teen market.

Once you have this 'storybook' you have a powerful marketing tool. You know what to communicate and how to do it in a way that customers can quickly grasp and understand. Best of all you can get rid of meaningless hype and buzzwords and connect with customers using a powerful, plain-English story.

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