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April 9, 2010

Product Communications: Promise Before Positioning?


Along with my work in design strategy and research, I’m occasionally asked to work on new product positioning and communications. Sometimes a new product is not performing to expectations, or there’s evidence that consumers are not receiving key messages or using a product as intended. Consumers just aren’t “getting it”.

I’ve found that there are often two possible reasons why a great product can fall on deaf ears:

1.  The strategic process by which communications are developed is faulty, and messages   become weak and muddled.

2.  Language used to translate positioning intent into communications is misleading, not relevant or just boring.

Here, I’d like to address the first issue, as there’s more to chew on and it’s closer to my own process-driven heart. Sad, I know.

As you might expect, each consumer products marketer has their own unique definitions for process deliverables such as “concept”, “positioning”, “reason-to-believe” and “claim”. And their own order in developing them. But the reason for doing so should always be the same: To find a role in the marketplace for the product and a way of talking to consumers about it that will drive communications across channels.

Often, I find that marketers want to jump right from a concept statement to formulating a positioning. But many times, because both are often phrased in consumer-friendly language, they can sound the same. I could argue that a positioning statement may be worth devising, but is not the most vital link in the communications strategy chain. Allow me to introduce the idea of a Consumer Promise. More on that later.

I’d like to propose a set of terms and definitions, as well as a process for using them that seems to work. In order of investigation:

CONCEPT: The concept defines the key consumer problem/insight/opportunity, and then proposes a product-driven solution. It’s supported by product features and attributes. It’s written for internal use, not in consumer lingo. Its role is to state the what of the product and achieve a common understanding among team members as to what the product delivers. Then, each function can do its job. From formulation development to package design, a clear concept is key.

TERRITORY: Defined as the “room to roam” for the product. It addresses the relationship between the product and other in-house brands, as well as competitive brands and substitutes. It specifies a usage occasion and a consumer target—demographically or psychographically. In essence, it finds a place in the category for the new product. So, its role is to define the where of the product.

CONSUMER PROMISE: This might be a new idea for some, but it’s the lynchpin of the process—perhaps the critical driver of a successful communications strategy. And the element most often neglected. The Consumer Promise translates the concept into a compelling, persuasive and relevant argument for consumers. It starts with a problem statement in language a consumer might use. It then proposes a solution in product terms that addresses purpose, occasion, frequency, and most important, outcome. Then, followed by a single, all-encompassing REASON-TO-BUY, the Consumer Promise offers the why of the product. Why should I believe that it works? Why should I buy it? The RTB supports the Consumer Promise solution by convincing the consumer that the product performs as it says it does.

One concept can and should spawn several potential Consumer Promise statements. Each might characterize a given consumer problem in different ways, or direct itself at distinct insights. As well, the proposed solutions might differ somewhat. But the RTB will remain the same. That’s why the product works. It’s the foundation for performance credibility and the Claims to come. The role of the Consumer Promise is to identify with the consumer. It’s the first time the consumer can react to your offering (or promise, really) and you can best get a fix on how to talk about it. There are ways to test alternative Consumer Promises, but we won’t go there now. Feel free to ask me.

CLAIMS: These are tricky, because they can sound a lot like RTBs or benefits if you’re not careful. But they’re not. Claims are the how of the product offering. How does the product deliver on the RTB? How does it deliver on the Promise?  There are typically multiple Claims statements, each providing a performance characteristic in credible fashion. Claims may demonstrate how the product is proven to work. Or the impact or outcome the consumer can expect. The key is credibility and tangible performance. The role of Claims are to support various communications channels with flexible language templates that can be tailored to the needs of packaging, advertising and other media.

POSITIONING: Why did I leave this to last? Because it’s a by-product of the above real work, and serves little communications purpose. That’s right…I said it. Its role is to galvanize the team by bringing together the Territory, Concept and Promise in one place for internal review and agency direction. It’s efficient, but it’s not a driver of communications strategy or language. Positioning is how we talk to each other in shorthand about the product. Not how we talk to consumers. So, write it whenever you want. Or don’t, if it doesn’t serve the team. Scandalous, I know.

Why bother using these tools to build a communications strategy? Because the discipline outlined here does several important things:

· It ensures the team concurs on product benefits and the consumer needs they are addressing.

· It allows for meaningful testing intervals with consumers to validate consumer problems, insights and solutions.

· It grounds the communications team in what they must convey to consumers and how to bring it to life in words and visuals.

· It makes sure the product is aligned with others in the company’s portfolio, and has a role in maximizing share and penetration for the brand.

So, the next time you think a product is in need of “repositioning”, consider first whether it is making a strong promise and keeping it. After all, consumers buy a product for its compelling promise, not its position on a brand map.

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