Which Comes First? The Message or Narrative?


Tips for getting your messages in order before they hatch.


At Brandularity, we’re all about creating marketing messages that tell a sustainable, authentic, and differentiated story. Too often though, we see PR and marketing people struggle to create messages before they have a substantive and cohesive story – often using the competitive analysis to determine their company’s differentiation. That’s the equivalent of dying your hair pink to stand out, when it’s really not a good look for you. In message development, this approach can lead to an inauthentic voice (e.g. irreverent when the company is truly buttoned down), unsupportable statements, and a lot of effort spent carefully crafting words that no one ever uses.

During the network branding wars, we lived through the TBS challenge of emerging from under TNT’s shadow and differentiating from USA (before “characters welcome” was born.) Company execs and two GMs took several left turns before deciding that TBS would be known as comedy and TNT as drama. Initially the idea sounded great, but unfortunately there wasn’t a lot of show content to support the position. As a result, messaging was thin and somewhat unstable. It took a lot of content development and some hit-and-miss shows to give the position, and the resulting messages, teeth.

Here are a few ways we avoid messaging sand traps that you may find helpful.

1) Dig Deeper. Look solely at what’s happening in the market and you’ll cater to it. Start only with what the C or product teams tell you and you’ll have trouble supporting your messages. Consider a 360º VIEW™ (Values, Insights, Expectations and Wishlists) that shows where your company lives in the competitive landscape, plus an analysis of the messages, voice and values that influence engagement.

In a recent rebranding we did, our research showed that customers were motivated by knowing and becoming smarter about their health, which aligned perfectly with the CEO’s vision to get women to stop using detergent-laden soaps on their skin. In the cluttered naturals body care market, we found a stronger position as the on-ramp for women to know as much about what they put on their bodies as what they put in it. The outcome – a sassy Smart by Nature line of body care and soaps.

2) Start with the Brand Narrativeand End with the Messaging. Starting with a messaging matrix is equivalent to writing a presentation in Keynote or PowerPoint and winding up with too many bullets that no one reads. We’ve found that when the story is written in an organized and contextual way, the messages surface naturally and the support is already in place.

3) Get Consensus. For marketers who spend endless hours perfecting language, there’s nothing more frustrating than having three different execs in the approval process haggle over word choices. We’ve found this happens most when there isn’t a strong narrative and the context is missing. Not to repeat ourselves, but starting with a brand narrative session is a challenging, but more effective way to iron out how the company defines specific terms and the language that conveys the meaning they want. The risk free way to deal is to use such generic language that it can slip by, but miss on developing the unique flavor that makes these messages become quotable sound bytes.

One last shred of advice. Never skip over testing. Even outside consultants will become part of your bubble while perfecting the story. By creating a trusted advisory group, you can get the feedback critical to launching your story.

So bon voyage to your messages as they set sail into the world. May they bring you much success and accelerate your company’s journey.


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