Brand Messaging Essentials
The 9 brand messages every startup or small business needs to write within their first year
A small business owner reached out to us eight months into his new startup and asked for help clarifying their messaging. The language he used in his first startup just wasn’t connecting to customers at his new business, which was selling a different product to a different set of buyers. He asked us to help him create brand messaging that would click with buyers, and set a foundation for how to talk about the company moving forward.
Many small business owners assume they will intuitively understand the motivations of their customers and know how to clearly and concisely explain their product offerings to them. Sometimes they get lucky and the product flies off the shelf. But oftentimes they end up frustrated that what seemed like a no-brainer to them is a hard sell to their clientele.
Like the business owner that contacted us for help, the reasons they decided to start a business selling their products or services don’t always align with why a customer might need what they are selling. And even when they try to put themselves in the shoes of their buyers, they might discover that they are worlds apart in terms of their motivations for purchasing.
I can’t tell you how often I see an ad or a social media post from a small business and think, “They don’t understand the pain points of their audience.”
Here’s an example from an online university, selling their M.A. program. The copy reads:
“Earn your M.A. in Strategic Communication and Digital Strategy online. Shape branding, marketing and crisis communications.”
Setting aside the fact they annoyingly omitted the Oxford comma, the copy is factual, but it does not connect in any way with the motives of a potential buyer. (ironic for someone marketing a marketing program)
If you do not set a good foundation from the beginning of your startup with a clear understanding and documentation of WHY you exist, WHO you are serving, and WHAT problem you are solving, you will be continually frustrated by lost revenue, and the feeling that your messaging is being lost in translation, which of course, it is.
So, what are the most essential messages to nail down at the beginning of your startup to avoid making these mistakes?
Your mission is why you exist as a company. This should be your guidepost as an organization used by employees, stakeholders, and clients. And even though I listed it first (because it is probably the most important statement to nail down), it will be one of the last statements you write. It should encapsulate in a few words the essence of your company’s unique vision, values, audience, and solution.
Here are some great examples of mission statements:
Lyft: “Improving people's lives with the world's best transportation.”
Slack: "To make work life simpler, more pleasant, and more productive."
Nike: “To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.”
Target: “To help all families discover the joy of everyday life.”
If your mission gives the WHY behind your company, your vision should give the WHERE, as in where you are headed. It’s ok to dream big with your vision statement. It should be a lofty ideal, an aspirational objective you are constantly striving to achieve.
Here are some great examples of vision statements:
Google: “To provide access to the world's information in one click.”
Ford: “To become the world's most trusted company, designing smart vehicles for a smart world.”
Southwest: “To be the world's most loved, most efficient, and most profitable airline.”
Your core values tell the world HOW you intend to operate as a business and the driving forces behind everything you do. A good framework for writing these 4-8 bullet points, is “We believe __________, and therefore we will __________.” The final product doesn’t need to be in this format, but it helps guide the brainstorming discussion to use this template.
I love these Core Values of WeWork:
Do the right thing
Strive to be better, together
Be human, be kind
Each of their values is followed by a short paragraph, but yours do not need to be longer than a sentence each if you desire.
These may seem fairly obvious, but you would be surprised how many small business owners can not answer the question, “What makes your company unique?” with a coherent, persuasive answer. Listing out your differentiators will take a bit of competitive analysis to discover not only who your biggest competitors are (the businesses who are competing for the same customer dollars as you), but what you offer that they don’t. Your differentiators could focus on unique features, product performance, customization, price, service, distribution strategy, target audience, and even visual branding.
The mistake many small business owners make, especially when they are first starting out, is trying to speak to an audience that is too broad. I understand their reasoning. If you want to make lots of sales, your product needs to have broad appeal, right? True, your product itself should be usable by a broad audience, but your marketing should target individuals.
How do you do that? By creating customer personas. I suggest writing three to start with and making them as specific as possible. Do some market research to make sure all three fit your target age, gender, and economic demographic. Then, create a persona for each including a photo, name, family, daily routine, media habits, buying habits, favorite brands, pain points, and external and internal motivators.
Once you have these written, don’t just leave them on the shelf. Use them to help you write copy for email campaigns or social posts, to inform your overall brand messaging and website copy, and to craft strategies for moving your buyer along in their customer journey.
Unique Value Proposition
The UVP should be written after you’ve identified your target audience and you’ve listed your differentiators. This is a statement that sums up who you serve, what problem you are solving, how you are uniquely positioned to solve it, and what the result will be for your customer.
It should be used on the front page and in the meta description for your website, as well as in ad copy, social posts, print assets, etc. Your UVP can be written by following this simple formula: “We help ________ solve x problem by ________ so that ______. “
Here are some great examples of Unique Value Propositions:
Hubspot: “Marketing, sales, and service software that helps your business grow without compromise.”
Blue Apron: “Delicious recipes delivered to your door.”
Gillette: “Gillette seeks to create high-quality shaving products suitable for all consumers, irrespective of age or status.”
The stages of the buyer’s journey are pretty universally known as awareness, consideration, and decision. Some add “advocacy” at the end, with the hopes that your buyer will be so delighted, they will become a brand ambassador. What will be unique to your buyer’s journey is the intrinsic and extrinsic motivations that will move them through the stages, as well as your unique strategies to guide them to the next step. The buyer’s journey is best laid out visually as a table, with the stages from left to right, and categories like “How does your customer feel?” “What is the customer’s action?” and “What is our company’s action?” on the left.
Referring to the buyer’s journey often will help you identify gaps where you could be targeting or re-targeting customers and guiding them toward a decision.
Contrary to popular thought, the elevator pitch is not just a sales-y pitch for the business owner or sales team to use when schmoozing investors or closing deals. It is a 5-6 sentence statement that every single employee should memorize and be able to recite when asked about the company.
Your elevator pitch should begin with a hook (often the problem) to grab the listener’s attention. Next tell the story of your company in 2 sentences or less, including why they should trust you. Then comes the promise: what you will deliver and how. And finally, the next steps the customer can take to continue the conversation.
A great tagline is probably the shortest, and most difficult piece of copy you will write. The best taglines are unforgettable.
“The happiest place on earth”
“Melts in your mouth, not in your hand”
“Just do it”
“Have it your way”
I’m sure each brand came instantly to your mind reading these. That’s because, not only are they well-written, but you’ve heard them hundreds, maybe thousands of times.
A good tagline is not cranial but should evoke a good feeling for the consumer. To create a tagline, evaluate your customer profiles, and your unique value proposition, and find a common thread that you think will speak to the heart of your customer. Then, write at least 10 taglines, and narrow them down to 2 or 3 with input from former clients or team members. To make the final call, A/B testing might be the way to go, using each in an identical ad, and tracking open and click-through rates.
These nine pieces of copy are what I would consider the brand messaging essentials that every startup should write within the first year of their company. It may feel like an academic exercise, but even though you won’t see an immediate return on the time or financial investment, you will save yourself time, money, and frustration in the long run.