First operating principle—success must be bestowed on you. You alone are not successful, but others can proclaim you successful by buying your product, service, or idea.
To get to that proclamation of success, you must carefully create your positioning statement which must not be confused with your market position or marketing plan. As For Kanzler of Eiler Communications in San Mateo, California recently said, “A statement of position is a cold-hearted, no-nonsense statement of how you’re perceived in your prospects’ mind. It is the core message you want to deliver in every medium. And remember, no company can position itself as anything. It’s all about market perceptions.”
In other words, you start by planning the key messages you want to hear resonating within target audiences. Later in your plan, you systematically measure how well you are doing with those target audiences.
Want to test how important this message planning step is? Try the MBWA approach (Management By Walking Around). Take an hour and ask key employees (especially employees who regularly meet and great your target audience members—customers, clients, etc.). Ask them to share in one sentence or two what your company, organization is known for out there? If you receive a wide array of responses (some may not even meet what you hope to be known for out there!), you need to have a message development session with selected employees, followed by an organization wide meeting to explain exactly how to use those messages.
When Lewis Carroll’s Alice asks the Cheshire Cat how to find her way, he replies, “If you don’t care where you’re going, it doesn’t make any difference which path you take.” Caring what your publics perceive about you gets you to focus with passion on reaching them and helping them bestow that success you need.
So what should your messages (positioning statements) include? Remember, this is not your marketing (product/services) position. What do you want people to say about you? What is better—that they spout your sales numbers, or, that they found you to be a caring and supportive company who not only sold them the product or service, but, helped them in all aspects of implementation and use?
Van Gogh said, “Exaggerate the essential, leave obvious the vague.” You can’t over-exaggerate the essential, your unique selling proposition (USP). For example, The University of Maine at Augusta emphasized in its positioning statements the importance of helping place-bound students throughout Maine. Those students were next characterized as an average of 28 year old women for the most part. By emphasizing this essential USP, UMA has gone on to enjoy double digit enrollment growth for the last five semesters. Success has been bestowed on the organization and people are on their own touting the importance of what they provide to young adults who might not otherwise get a college education.
In a previous article, I wrote about a message development strategy. Simply start by asking employees what you don’t want to be known for in the community. After exhausting all the negatives, go to the positive side and ask what you do want to be known for. (Start with the negative because it is easier for people to identify the negatives, which makes it easier then to identify the positive or flip side.)
After completing both the positives and negatives, then look for the thematic areas. Look for no more than four message themes (less is more is the rule) because people can’t remember more. The debate around NAFTA was boiled down to four messages that proponents wanted the public to talk about in their day-to-day conversations.
Finally, you can wordsmith the messages into memorable, passionate statements that your employees can start to use in their day-to-day encounters. Don’t worry too much about wording, because you will be able to tweak these messages as you proceed to evaluation and measurement with target publics.
For example, the current anti-smoking campaign suggests that people need to talk to those they care about regarding not-smoking as much as the tobacco companies are sending messages about the glamour of smoking. I would gather from this campaign that research showed that young people, in particular, were not having conversations about the ill-effects of smoking. By way of follow-up research, the Department of Human Services will likely be testing whether those messages are being heard and, if so, what is being said on the streets among that target audience. If it isn’t resonating out there, then, the messaging needs to be tweaked or changed altogether to reflect what is resonating with the target audience.
In Part 2, we explore the different ways that you can affordably measure how well you are doing with target audiences.
Originally published in the Kennebec Business Monthly in July 2000 as part of a monthly guest series on public relations and marketing.