Messaging can feel like a slippery, hard-to-grasp element of your brand and marketing efforts.
In the early days of company building, it's often something that's only tackled when absolutely necessary - i.e. when it's time to build a landing page or set up your first Facebook ad. Only when the 'messaging debt' becomes sufficiently high - you feel as if customers aren't quite 'getting it' or it's time to do your first press launch - do founders apply some strategic muscle to the endeavour.
However, more fool you if you delay, or treat it as a second-rate activity. Done well, great messaging is a force multiplier for your entire sales funnel - it can help with attracting, engaging, converting and retaining customers. Monzo is a brilliant example of this. They are the UK's most recommended brand and have become known for their easy-to-understand and conversational approach to messaging. Last year they added 20,000 new users every month.
And whilst messaging undoubtedly played a meaningful role in their success, language is just one component of their broader brand efforts. Their visual identity, partnerships and community efforts all had a part to play. In addition, the main reason that I, and over 3 million others, trust Monzo and recommend them to friends is because they’ve created a very good product.
This brings me on two important points:
Quippy comms won't save a product that lacks market fit. Especially when 'brand' is the touted market differentiator. You only need to look at what Ana Andjelic refers to as 'GMO brands' to see this play out in real life.
"Tone of voice is not a brand. Being chatty, witty, and approachable only masks the missing cultural link that ensures brand durability. It also masks the missing unique value proposition. GMO brands do not compete on the actual business value, like technical innovation, design, or product quality. Away’s sells Muji knockoffs and Casper’s subway riddles didn’t do anything to fend off its lacklustre IPO. Competing on a tone of voice is not a real, durable, advantage.
- Messaging is just one part of the wider brand 'system'. Monzo's success isn't purely down to the language they use, but rather it's because they succeed in all external expressions of their brand. Think of messaging as the final piece of the puzzle. Without a wider commitment to brand, it'll just be hot air.
Now, assuming you're committed to building a great product that the market wants or needs, let's explore more about what messaging actually means, and how it fits into the broader brand 'system’ so that you can avoid being a ‘GMO’ brand.
Messaging and branding: How the two interact
Brand messaging is simply how you communicate what your startup does. The language you use to explain your value proposition. Your raison d'etre. It should be the foundation for every piece of comms your startup will use or publish - be it the language a CX associate uses to resolve a customer issue, or the angle of a hero campaign that you'll be taking to the national press.
In terms of how messaging interacts with your broader brand efforts, consider the following framework. There are numerous brand frameworks and systems floating around and agencies/marketers often differentiate their services by selling you on their 'approach'. (Brand identity can mean 3 different things depending on who you talk to!). Most approaches are some variation on what I refer to as The 3 Brand Buckets:
Your brand foundations (the heart of your brand, what Simon Sinek refers to as the 'why') will inform your brand identity (who you uniquely are in the market), which will, in turn, inform your brand expression (how you 'show up' in the market). Each bucket is dependent on the one before it - so it's hard to meaningfully shape your identity without knowing your foundations, and hard to meaningfully express your brand without knowing who you uniquely are.
Therefore in an ideal world, before you get to messaging, you should've started to make in-roads within the other two buckets. A reminder of the earlier quote:
"Tone of voice is not a brand. Being chatty, witty, and approachable only masks the missing cultural link that ensures brand durability."
However, the world of an early-stage company building is far from ideal, so simply try to use the brand bucket framework as a guide. As long as you've done some early thinking about 'why you exist' and 'who you uniquely are', you'll be good to get started.
TOP TIP: Before getting stuck into your messaging, it's important that you've also got complete clarity on two things: who your customer is, and what your value proposition is. It'll be near impossible to develop core messages without knowing who you're trying to speak to, and what the main value you want to communicate is.
Building out your messaging
So you’ve successfully done some thinking on the first two brand buckets, and you've got a clear understanding of your customer and value proposition. What's next?
Time to build out your messaging in accordance with the above framework. Each section - Hero, Core, and Supporting - can be segmented by audience, which will be especially important if you are a marketplace company with brands and suppliers, or if you're a B2B company with numerous distinct target customers. For examples of messaging segmented by audience, check out Intercom's different homepages for early-stage companies vs small business vs enterprise customers.
Your headline should be short, have a singular focus, and evoke immediate understanding - so steer clear of jargon. It doesn't necessarily have to be functional, or descriptive as your strapline and supporting messages can do the heavy-lifting on this front. Think of your headline as an opportunity to spark intrigue.
The best headlines tend to place the customer at the centre of the story and pull on a desire or behaviour that will lead them to become their best aspirational selves. Examples include:
Earlier-stage companies with less brand equity and recognition might be more suited to an explicitly descriptive headline. Descriptive, however, does not have to mean boring. Examples include:
- Patch Plants: "Plants, Delivered"
- Appear Here: "Space for ideas"
- Gravity Sketch: "Think in 3D. Create in 3D"
- Ferly: "Your audio guide to mindful sex".
Your strapline should similarly be short, focused, and easy-to-comprehend, though I'd recommend developing one descriptive strapline (that's sole purpose is to aid understanding), one that is inspirational (that's sole purpose is to communicate your 'promised land' - what life could be like thanks to your product/service), and one that is customer-centric (and focuses on a key user benefit). Examples include:
- Appear Here: Rent shops, markets and pop up stores in cities around the world.
- Intercom: Intercom is your one tool to reach customers and prospects across the entire lifecycle.
- Glossier: Beauty inspired by real-life.
- Daye: We exist to raise the standards in female health, and we're starting with the most overlooked product.
TOP TIP: Ideas about how to describe your company can often come out of customer interviews, or off-the-cuff coffee shop conversations. Ask your power customers to describe your company, without giving them any prompts or context, and see what they come up with.
If you wanted your customer to only remember three things about your company, what would they be? These are your short, repeatable messages. Often referred to as 'brand pillars', the power of the repeatable message lies in how often you use them. In any piece of comms you do - be it a press piece, or an email, or a conflict resolution script, you should try and work in at least 1 of these messages.
These repeatable messages could be features, they could be benefits, or they could be an interesting fact about your founding story - there are no strict parameters. They should be distinctive, punchy, and memorable.
TOP TIP: It's worth developing these at the end of the messaging process. You'll have a holistic view of your messaging framework, and will be more able to discern what the critical messages you want your customers to take away are.
Who you are, what you do, how do you do it
Being able to succinctly explain who you are, what you do and how you do it is the bread-and-butter of your messaging and will likely be the most used and most referred to part of your messaging guidelines by the wider company. FP's Culture Manager Carl Martin, walks you through how to build out these messages step-by-step in his article on building your startup story.
This statement explains how you uniquely meet your customer's needs, in a way that other products/and services do not. The standard framework is as follows:
For (target market) who (the functional need or opportunity), your brand is the only (explanation of what you do) that (value proposition) through/because of (unique differentiator).
Taking a fictional company, ‘Beauty 123’, their statement could look like:
For millennial beauty enthusiasts, who rely on influencers for product recommendations, Beauty123 is the only social-led direct-to-consumer beauty brand, that designs and sells products in collaboration with creators, through an AI-driven commerce platform.
An alternative way to think about positioning is to move away from a product-focus and to think about what intangible idea you're selling to your users. Buying a suitcase is about being a student of the world. Brushing your teeth is about happiness and philanthropy. Buying an annual subscription to a live chat software is about realising your potential as a middle manager.
What are the inner, aspirational motivations of your target user? How will your brand uniquely help them to realise these? With this lens, your brand positioning statement could look like:
For (target market) who (the inner, aspirational need or belief), your brand is the only (explanation of what you do) that (unique way that your brand expression - not your product - helps users realise their belief).
Taking Beauty 123 once more:
For millennial beauty enthusiasts, who believe that beauty is a means for them to find and express their true selves, Beauty123 is the only social-led direct-to-consumer beauty brand, that shares transformational beauty stories about unconventional women.
TOP TIP: Roger L Martin asks "Is the opposite of our strategy also a feasible strategy?". If not, it means that your strategy is undifferentiated - every competitor will have the same approach as you. A similar logic can be applied to your statements - ask would any company feasibly describe themselves as the opposite of this? If not, it's not sufficienly differentiated."
Features and Benefits
Features are the functional, technical aspects of your product. Benefits are how that feature will improve your customer's life. Each feature, should be accompanied by the benefit it unlocks for the user, and most description should only be 1 sentence long. Superhuman lays out its benefits in an incredibly clear way on their landing page.
Tone of Voice
Tone of voice is about how you use language. It’s the pace, temperament, and flow of the words you use. How your words ‘feel’. Do you have a friendly, relatable voice or an all-knowing authoritative one?
Your tone of voice is most tightly linked to your brand personality - which sits in the 'identity' brand bucket. Brand personality is the human characteristics and attributes that your brand embodies. So, step one to finding your tone of voice is defining your personality, and I’d highly recommend leaning on Carl Jung’s 12 personality archetypes. (His intention for creating these was probably more about self-exploration and understanding and less about making money, but here we are).
Tone of voice is undoubtedly much easier to strategise about than it is to execute on. A good starting point will be to compile a list of the following things:
Words that you do and don’t use
A list of adjectives that ‘describe’ your voice, and an explanation of what this means in practice
A series of examples that bring to life what your tone looks like in action. Are you more “Good morning everyone.” or “Rise and grind team!”
The best way to ensure your tone of voice strategy is executed on by your team is through developing a writing style guide. See Monzo’s for best practice.
TOP TIP: Research into how your customer speaks, and explore whether you’re able to inherit any of their colloquial language and lingo in an authentic way.
Most useful for press or partnership documents, your boilerplate combines your core messages and your positioning statement with key proof points around the history and achievements of your startup to-date. Some examples:
About Intercom: Intercom is the world’s first customer messaging platform to help internet businesses accelerate growth. Intercom is a new and better way for businesses to acquire, engage and retain customers and its modern products help sales, marketing and support to connect with customers and grow faster. Today Intercom powers more than 500 million monthly conversations and reaches over 1B+ people worldwide across our 30,000 paying customers.
About Unbabel: Unbabel's “Translation as a Service” platform allows modern enterprises to understand and be understood by their customers in dozens of languages. Powered by state-of-the-art AI and refined by a global crowd of thousands, Unbabel helps global brands like Booking.com, Facebook, Skyscanner, easyJet, Under Armour and Rovio remove language as a concern, increasing customer satisfaction and building a more efficient customer service operation in the process. Backed by Scale Venture Partners, Notion, Microsoft Ventures, Salesforce Ventures, Samsung NEXT and Y Combinator, Unbabel is accelerating the shift to a world without language barriers.
Iterate and socialise your messaging
Your messaging will evolve as you get more and more customer feedback, so don’t view this exercise as something that is final - it can be revisited on an ongoing basis. Also, socialising your messaging guidelines within your team is vital, otherwise it'll sit in your google drive gathering dust. At the beginning of every Forward Partners weekly meeting, we challenge someone to recite our vision, mission and purpose back to us. So, in summary:
Messaging is just one part of the brand equation, and without clarity on your value proposition and target customer, it won’t work as hard as it could do for you.
Make sure to think about ‘why’ you exist (brand bucket 1) and ‘who’ you are (brand bucket 2) before jumping into messaging.
Your messaging should have 3 components: Hero, Core, and Supporting.
Socialising your messaging is almost as important as developing it - don't ignore this part!