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Words Matter – A Lot

June 27, 2017

We all sell every day. We sell ideas, we sell products, we sell our spouse or kids on why our idea is a good (or the right) idea. We sell ourselves on what we should do for ourselves – why to go to the workout class, why to eat this, and why not to do that.

pig.jpgThe words you use when you sell matter. I love pork belly on my ground up dead cow. Or, more appetizingly, I like bacon on my hamburger. Prime rib is marketing – ground up dead cow is truth in description.

I’ve had hundreds of conversations with business owners who struggle with the marketing description of their product, service, or technology. They use a lot of words describing the features or what the service is (dead cow) and little time/few words describing the benefit to their customer (prime rib).

So if you find yourself talking about dead cow instead of prime rib, how do you change your approach? 

The process is easy to define (but hard to do), and has three steps:

Let’s break this down a bit more.

Understand your position

Every product or service must occupy a position in someone’s frame of reference before they’ll try or purchase it. The recently passed Jack Trout and his partner Al Reis wrote the seminal book on this in 1981 (Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind). We relate to items as consumers based on the relative place they hold in our mind compared to other things we know.

If your stuff is so new that there’s nothing to compare it to, you better back up and find a comparison. Without one, we don’t know how to understand it – we humans need to understand how your product or service fits into our worldview. 

And once you understand how to position your offering – the category, brand features, and brand image – you must decide which position to try to occupy. One caveat: in a consumer’s mind, only one brand can occupy one position at any given time. So if the position you want is taken by a stronger competitor, you need to find a different position or prepare for a long fight. It’s very hard to dislodge or discredit an idea (and a position is an idea) that someone believes in. (Yes, that explains a lot about U.S. politics today.)

Understand your real benefits

cow.jpgThe benefits you state to establish your position may not be the benefits your customers believe to be your true benefits (I know, this gets confusing at times). If your stated benefits don’t match your consumers’ true benefits, you have disharmony in your brand message. That’s not necessarily bad (remember, people only allow one brand to occupy a particular position at any one time), but it’s not sustainable. Eventually, your brand’s stated benefits must come to align with your customer’s perceived benefits; that means you’ll take a new position in someone’s mind or your brand message is going to change.

How do you figure out your customer’s perceived benefits from your offer? That’s easy – talk to them. Not in a giant survey, but in a one-on-one conversation. Ask them to describe the biggest benefit they get from working with your product or service. Ask them to tell you what the biggest problem they have (had) that your offer helped them solve.

Use words that are relatable to your audience

Prime rib or a Delmonico steak mean something different to a 75-year-old versus a 30-year-old. To the 75-year-old, “Prime” is a grade of meat from days when there wasn’t as much good beef (dead cow) as there is today. Delmonico steak is named for the way it was cooked at the original Delmonico Steak House in New York City.

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To the 30-year-old, these terms may describe a recipe and not the history behind the meaning. Choosing the right words for marketing is partially (mostly) about choosing the right word to evoke the desired emotional response. “Prime” and “Delmonico’ will have different effects based on the age and experience of the person hearing them.

If you’re selling technology, what words will resonate with a 55-year-old CFO versus a 30-year-old entrepreneur? Who is your audience, where are they located, and what words are the right ones for them? I recently tried to order a set of soccer cleats from Nike; what I got was a football boot. Same item, different language – you get the idea. The words must tie to your position and must connect with your prospective customer’s worldview and self-view.

So if you’re having trouble being understood, if you’re challenged with getting the emotional buy-in you expected from your potential customer, take a step back and examine your position, your offering’s benefits, and the words you use to describe them. And, if you’re struggling to do this yourself because you’re too close to it all (and that frequently happens), give us a ring and let us do the work for you.

Dan Kraus
Written by Dan Kraus

With more than two decades of experience in sales, marketing, and go-to-market strategies, Dan Kraus has developed a deep portfolio of experiences that he now uses to help small businesses profitably grow their businesses. As an entrepreneur, Dan understands the challenges of growing a business with limited capital and human resources. As a line of business manager in larger companies such as SAP America and Great Plains Software (now part of Microsoft), his experience launching new business ventures inside reputable organizations established his reputation as a creative and effective executive that could both plan and execute within corporate confines.

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