Simplify the Message

by | Feb 19, 2009

One of the hardest things for entrepreneurs to tackle is the definition of their core business “positioning.” Positioning is known by many names – your focus, your marketing strategy, your elevator pitch, your business description. This description answers these questions: What business are you in? Who are your customers? What unique value do you offer them?

Sure, you may be selling your products and services already without a formal strategy, but until you can distill “what business you are in” in a clear and compelling way, you will always struggle to create awareness and interest in the marketplace beyond your long-winded sales force. Without this clarity you will struggle to get the word out, whether you have money to spend on marketing or whether you are relying on cheaper bootstrap sales and marketing tactics exploited on the web.

To the action-oriented startup CEO who is developing the next great business idea, building products and chasing customers (and funding), this can seem like a futile exercise. Why spend time on creating a simple strategy statement when we have so much to do?

The answer is simple: Everyone who interacts with your business requires a simple and compelling understanding of what your business is and why they should care. This includes your customers, prospects, employees, investors, partners, and suppliers. All of us have a filter when we see something new and allow our brain to remember and use that information. How do we all do this? We simplify, we filter, we categorize. If what you do can’t be understood quickly, at a minimum, it won’t stick in our minds, much less allow us to repeat it and spread of your story by word of mouth.

Having lived through several startups that have grown into big businesses in now-mature industries, I can tell you that as you grow something very surprising happens. In the beginning your story sounds great, but it takes a 15-minute sales pitch with a presentation and a demo for others to “get it.” As the business grows and the market matures, the description and story actually get simpler, not more complicated.

Think about it. You can imagine what wonderful words were written in the business plans of tech giants Google, Microsoft, Dell, Amazon, YouTube, Apple or whatever tech or non-tech success story you know. Now we associate them in our minds with a single word or two:

Google = web search
Microsoft = PC software
Dell = business PCs
Apple = great consumer devices
Amazon = online books (online stuff)

These words are really “positions” in our minds. This idea was defined and popularized by Al Ries and Jack Trout 30 years ago in their book “Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind.” They have also individually written great books about Focus and Simplicity and many others have covered this topic.

Although much has changed in the tactics of marketing since then, not much has changed in how our minds work. What was the simple message of Barack Obama’s campaign in his successful election? Change.

The simpler the idea, the bigger it usually is — and the harder it is to develop and to conquer in minds of the market.

Take this test. Write down the names of 10 successful businesses in any industry. Can you easily write down the simple words they “own” in your mind? I bet you can.

How simple is your story?