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Positioning That Works

Creating Compelling Positioning Stories

People often ask me for a written version of my process. They assume I have a paint-by-numbers approach to creating the strategies, positioning and stories that are part and parcel of my consulting business.

They couldn't be more wrong.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to strategy and positioning.

Anyone who says there's a one-size-fits-all approach simply doesn't get it. Strategic positioning is more art than science. And each and every client is a new canvas.

Great positioning is as unique as every situation. You have to be flexible, nimble. My "methodology" is more a way of thinking about things. I don’t really have a checklist or set of step-by-step instructions.

Positioning is best thought of as a matrix of elements that can be combined in various way to create a relevant and compelling story for the situation at hand. The key is to be concise with compelling core positioning statements (3-5 maximum) and then support those statements with wide and varied evidence that can be applied based on their specific relevancy. The core statements serve to keep your story consistent, while the diverse evidence lets you demonstrate your value in diverse ways.

Once you develop the right matrix, you can weave a story that is compelling at every level—and support it with the right threads of evidence to make your point. Just be sure your evidence threads are primarily around customer stories and anecdotes – which in my experience are the best way to bring the stories to life.

In my own practice, I weave the fabric of your story around 3 key story lines or layers of messages. All other story threads (e.g., evidence) must enhance these three fundamental positioning statements. I give different story lines and/or evidence threads priority depending on the client situation (e.g. turnaround, start around, start-up) and the project purpose (e.g., product or company launch, M&A strategy, fund raising, go-to-market strategy). Then there's my own gut feel, which in the end is usually the deciding factor. Thirty years of experience gives one’s intuition a lot of fodder (along with the grey hair).

So what are my 3 story lines, or layers, I mention above?

Your Company: Including who are you today and how your customers perceive you, your core expertise and value (often skill-based versus IP-driven), your successes in customers, your "legacy" that can be applied going forward. I also make sure messaging in this area subtly addresses issues like negative customer perceptions, a fading image, a changing focus into new markets where you may not be known.

Your Solutions: As you’re thinking through solution positioning, focus on the "So What?" value your solutions bring to customers. Solution messaging should make a clean concise statement of your solutions’ business value. Then prove that value with evidence, preferably in the form of customer stories. Solutions include products and services, as well as expertise.

Your Market: As part of positioning your company and its solutions, you also have to tell the story of the market. Be thoughtful as you build the case for why your company and its solution are needed, and the value they bring.

Demonstrating an understanding of the current market, as well as a vision for the future, is critical in positioning your company as an expert that customers can trust.

For each area—create a single strong statement of your leadership (OK, sometimes you can have two). Then collect every morsel of evidence you can to support those statements. From there, create a top level story with the 3 messages – and then evidence that story with the anecdotes and numbers and facts you have (customer-centric) that are most relevant. depending on the situation.

As for messaging itself—there are lots of ways to create a matrix. Sometimes I work top down, sometimes bottom up. The process isn’t the important part. What’s important is that the focus be customer-centric and compelling. Most importantly—your messaging must answer the most important question to the customer, which is: “So What? What value will I derive from this claim you are making? What’s in it for me?”

Regardless of whether you go top-down, bottom-up or horizontal—I have some simple rules I follow for creating a positioning and messaging matrix:

Be concise. For each area, develop ONE key message. Not five, not ten, not one per employee. ONE message. Make it simple, make it compelling and make sure it reflects your customers’ perspectives and not your own chest thumping. Having multiple messages about your company, its markets and its products only confuses your audience. Find one key statement in each area that you can support and stick to it.

Let your evidence speak for you. Support each of your core message statements with evidence. The more evidence the better. Customer-centric evidence is the primary approach, but you can also use evidence from other external sources, as long as they are credible. Quantitative evidence is always better than the soft and-touchy feely claims that tend to turn off your audience. As much as possible, let your customers speak for you with their evidence. Their voices are the most powerful of all. Forget making claims about yourself—where’s the credibility in that?

Tell a Story: Messages in and of themselves are abstract statements. Unless they relate to a situation or frame of reference that is important to your audience, they won’t stick. So how do you get your messages to really hit home with your audience? Apply them. Tell stories that focus on customer/real-world situations that resonate with your listeners. Encapsulate your messages in stories that demonstrate your understanding of the customer’s experience—and bring them to life.

In all areas I rely on the qualitative information (the art) as much or more than I do the quantitative information (the science). You have to learn to follow your gut, your instincts – and those instincts need to be founded in a customer-centric perspective.

Once you have a messaging matrix—go out and test it with the people that matter—your customers and prospects. Forget what people inside your company think—they aren’t the ones buying your solutions. And they usually don’t have a true customer perspective. Get out there and test your pitch with buyers.

I usually start with a friendly few as a warmup and for basic tuning, then expand to include a wide range of folks—some who know my client, some who don’t, some who have negative baggage. You don’t have to test with hordes; a few of the right folks will do. Remember—quality vs quantity in all things.

Once you have a final matrix – well, prepare to start evolving it. Nothing is forever.

Like all things, messaging must recreate itself to become more and more powerful.

More Stories By Rebel Brown

Rebel Brown guides organizations and individuals to harness the power of their minds to step into their ultimate potential. A masterful agent of change, for over 25 years Rebel Brown has inspired, coached and empowered individuals and businesses to unstoppable performance and results. As a recognized market strategist and turnaround expert, Rebel guided over 200 global organizations to step beyond their status quo perspectives to create profitable market advantage. She also worked with US and European venture firms to successfully fund and launch their portfolios. She also ran a consulting practice in Paris for three years, working with European clients. Fascinated by the power of our human minds to limit ourselves and our business results, she began her study of neural science. Her core question was simple. What could we do if we had no limits? Today, she brings the power of neuroscience to business (NeuroBusiness),fueling limitless thinking that drives powerful bottom line growth for her executive and corporate clients. Rebel’s work has been featured in media including First Business TV, Forbes, Inc, Entrepreneur, Business Insider and Business Week. She is a Vistage International speaker and workshop leader as well as NSA speaker. She’s also been named one of the Top 100 Women in Computing. Rebel is also the founder and director of the Unstoppable U Foundation, a non-profit program committed to guiding kids to know that they are born to be Unstoppable!