Maximize Your Marketing Impact

A practical guide for improving message strategy and branding.

Why do many of us find ourselves stuck, following the same old patterns, even though it would take just a few steps to improve our marketing effectiveness?

In his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People books and seminars, Stephen Covey emphasizes, among other things, "sharpening the saw." He tells us about the man who was so focused on cutting down trees that he refused to stop and sharpen his saw's dull blade, wasting time and energy sawing harder and longer than he would with a sharpened saw. A lot of us have been caught in this trap.

Constantly remind yourself to view all your marketing materials from the customers' viewpoint, not from yours: It's about them, not you...You're selling goosebumps.

What to do? In a nutshell: Constantly remind yourself to view all your marketing materials from the customers' viewpoint, not from yours: It's about them, not you. You're selling a benefit (what's in it for them), and how it will make them feel—you're selling goose bumps. After these primary messages are communicated, then you sell the content.

After you establish what you are selling and to whom, where do branding and message strategy fit in?

Planning Steps

Define and understand your target audience.

Complete some basic (read not expensive or complex!) research. You may already have most of this information:

  • Demographics
  • How your target market "feels" about you
  • What motivates them
  • Why they buy (or do not buy) your product
  • How and when they buy
  • What they need/want (like relaxation, to be moved, to reward themselves, etc.)
  • How satisfied/dissatisfied they are with your product

Describe your product.

  • Purpose (from your mission statement)
  • Features and benefits (who, what, where, when, and how)
  • Use words that best describe your organization, which can later be used to guide the creation of tag lines that reinforce your brand
  • Strengths and weaknesses

Determine what you are really selling.


Describe your competition.

  • What do they do?
  • How they are different/the same from you
  • Their strengths and weaknesses
  • Advantages/disadvantages of your product over theirs
  • Your customer's time, money, perceptions, and other lifestyle issues

Determine your brand - what makes you unique.

Don't assume that they know about you
Clarify what you want to communicate
Decide what image you want to convey

Develop positioning statements.

Positioning statements are short declarative phrases that describe how you want your product to be perceived; they arouse interest by connecting to what your customers need or desire, such as:

  • ABC television is the most dependable and the best investment for your money
  • ABC television has the most features and is the easiest to use

Develop a message strategy that emphasizes benefits and attracts the attention of the reader.

This is not the same as a positioning statement—it restates the positioning statement in a creative, attention-getting way.

Direct the action by asking for a response and giving them an incentive.


Track effectiveness.

Check assumptions by tracking orders and compare them to the past. Gauge your customers' response to your message.

Start the process all over again!


Basic Research and Branding

Research improves customer understanding, and understanding reinforces your marketing strategies, which can lead to increased retention and acquisition.

  • Ask only what you need to know and will act upon
  • Determine what you are willing to do with the information once you get it

A simple audience survey can answer:

  • Demographics and geography: who they are and where they live
  • Media preferences: how you can reach more people like them
  • Awareness and perception: what they know about you
  • Lifestyle: desires, needs, other interests
  • Competition/crossover: what else they do with their time
  • Attendance factors: motivation, barriers, purchase behavior
  • Satisfaction: quality, price sensitivity, service

Branding is too big a topic to cover in depth here, but you can find many sources that guide you through the process. By the time you have completed the marketing exercises outlined above, you will have completed a good number of the steps.

Establishing a brand is very important, but brand alone sells nothing. It's the process of creating your brand that leads to clarity, and ultimately, marketing effectiveness. Many of us make the mistake of assuming the world is our audience and everyone knows who we are. This is far from the truth (unless you're Coca Cola (R)), so we must be committed to educating with every marketing piece we produce. Paying attention to your brand, and all that it entails, is essential.

The main reason for creating your own brand is to differentiate yourself from your competition. Branding helps focus your marketing and obtain real results by making it more effective and efficient. As you determine your organization's brand/personality, ensure that it:

  • Tells the world who you are, what you do, and how you do it
  • Clarifies how you are unique
  • Evokes some emotional response in the consumer
  • Establishes your connection to your prospective customers

The process of creating a brand and developing positioning should lead naturally to crafting message strategy.

Message Strategy

Message strategy provides the foundation for all your marketing and helps to unify all media. Message strategies use brand as the basis for creatively communicating primary benefits by addressing target marketing needs or desires. Your message strategy is reflected in brochure and ad headlines, and it usually:

  • Focuses on "what's in it" for the reader
  • Makes a promise
  • Asks for something
  • Sells the sizzle, not the steak
  • Sells benefits, not features

A message strategy is not:

  • Your logo
  • A brochure cover featuring your name and season year
  • A content-centered "theme" superimposed on a static photo of your group

Steps to crafting effective message strategies:

  • Understand your targets
  • Make your message strategies brief, interest-arousing, action-packed
  • Create headlines that recognize your customer's needs
  • Ensure that they reflect or amplify your positioning statement or brand
  • Use subheads to clarify or amplify
  • Use "you" not "we"
  • Make a promise, solve a problem
  • Emphasize benefits or how it will make them feel
  • Make sure that the message captures attention, creates awareness, builds brand knowledge, persuades and moves customers to take action
  • Develop a communications plan that consistently uses your message strategy

Taking the time to create persuasive messages can increase the success of your entire marketing program. When you create a message, what a customer sees is as important as what they read. Message strategies are reflected in headlines, subheads, and text. In a comprehensive marketing plan, they are woven into the fabric of all communications. The headline is often the most visible, most compelling reflection of your message strategy.

One of direct marketing's most noted copywriters, Dean Rieck of Direct Creative, reminds us: "The headline is the single most important element of every print advertisement. It's more than a title or label for your message. It's the salesperson's opening line. It's the foot in the door. It's the first and most lasting impression. A headline wields the power to attract, repel, or slip by readers unnoticed."

Rick Mellor of Mindshare Marketing agrees, and charges us to, "stop using generalities and platitudes in your marketing." He reminds us that, "The headline is 70 percent of any ad or marketing piece. Make sure it interrupts your prospects and it relates to your business and to a specific pain that you know your prospects are feeling."

If you find your organization is indeed stuck in the same old marketing patterns, take these steps: Move yourself and a few key staff/volunteers offsite and spend the day "sharpening the saw." Change your marketing viewpoint from yours to your customers. Tell them how your product will make them feel. And finally, sell benefits, not content. If you take time now to create customer-centered marketing, you will reap big rewards.

This article is adapted from The Voice, Winter 2004-05.