Five steps to ‘Value Proposition’ heaven, a marketing short-story

Danny stormed out of the office as dignified as he could. Six full weeks, his team had been working on this new product launch, six full weeks.

As always, R&D missed the deadline for product readiness. Where he original had twelve weeks to prepare the product launch, he was left with half of that.

He and his team performed a miracle in his opinion. All the overtime put in, all the favours called, all that, for nothing it now seemed. Sales had just pushed him under the bus at the first opportunity they had. Whilst presenting is plan to the executive team, the CEO asked the Sales Director if they would meet the sales forecast. Without twitching a muscle, the answer was that the marketing support was a lot weaker than originally anticipated. He did not believe the sales tools and arguments he received, were going to cut it. As a result, he had reduced the forecast with 30%.

The CEO was everything but thrilled with this message. She abruptly ended the meeting with the simple statement that Danny had another two weeks to fix things.  There was no ‘or else’ articulated but it hung in the room nevertheless.  Danny could barely restrain himself from hitting the smug face of the Sales Director. But dramatically reducing his chances for prolonged employment, was not something he was after.

On his way home, with some background music soothing his nerves, he contemplated on what went wrong. Maybe sales were right, perhaps he didn’t deliver the best campaign he could have done. The value proposition wasn’t exactly the clearest in history and the story towards competition might have been stronger. The graphics were nice though and the created landing page was optimized for leads.

“What did they expect anyway”, he thought angrily as his temper flared up again. He only got six weeks to work with and had to build of a bunch of technical product specifications which product management provided. These guys barely knew themselves what the advantages of the product were. When asked, they ranted on and on about all the technical details, but in the end didn’t give him anything he could work with. So, he had done what he always did, he referred in his communication to the previous generation of the product and stated how much faster and lighter it was. This had worked before, why didn’t he now get any credit for the incredible job he pulled off with his team?

Coming home he was surprised to find that his family already had finished evening dinner. His wife was as surprised as he was to see him home so early. “Weren’t you supposed to have dinner with your old college pall tonight?” she asked.

Blood rushed to his head, Danny had completely forgotten this appointment. He looked at his wristwatch to see he was already ten minutes late. Tonight he was supposed to meet Charles. His roommate from college who only stayed in town for two days whilst traveling through. Unlike himself, his friend had chosen to go and live abroad. If he missed tonight’s appointment, it would probably take another two or three years before they had another chance of meeting each other in person.

He threw his wife a kiss, and rushed back to his car. Fortunately, traffic was calm and 10 minutes later he was at the hotel where they were meeting. He gave a small sigh of relief when he noticed his friend sitting at the bar engaged in what seemed to be a rather jolly conversation with the bartender.

“Sorry I’m late, had somewhat of a depressing day at work which made me lose sight our appointment.  Good to see you man”, he said as he laid his hand on his Charles’s shoulder.

“No worries”, his friend replied whilst excusing him from his earlier conversation, “it’s been way too long.

You look like you’re in need of a big drink, let me order you one.”

Whilst Charles ordered him a pint of lager, Dany tried to compose himself again. When he made the appointment for tonight, he had been so thrilled. It’s been ages since he saw Charles, and they had so much to catch up on. But at this very moment, he was still too stressed from work to enjoy it.

“Tell me, what is all this stress about? Looks like somebody really got through your thick skin today. I want to know all the details”, Charles asked.

Danny remembered his friend’s unique gift to let people spill their guts. Although he didn’t want to waste this one night on something as mundane as work, Charles insisted. So, Danny started off anyway.

“You know I’m a consulting specialist in marketing nowadays?”, Charles asked him after he finished his story. Danny nodded in a docile manner, of course he knew this, Charles was even somewhat of a celebrity in his line of work.

“I’ve just helped a customer with a case that is not that different from yours. There is a simple 5 step process that might help you salvage the situation. Care for some advice?”

Danny couldn’t help but smiling as he noticed how little his friend had changed over the years. Whenever Charles saw a problem, every vain in his body went into problem solving mode. Whether you liked it or not, he just stormed in.

Trying to persuade Charles that this type of behaviour was not always appreciated by people, was something Danny had given up on long ago. When his friend went into this mode, he became a force of nature, impossible to stop. So, he indulged Charles and agreed to listen to his advice. But first he wanted to move to a table and order food. He could as well enjoy a full stomach whilst listening.

Once they ordered their dinner, Charles embarked on his story.

“What is clear to me, is that a couple of crucial questions were not answered for this product launch. The most important of those being ‘what do you solve for whom?’. Without these answers, you cannot align an organization. No wonder sales backed out when a little pressure was applied. Don’t forget, these guys are in the front line and need to battle every day to make a living.

Only stands to reason they speak out when they are unsure about a new product. You took their reaction personal, but is not. The organization needs to provide them with a clear value proposition. Without it, they don’t stand a chance in the trenches. Your role is to support sales and make this happen.”

Danny frowned when he heard this remark, but Charles continued as if he didn’t notice his friend’s reaction.

“The first step of the process is to understand which customer segments to serve. You must be very specific on this. Every segment requires a different approach.

Sometimes companies are not aligned resulting in their people working towards different goals. Nobody is successful when this happens.

To create a common view, a workshop with sales, marketing and product management can do wonders.

The second step is mapping the needs these customers have. I typically use a framework I picked up at Stanford University. It catalogues needs as Economical, Functional and Psychological. Sometimes I have to engage in market research to obtain this information. Fortunately, this information often resides within the heads of the various stakeholders in the company. Bringing these people together to join the different jigsaw pieces, can create a good view on the most important needs.

In a B2B environment, using of the value chain as a guidance, allows you to quickly create a coherent image that everyone can subscribe to.”

Step one and two seemed rather straightforward to Danny, but he had to recognize he didn’t take them. A mental note was made to start working on them first thing tomorrow morning. He might even ask Charles to prolong his stay and run a workshop with them.

“Once you created alignment on the customers and their needs, you need to clarify how your new solution will satisfy them. Which features of your solution provide what benefits. This is step three of the process, look at every aspect of your product and understand how it solves customer needs. Crucial during this step is to not only look at the core product, but expand your gaze to your full offering, including logistics, financial conditions etc. Some professors call this the extended product or the ‘whole product’. I advise you to read up on this.”, Charles went on, taking his role as self-acclaimed mentor very seriously.

Although the statement could have been taken from a 101 Marketing textbook in college, Danny and his team had not given this step a lot of attention. He sighed as he realized he could have pushed product management a lot harder to articulate the benefits their new product provided the customers.

Charles stopped for a minute whilst the waiter served the main dish. Both men were having the day’s special with a glass of Pinot Noir. The food and wine however, did not lessen the passion with which Charles continued his lecture.

“The magic in creating a good marketing story is to focus on the most important elements that help you win the order. A lot of companies struggle with this. They can’t decide what the most important product features are. All are considered equally important.

To solve this, I have product management, sales and marketing teams score the features according to two criteria.

The first one is the importance for the customer. How relevant is the product benefit to them? If you have segmented your customers well, you will be able to quickly do this.

Secondly, I have the teams look at the uniqueness of the features. Here they score their own way of solving customer needs towards competition.

Combining these two scorings, gives you an overview of the product aspects that are important to your customers and where you have a unique way of solving them.

If you now distil the top features, where you are relevant and unique, you have discovered the key story elements for a good product campaign.”

In the meantime, Danny had started taking notes. His initial scepticism about the process had evaporated as it all came together.

“And finally,” his friend smiled “before I will ask you how your lovely wife is doing, we have reached the last step. Your team must create a messaging framework to allow the creatives to do their magic in a focused way.

Within this framework, you have th ree levels, as you need three types of stories for external communication. The top level is your message to open the door with, the one you use to get people interested enough to lend you their ear. Once their front door is open, you can enter the hallway. This is where the level two message kicks in. This story convinces them to give you an hour of their time and fully hear you out. Never forget, time is men’s most precious possession and you need to earn it.

Hitting the right note with this story, gets you invited to the living room table. Here you can have the full conversation about how your solution can solve the specific needs of your customer. This is your level 3 story.

In my experience, most people have a strong story to tell at the table. But without a good level 1 and level 2 story, the living room becomes a very hard place to reach.

With all five steps completed, your teams can finally start making the marketing campaigns and sales enablement tools. Because now they know what to aim for.

I guarantee you, following this process and actively involving all key stakeholders along the way, is a failproof way to reach strong value propositions to build your campaigns on. Five steps to value proposition heaven,” he grinned.

The agony that clouded Danny’s mind when they started their conversation, had vanished.  The process Charles shared, would allow him to reach the desired results in the days to come. First thing tomorrow morning, he was going to call sales and product management together to make their first step.

They continued what turned out to be a very pleasant evening after all. With great food and even better companionship.