From Product/Market Fit to Language/Market Fit: A New Brand Storytelling Framework
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In the past five years, I’ve invested in and helped launch dozens of consumer technology companies.
During the course of that time, I’ve noticed a pattern:
The best companies don’t think of their story as a nice way to package their finished product, but instead view their customer’s transformation story as the main thing they’re working towards.
Despite this, most founders stumble when asked why their company exists. Many companies boast that they’re “Transforming X”, “Disrupting Y”, and “Building a Better Z” without clearly communicating what they are transforming X/Y/Z into? And what’s even more incredible is how many founders dismiss brand storytelling and positioning as marketing fluff.
What these companies fail to realize is that the story is not about marketing. The story is the strategy.
I’m convinced that storytelling will be the most differentiating business skill of the 21st century.
Steve Jobs’ most important legacy was that he made technology about people and not about technology. Technology has been an incredible enabler — but technology will always be bound by the desires, wants, and needs of human beings. While I am fascinated by technology, I’m even more fascinated by people. My life’s work is committed to investing and helping founders build empathetic technology products that make human life better.
The startup community is obsessed with product/market fit but what gets overlooked is language/market fit. Even if your product solves a real pain, you still need to communicate to customers how it fits into their lives. You still need to inspire others to join you in building the product. And you still need to have a profound purpose to keep you going.
The power of narrative has never been more important and yet the frameworks we use to develop brand messaging have not changed to reflect the times.
My objective with this post is to demystify the role of language in startups, provide examples of companies that have crafted effective stories, and offer a practical framework to help you design more inspiring and effective brand messaging.
Ultimately, I believe that in order to create companies of lasting value, we need to lead with a story and communicate purpose for people — not just build what’s technically possible.
Table of Contents
I. Why is Strategic Messaging important?
II. What is Strategic Messaging?
IV. UX Writing
V. A New Framework for Brand Storytelling
Why is Strategic Messaging Important?
We live in extraordinary times. Historically, mass gatekeepers stood in the way between a creator and its consumer. But technology opens a new dimension of possibilities for brands to engage with customers and own their narrative — the creator can now control the conversation, the timing, the voice, the context, and the customer experience in ways that were simply not possible before. Brands of the future will need to connect with consumers at a much deeper level to stay relevant. Casper, Ritual, Bonobos, Away, and Dollar Shave Club are examples of companies whose authenticity and voice likens them to real human personalities.
Today’s consumer is also inundated by an unprecedented amount of data, and our brains haven’t evolved to be able to process it all. With infinite choices and free information, attention has become a scarce resource and we are operating in a default state of not caring. As founders, your objective is to make people care and language plays a critical role in satisfying this need.
In a world with free information, abundant data, and virtually no barriers to entry, companies will succeed by selling purpose, not a product.
“I believe art and design are poised to transform our economy in the 21st century like science and technology did in the last century.” — John Maeda.
So, what exactly is Strategic Messaging?
Broadly speaking, strategic messaging refers to the art of understanding how your customers think and how to use words to make them feel a certain way.
More tangibly, strategic messaging refers to the language you use to communicate with different stakeholders — whether sales decks, investor pitches, company slogans, mission statements, or website microcopy.
Strategic messaging has two major components: Positioning Messaging and UX Writing.
Positioning statements refers to higher-level messages like mission statement, vision statement, taglines, and one-liners. These positioning statements become the foundation for your brands DNA, culture, philosophy, and goals.
UX writing refers to the practice of designing the words people see when they interact with your product. It refers more specifically to the words or phrases in the user interface that are directly related to the actions a user takes: the motivation before the action, instructions that accompany the action, the feedback after the user has taken the action.
The most important positioning statement is the Massive Transformative Purpose (MTP). In the simplest sense, an MTP is a huge and audacious purpose statement.
Airbnb is a platform for booking stays in people’s homes. Its functional benefits are convenience and price, but their MTP is to build a world where people can belong anywhere.
Slack is functionally selling a group chat tool, but their MTP is about organizational transformation, about making people less busy. This was beautifully captured by Stewart Butterfield in We don’t sell saddles here.
Tesla is physically selling you a car. But more fundamentally, they’re helping accelerate the transition to sustainable transportation. Their story is one of hope for a better future.
TaskRabbit is an online platform that allows you to outsource chores. But what it’s really selling is freedom to live your life.
Evernote is a note-taking app. But what it’s really selling is the ability to remember everything.
For all of these companies, there is a very strong emotional purpose that supersedes a logical one. Why? Because purpose is the secret to motivating individuals and teams to do great things.
I’d go as far as to say that there are plenty of successful companies whose purpose is so strong that they succeed by changing perception rather than the product itself.
I’m a happy customer of Glossier and Ritual, but I’m not sure that the makeup and vitamins they sell are substantially better than their competitors’. But their brand story, their narrative, their purpose is so profound, it inspires action.
As Mark Bonchek highlights in his widely popular Harvard essay:
“Companies that successfully market and sell innovation are able to shift how people think not only about their product, but about themselves, the market, and the world. Don’t sell a product, sell a whole new way of thinking.”
Instead of forcing their product down people’s throats, successful companies sell the underlying shift in thinking. For example, Casper championed simplicity and delight, and changed the way people think about buying mattresses.
What your company is tangibly offering should complement your brand’s MTP for a complete, overall profile.
There’s a range of use cases — some long, some short, some more formal, but the format should still be similar:
[Company/Product] is a [short description] to help [target market] with [problem].
The goal is to create universality and ubiquity and to solve recurring requests such as: Is there a brief description about the company that I can use on my LinkedIn profile?
Delusionally vague, jargon-packed descriptions are the de facto standard for most companies. But the key is to sound like a human. Many tech companies try to sound too different or innovative, but wind up creating confusion. “AI for recruiting” is not a good description of what your company does. Your end user wants a product that delivers value, and doesn’t care if that value proposition is powered by AI.
“The best approach in over-communicated society is the oversimplified message.” — Al Ries
It sounds obvious, but as was hilariously captured in For the love of God, please tell me what your company does, most companies are unable to explain what they do in a few words.
Having a word-perfect description matters. A good description makes an immediate mental match with your audience, creating a strong starting point for your conversation with them.
UX Writing refers to the little bits of text that guide users through an experience, and includes things like button labels, hint text, website wording, onboarding emails, push notifications, CTAs, and error messages. With the rise of voice driven interfaces and conversational commerce, UX writing has become even more important — designing for human and computer interaction requires a firm grasp of language and human psychology.
UX writers are responsible for all the words on a given screen, but in many ways, their role is to help teams balance business goals with the needs of customers through tone, style, and the magic of words.
You can read John Saito’s incredibly insightful posts to learn more about UX Writing, but here are some of my favorite examples:
A New Framework for Brand Storytelling
Oftentimes companies start with a value proposition or brand voice template before they’ve done the hard work of understanding their customer. A strong value proposition comes from a deep understanding of the customer. This is why the framework I propose is people first.
This framework is not an ending point, but rather a starting point to help you see the world through your customer’s eyes and arrive at your company’s true purpose. Once you’ve achieved this, coming up with the right language becomes easier.
The fundamental difference between this framework and existing ones is that this framework is rooted in empathy. It starts with the customer’s whose lives you are trying to transform (People), which leads to your company’s reason for being (Purpose), which ultimately dictates what you are actually building (Product). This sequence is logical — after all, if your team doesn’t have a clear understanding of whose lives they’re trying to transform and why, how can they build a great product?
A brand story can’t be designed in a couple of days. It takes time to understand your customer’s psychographics, pains, values, and perceptions. Often, you discover a human intangible emotion that becomes the core catalyst of your company. This discovery process is crucial in designing your messaging.
Using this framework takes time and some digging, so let’s use Outdoor Voices as an example. I chose to use them because I am a happy customer of the brand and because they are an example of a company that was able to carve a space in a crowded category (activewear) by offering a different type of narrative.
So let’s start with the people…
Outdoor Voices’ strategy is to go after people who have long felt alienated by traditional activewear brands (think Nike, Under Armour, Lululemon). This is an audience who grew up with a strong narrative about high intensity performance and an image of an ideal body type promoted by the media. The Outdoor Voices customer is most likely not a Crossfit enthusiast but they do long for movement and belonging and have unique ways to incorporate activity into their lives. Already we see that for these customers, the message is not about better clothes, but about redefining activity and giving them a sense of belonging. What these customers were waiting for was flexibility in what is considered an active lifestyle.
With a clear understanding of the Outdoor Voices customer, we can start to define the company’s purpose. What unique beliefs does this company have? What change does it seek to make? What is their MTP (Massive Transformative Purpose)?
Outdoor Voices deeply believes that activity needs to be fun, delightful, and social — instead of competitive or performance based. Their MTP is to free fitness from performance. As you can see, a strong MTP is far bigger than a product and does not even get into details about the product. Yes, Outdoor Voices sells activewear, but considering their purpose, it is not hard to imagine a future in which they create tools that connect people through activity.
Only once your purpose is clear should you start to define a product that fulfills that purpose — what it does, and how it does it. If Outdoor Voices were to lead with product, it seems impossible to carve a business opportunity in the extremely crowded activewear space (think Nike, UnderArmour, Lululemon), but leading with the purpose makes competitive forces disappear.
This framework forces you to look at product features in the context of benefits. Assigning every product feature to a particular benefit is very important — you should introduce new features for the sake of bringing more value to your customer, not for the sake of adding more features.
So, what’s the bottom line? Let’s summarize:
— Strategic messaging isn’t just about words, it’s about creating clarity and purpose for your customers, team, and stakeholders.
— The networked, fast-paced culture of the 21st century needs companies that can take complex subjects and turn them into cogent, compelling, and inspiring human narratives.
— The fundamental difference between the framework I’m proposing and existing ones is that this one parts from the belief that decisions are 100% emotional, and hence puts people at the heart of your company.
— The biggest mistake people make when defining vision is to talk about their product. Your customer should dictate the story, and the story should dictate your product, not the other way around.
— Building high growth companies is hard — without a sense of purpose, you will inevitably burn out. That is why behind every investment we’ve made is a founder who has found his/her true purpose. (investing is usually perceived as highly scientific, but the truth is investment decisions are highly emotional too: if a business has solid fundamentals but fails to deliver a compelling story, it’s tough for any amount of data to drive us to a different conclusion)
— The single most important thing you can do for your company today is to define your MTP. It will make decision-making easier, it will make recruiting easier, it will make fundraising easier, and perhaps more importantly, it will make your life more meaningful.
This article is not meant to be a comprehensive source on developing your brand story. Since many aspects of messaging aren’t covered here, I’ve added a reference section below with the best books and resources on the topic that have influenced me.
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If you have any questions and/or are building a purpose driven consumer technology company, I’d love to hear from you. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org
The ideas shared in this article were influenced by these resources, which have made a big impact on my thinking:
“Start With Why” by Simon Sinek
“Words Can Change Your Brain” by Andrew Newberg & Mark R. Waldman
What I Learned Positioning 40 Companies by Andy Raskin
Bring out your inner UX Writer by Rachael Mullins
Getting to a Messaging Framework and Value Prop by Tiffany Spencer
The 16 Rules of Brand Strategy by Jasmine Bina
All of John Saito’s insightful posts on UX
Lessons from an Ad Man Ted Talk by Rory Sutherland
Strategic Communication by Myk Pono
Tribes by Seth Godin