Photo by Design Pics/Design Pics / Getty Images
Photo by Design Pics/Design Pics / Getty Images

It comes before the advertising, the packaging, and the press releases. Before the media interviews, before the slick launch party kicks off, before your CEO steps up to give the big speech, there is the moment. The moment when someone at your company asks the question that will go a long way to determining the success or failure of your new product.

“So what are we going to say about it?”

This is where things often start going wrong. It isn’t because brand owners don’t care enough to find the answer. I do messaging work for a living and I find that most clients really want to develop the best message. They believe deeply in their company, and their product, and what it can do for the customer. They badly want to get their message just right.

So what goes wrong? How do smart, well-meaning brand owners end up creating the complex, muddled messages that we see at most product launches?

They are playing the wrong game. They have core misconceptions about how people will process their message. As a result, they limit the power and reach of their new product message.


1. They assume a receptive and curious audience

If you want to appeal to real customers, you have to start by understanding a simple reality. The world is not holding its breath waiting to hear your product message.

Think about two customers. First, let’s meet Fantasy Customer – the customer that many companies seem to be thinking about as they design their message.

Fantasy Customer is patient, open-minded, curious, and logical. He (or she!) loves trying new things and making decisions based on every piece of available information. Most of all, he is deeply interested in what you have to say. You and your company are a source of endless fascination to Fantasy Customer.

What! You have a new product? THIS IS SO EXCITING. Tell me all about it. Let me read everything you have on the package… I can’t wait to buy this and tell everyone I know about it.
— Fantasy Customer

Now let’s meet Real Customer. He is indecisive, scattered, and skeptical. Most of all, he is distracted and impatient. He is bombarded with information and doesn’t have the time or energy to listen to what you have to say. Real Customer has the attention span of a kitten playing in the park.

Wait, what is this? Don’t I have something that does this already? I don’t want to think about this OOOOOH LOOK AT THE PRETTY LEAF!
— Real Customer

There are exceptions. You may have a product or brand that carries so much intrinsic interest in the marketplace that people are anxious to hear from you. There are entire online fan communities dedicated to parsing through Apple marketing statements for hints on future products, or speculating over the release date of the next Tesla electric car.

Most of us, however, have to assume an indifferent and skeptical audience. Design your message accordingly.


2. They make excessive claims

 Saying “they make excessive claims” is just short of saying: “they lie about their product.” There is a distinction there, but it’s a pretty fine line. The point is, if your message exceeds what your product can deliver, you are breaking trust with your customer. And no surer path exists to damage your credibility and business.

 Remember the Windows Vista launch? The master tagline – in other words, the “big idea” – for that product at launch was “The Wow is Now.” If you know anything about Windows Vista, you know that the Wow was most definitely not Now, or Later, or Ever.

 You can just feel the excitement.

You can just feel the excitement.

Changing the positioning would not have saved Windows Vista. No message, no matter how carefully crafted, can overcome a weak product. By dialing up such an aggressive message for a flawed offering, however, the company made its situation much worse. Together with the sustained hype built around the much-delayed release of Vista, it created negative perceptions that caused immense damage to Microsoft and the Windows brand.


3. They believe complexity is attractive

Messaging matters because human beings are wired to process information through frames. We experience new things differently depending on how they are presented to us. Your message is the frame you put around your product, the way in which you ask customers to consider and discover this new thing you are giving them.

The frame colors our perception. That frame needs to be in simple, powerful ideas that can be communicated and understood quickly. No matter how complex your product, the story you tell must be simple.

 Not everyone likes making simple claims about complicated things. I work with clients that produce immensely complex, sophisticated technology products. They have armies of engineers and designers who work very hard to create these technical marvels. Often, some of those people are in the room when are talking about what to say about the product.

I’ve noticed something interesting over the years. Many clients, particularly those with a technical background, struggle to let go of the complexity during the message development process. They love the sophistication of their product and hate the idea of reducing its value to a few words. They embrace its complexity and enjoy the feeling of “getting” something that is hard for others. This is difficult and tricky and we are the only ones who understand it.

The role of messaging is not to convey how your product works. It is to catch the interest of your customer. Keep it simple if you want anyone to listen.

Keep these lessons in mind as you work on your product messages. Remember, your messages aren't competing with those of your competitors. They are competing with everything else that is trying to take the time, attention and memory of your customer. They are competing with the noise and chaos of the modern information marketplace.