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Design is an invitation

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Marketing is a journey you make with your customer

Introduction to Message Mapping

Posted on 23 Oct 2013 in Backspace | 0 comments

(first in a series of excerpts from Understanding the Art and Craft of the Message Map a forthcoming book by Jeffrey S. Russell)

The truth is in there.

Over the last 30 years I’ve been involved in helping companies and organizations define and develop their marketing communications. Most of those companies and their products already come with established brand identities, rightly or wrongly. And so, in many cases the assignment has been simply to write a single ad or brochure, or develop a single direct mail piece that stays within the brand franchise and has a goal of getting a qualifying response. (Send me a sample. Call me for an appointment. Provide additional information.) At the start of these assignments, we often receive input in the form of a Creative Brief, written by an account executive or communications manager, with too much focus on the call to action and not enough consideration for the customer and what he or she cares about.

As a result, a lot of advertising involves a company talking to itself.

To be sure, creative types have probed, lobbied, pleaded, whined (chose one) for more information that would help connect the message of the ad with its audience.

In most of the agencies I’ve worked at, the templates for the Creative Brief have actually been developed by members of the creative team. It was our way of saying, “Hey… this is what we need to know. Without it you’re just pissing into the wind with your ad.”

So, over the years we’ve tried to codify the methodology of getting to what matters. We write down rules of engagement and come up with constructs and metaphors that we think will help lead us to the truth. Unfortunately, through that process we’ve also created silos of marketing disciplines in which specialists dwell in monkish study or preach in priestly jargon.
Brand Strategy
Pain Chain
Benefit Selling

Listen, all of the above are valid and valued tools of marketing communications. I use ‘em all. But for me the process of Message Mapping creates a Rosetta stone that helps enable all forms of marketing communications to be understood by a target audience. With a Message Map, you know where to go with your positioning tactics or branding.

I never said I invented the Message Map.

The process we call Message Mapping seems to have evolved from the Public Relations side of communications. It has been, and continues to be, used in crisis management situations. That makes sense, because by definition a crisis occurs when something bad happens and the representatives of a company need to be able to speak with a unified voice. The Message Map shows the path for dealing with tough questions that people are going to ask. What’s more, a Message Map is a tool for communicators to take control of the interview, to steer the answers back to the overarching thing that is most important to be communicated.

My first Message Map session was part of an exercise prepared by a public relations firm for our mutual client, a major chemical manufacturer. By the end of the session the facilitator had taken a highly technical and complex situation and crystallized a hierarchy for messages that could be applied to four separate target audiences.

Returning from the meeting, I thought about how the process I had just witnessed could be applied to Marketing Communications. And so I stole it. I borrowed it. I adopted it. I improved on it. Yeah, that’s it.

Since then I’ve used Message Mapping successfully in companies that range in size from Fortune 50 to single proprietorships and everything in between.

It helps organizations speak with a unified voice. It helps you create and craft marketing communications. It forces you to put things in perspective of “The Value the Customer Cares About.”

Because when you think about it, the tough questions that organizations where trying to anticipate during a crisis meant they had to put themselves in the place of their audience and see themselves from the outside.

And, of course, that’s how marketing works, too. Understanding what your customer needs to believe about you, in order to recognize, understand the value, and ultimately prefer your brand over your competition, is the foundation of any marketing communications effort.

The Message Map Process Explained
It begins with questions, includes a marathon group discussion, results in a confused tangle of interwoven thoughts and ideas, and ends in a flash of insight.

Participants in the process are chosen based on their ability to contribute to the development of your brand message because of their experience, knowledge of the company, marketplace or industry, or insight. We have conducted this process with as few as two participants, and as many as twenty-five (although the big group was divided in two and spread out over two days). Participants are asked fill out our Orientation Guide to provide necessary background information as well as personal views about the company’s strengths, weaknesses and opportunities. The Orientation Guide gives us a sense of where you are. That’s an important first step as we gain the insight to create the message you need to deliver to your customer. A message that meets your marketing objectives as well as addresses the value your customer cares about.

JR+C facilitates the Message Map session. Depending on the diversity of target audiences and number of participants involved, the session takes a minimum of four hours, and often lasts all day.

As a group, we start by identifying your target audiences. We look for similarities and differences between audience groups. Often we find that two seemingly separate groups actually care about the same things, and therefore can connect with the same messaging. More often we find that an audience group with needs so different from the others that it requires opening a “second front” in the battle for their awareness and acceptance.

Next we make a list of those tough questions. Our PR brethren have taught us that a “tough question” is the question you really, really hope doesn’t get asked in an interview or a business presentation. That’s the question that is almost always the first one asked. We aren’t trying to answer the tough questions just yet. But we use them to start seeing your company from your target audience’s point of view.


We then engage in developing thoughts, ideas and perceptions that are based on the statement: What my customer needs to believe. Not what he or she needs to “know.” That’s too often about what we think they should know. What a customer needs to believe is the Value a Customer Cares About. The result will be a massive collection of possible messages, hopefully all from the customer’s point of view. It’s a mess at this point: whiteboards filled with scribbles, photographed, erased and filled again. Giant Post-It Notes® hung all over the room. Somehow, out of this will emerge a hierarchy that looks like this:

  • Tier 1 Statement. This is quite simply “Who We Are.”
  • Tier 2 Statements. This is something important that makes us who we are.
  • Differentiating Statements. Each is something we do that is different/better about something important that makes us who we are.
  • Supporting Facts. Here’s why.

Of course, at this point we won’t know which of the statements on the board are Tier 2 or Differentiating Statements. A lot of things you think are Tier 1 or Tier 2 are really supporting facts. That’s because that’s how organizations tend to think: “Our product is faster, longer lasting, more cost effective.” Those are Supporting Facts, and we need them. But we will also need to put them in context of the value the customer cares about.

Ultimately, there can be only one Tier 1 Message for each target audience. Tier 2 messages are like category headings under the master concept of the Tier 1 message. We refer to those categories as “Channels of Value” and there are usually a half-dozen or more Tier 2 messages. Differentiating Statements and Supporting Facts should be linked to a specific Tier 2 message.

Tier 2 Messages are at the head of each Channel of Value, with Differentiating Statements and Supporting Facts underneath.

Tier 2 Messages are at the head of each Channel of Value, with Differentiating Statements and Supporting Facts underneath.

In addition to the message map itself, JR+C typically provides a recommendation for your company’s or product’s

Value Proposition
Brand Promise
Statement of Differentiation
Positioning Theme

Marketing strategies and tactics can then be discussed and marketing communications can be created that connect with the value your customer cares about. When that happens you are truly engaged in a conversation with your customer, and the journey we call marketing can proceed.

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