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Them’s The Facts
Communicate Your Value By Speaking Your Truth. And No, Not That Truth, Ain't No Body Got Time For Dat
Quick Poll: If you’d like me to continue writing the book, please email me at email@example.com
I’d like to know how interested people are, and if not, whether I should abandon it for the time being and return to musing over whatever it is that comes across my desk – speaking of…
A brand communicates value via superlatives, facts, and stories. For the sake of argument, let’s assume everything a brand says falls under one of these three categories.
A superlative is a hyperbolic claim about one’s own powers: the best possible addition to your sandwich, claims Big Mayo.
A fact is a statement of objective truth, stretched to a minimal degree. “During the holidays, we sell 30,000 Christmas lights every 60-minutes”, based on Lowe’s rounded sales figures. “Our trains travel at 260 km/hr,” announces one Japanese light-rail company.
And stories illustrate a fundamental truth that relies on earnest or fictitious scenarios to carry the brand’s message across.
You have options when communicating your value. The first is easy, the next difficult, and the third nearly impossible. So how should brands and businesses communicate their value to customers?
Superlatives: The Best Worst Way To Prop Yourself Up
As I’ve discussed before, superlatives are hyperbolic claims about your brand such as, “No. 1 best guac in the tri-county area,” not to be confused with, “ranked best guac by Holy ‘Mole Magazine,” which if true would be a fact. Superlatives are where brands get into trouble; it’s when they begin to make conclusions on behalf of their customers.
Marketers appear addicted to superlatives because crafting them demands the mental dexterity of an earthworm.
A: How about, we’re the best–
B: Too vague
A: at guacamole!
B: Now we’re cookin’!
And no one in management objects to superlatives if that’s what marketing spits out. And while they’re meant to attract customers, superlatives can have the opposite effect.
If you doubt that, just imagine me walking up to your driver-side window and shouting, “my name is Stanley and I’m the best banana salesman you’ve ever met! Gadzooks!”
Now you’re dumbstruck wondering whether you’ve ever met another banana salesman before, whether Stanley could possibly be the best one, and when you'll get the chance to use ‘gadzooks’ in a sentence.
Positive claims draw suspicion, envy, criticism, or worse. Whereas negative claims elicit pity, sympathy, and sometimes trust. We are quick to believe self-critique, but quicker to dismiss self-acclaim.
Super, You Earned That
But are superlatives always the wrong choice? Not if we earn the right to use them. Just as in day-to-day life, bold claims are the territory of people who have walked the walk.
Tiffany’s can claim to have the world’s most finely-crafted diamonds. Many will believe that claim because Tiffany’s possesses tremendous social capital. But how finely crafted was Tiffany’s first diamond? How about their 10th?
A brand builds social capital over a long period of consistent behavior, yet nearly all new ventures rush out the gate claims-a-blazing with no social capital to speak of.
And after years of reliable performance in their industry, no one forces a brand to cash in their credibility on a Hail Mary. A brand’s consistency imbues it with the power to make big claims, but that very same consistency is what arms it with equally powerful facts.
Facts: They’re Undeniable
In 2006, Apple was riding high off of the success of the iMac and the iPod. Their brand held tremendous social capital with their customers. Yet they pocketed that social cash and launched the iPhone largely via fact-based messaging. Yawn. Does any of this sound familiar?
A personal computer in the palm of your hand
An intuitive touchscreen interface
A browser that shows you the web as intended
A phone camera that rivals your $250 Nikon
The iPhone never boasted of itself as a world-changing technology, yet in 10-years time it became just that. Meanwhile, Facebook wants to change the world as well, but they’re not changing it, they’re just claiming to.
Facebook-turned-Meta making a bold claim is no surprise, because all infant products with no social credit line are tempted to make such claims. Facebook cashed in its (C+ rated) social capital to rebrand itself as Meta. And Meta offers a virtual-reality world for people to inhabit. And their bold claim is that the future of online experience is virtual and Meta will be at the helm.
I am skeptical of this seven ways from Sunday. And my primary issue with Meta is the claim it makes.
Even with enormous social capital, the smart marketers at Apple choose facts to introduce products and services. Yes, even Apple makes bold claims, “fastest personal computer,” for example.
But if you pay close attention, their superlatives exist almost exclusively in relation to other Apple products: “the best iPhone camera ever,” “the fastest processor ever put in a Mac,” “the sharpest display of any Apple device” – those are all facts and superlatives at the same time, impossible to refute.
So what do you do when you’re launching a new business, product, or service?
How To Talk Goodly to Customers
Without a large reserve of social capital, a new venture that makes a bold claim also writes a social check its ass can’t cash. Every bold claim sinks us deeper into reputational debt. And that forces us to live up to claims sooner, and completely.
And that’s presuming our showboating earned us the opportunity to prove ourselves.
Build The Truth
Even before we serve our first customer, we can build a repository of facts that sway them in our favor.
As a new florist in town, my arrangements are my facts. I would craft and photograph a staged wedding table in multiple themes. I would produce videos highlighting my process and personality. I would count the minutes spent arranging bouquets and dazzle with my commitment: we hand-pick and prepare each delicate arrangement, a process that demands upwards of 4-hours.
I itemize my accessible inventory and present that number to the customer, and if that number felt small, I would seek additional suppliers, e.g. with access to 250 varieties of flower sourced from three continents.
These facts contribute to a conclusion, one which the customer draws themselves. And that’s critical because no idea is as powerful as the one a person creates; we do not believe in the preacher’s God, but the God we’ve interpreted through his teachings.
Tell a Story
A well-told story is the most powerful form of communication, but to pull it off one must be a practiced storyteller.
For a florist, that story may be about how our big days don’t always go as planned, but the flowers needn’t be a concern. Our value story, like all good stories, should build toward a conclusion the customer must make for themselves – meaning, it has a theme rather than a moral.
To have a chance at building a positive association with your brand, your story must lead the prospect to water, but it mustn’t make them drink. Forcing anyone to swallow we’re the best florist in Biloxi is a shot that goes down like a rusty nail milkshake.
Your story must leave room for an alternative outcome. Was your product the only and best choice or the one that happened to solve the problem for the person who feels just like your customer does?
Communicating your value to customers is a challenge. We’re all tempted to make ourselves appear larger than life, and I’m not immune: just look at my tagline.
If this newsletter’s slogan were a hair less facetious, it would be arrogant. Thankfully, marketing advice doesn’t actually come in scoops… right?
Avoid making impossible claims. Tell stories if you know what you’re doing (think Clint Eastwood, and not his blood clot medication). But telling stories is a challenge, which is why Apple prefers facts. And if facts are good enough for the most valuable company on the planet, perhaps they’re good enough for us, too.