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Verbal Identity

The Pitfalls of Product-Led Messaging

7 min read
Product Messaging 16 9

You know the stat. The one that's a stubborn truth in our industry and that, if we're honest, we've contributed to ourselves. Yes, we've all downloaded an app, given it a try, and then ... never again. Sayonara. Hasta la vista, baby.

This scenario has played out for more than a decade and the numbers remain consistent: every year, about a quarter of software users will abandon an app after just one use. It's easy to look at this figure with frustration, to see the fickle tastes and fleeting loyalties of people and ask ourselves, Should I even launch my product out into this crazy world? Yes, you should. Because you can talk to The 25 Percenters (and the world) in a way that makes their interactions with your company and software memorable instead of mere transactions. It's an emotional connection, the kind we can create by leaning into brand messaging — and understanding that product messaging, on its own, will only produce the same try-and-bye results.

Product Messaging? Brand Messaging? So What?

So important. Consider product messaging, what we at Odi define as messages that (attempt to) describe the features, impact, and value of your software. Now, think about your direct competitors in the B2B tech space and the products they offer, then think about fringe competitors with similar solutions. Using only your software and its capabilities, will you be able to dramatically distance yourself from the pack?

AI? Everyone's got it. Seamless integration? That too. Real-time insights? Check. And yes, everyone’s scalable. So often, product-led messaging results in a laundry list of table-stakes features and boils down to a simple comparison table between you and competitors. This isn't to say there aren't key differences between your software and the competition, but are those differences easy to communicate clearly and concisely? And are they enough on their own to not only attract new customers, but keep them coming back?

Rarely, if ever. So much of a person's perception of your product happens before they ever engage with it and — if we do our jobs right — endures after they've shut their laptop and plugged in the phone to the charger for the night. This is where brand messaging comes into play.

At Odi we define brand messaging as the constellation of messaging components that tell the world who you are, what you're about, and why you're different. That means more internally focused elements like mission, vision, and purpose statements all the way to external-facing elements like elevator pitches, audience-specific messages, brand stories, and more. Whereas product messaging is limited to the tech and specs of your software, brand messaging invites customers to get to know your company as a collection of people, ideas, and values. Put simply, brand messaging helps you build a relationship with your customers — before they've even demoed your product.

Oh, and brand messaging primes you for the most important result in business: growth.

Two Tired Traps

Some businesses seem like they almost don't want to grow — like they're hellbent on singing a one-note song called "All Product, All The Time." When companies croon this tune, they're often falling into two traps: believing that the only things customers care about are solutions, and thinking that B2B tech companies don't need a personality. Both disregard the power of brand.

Let's take the first one: Customers need a solution, my product provides it, that's the only thing I need to talk about. This approach is, in a word, limiting. What happens when customers' problems change, or when a competitor beats you on price with the same features? Your product-led messaging is way off key. And your competitors can paint you as the more-costly, out-of-touch option — because you have zero brand messaging to combat that perception.

We've known for a decade now that strongly branded B2B companies will outperform weaker counterparts by up to 20%, and we've seen how a concerted investment in sales and marketing — anchored in a strong brand — pays off. For example, from 2015 to 2021, Salesforce committed close to half of its revenue to sales and marketing efforts, while SAP invested a quarter of its earnings. What happened? SAP grew its revenue by 1.4 times, while Salesforce quadrupled its earnings and nabbed market share after market share from its competitor. Salesforce chose to amplify its perception so its product(s) didn't have to do all the work. The result? The brand developed interest, engagement, and loyalty.

And what about the second trap? My B2B company doesn't need to have a personality. Wrong. Here's a simple question: What is, at its basic level, a business? Answer: A group of people working toward a common goal. And that means that your audience isn't just a company with concrete revenue targets — it's a team with oftentimes intangible emotional needs and pain points. It's people who make the decision to buy your product, and they use both hard data and heartfelt sentiments.

It's why Adam Beeson at G2 Crowd encourages B2B leaders to "consider the emotional intelligence" of their own organizations and how they make connections with their target audiences. And it’s how brands can go ahead and connect with people even when they’re not ready to buy — and potentially convince them to. That’s because emotional messaging has 2.5 times the power of rational messaging, like the kind seen in product-only appeals.

Product-Only Messaging Makes You Vulnerable

When it debuted, PayPal was directly tied to PalmPilot. Not many of those around anymore, eh? And if PayPal had based its identity solely around being the preferred payment platform for that device, well, we might not be talking about PayPal today. The lesson: investing in brand messaging helps you weather industry trends and technology shifts. Stubbornly pursuing product-led messaging strategies makes you vulnerable to change.

In addition to change, product messaging can be easily copied by competitors, which erodes differentiation. It can further devolve into a discussion (or arms race) of features, where more and more complex capabilities dominate the conversation while customers’ needs drown in tech jargon. Finally, it can kick off a race-to-the bottom spiral where pricing is the only point to compete on — which means companies are really just competing with themselves, and eroding their revenues, funding for R&D, and more. The bottom line: product-only messaging strategies are rigid and risky. But brands that invest in emotional messaging and intangible assets thrive.

I’m Sold — What Now?

At Odi, we advise people to begin ramping up brand messaging using three steps. First, start with your target audience and consider their needs beyond the immediate and surface-level challenge. For instance, if we’re branding for Salesforce, it’s about more than implementing payroll data within the organization — it’s about leveraging data to ensure an equitable workplace and culture. That’s a capability with a more powerful emotional benefit, one that makes the customer a hero and partner in a quest for equality.

Next, develop a brand personality. At Odi, we work with our clients to establish custom brand attributes — emotionally resonant characterizations like Brave, Humble, Empathetic, for example — that build the foundation for brand personality. Channeling these attributes in brand messaging (e.g., mission, vision, and purpose, among others) and pairing them with a strong visual identity will help your company transform from a mere tech product to an approachable partner.

And finally, use your unique brand personality to speak humanly to your customers. The key: remembering that, at every decision point, it’s people you have to appeal to. People that use their heads and their hearts. People that want to like you. Let them by letting them get to know you.

And give them a few more reasons to keep going back to your apps and platforms.

Photos by Nathan Cima, Kimon Maritz and Shyam Mishra on Unsplash

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