Quick!… What’s the Difference Between Positioning, Messaging, and Value Props?

Quick!… What’s the Difference Between Positioning, Messaging, and Value Proposition?

While seemingly a bad dream sequence of a pop-quiz you weren’t prepared for, this is real. Most marketers struggle to succinctly define and even understand the difference between these very important and strategic marketing devices – positioning, messaging, and value props. So grab a cup of coffee and read on!

In my ‘more-years-than-I’m-comfortable-quoting’ worth of marketing experience, almost every company I have worked in and for use the terms messaging, positioning, and value prop almost interchangeably. Understandably. It is confusing. However, the challenge can be illustrated with that cup of brown honey goodness you are sipping on. 

Would you say a cup of coffee is the same as a cup of Sanka, is the same as a Philz Tesora Medium Medium? They are different, I tell you.

If you don’t happen to be sitting in Nor Cal, let me use a Starbucks example. Mix and match the below items – pick one item from left column, and match with its expressed reality on the right (see bottom of blog for answers)

Which of these is? 

Value PropositionAuthentic Coffee, Great Experience, and Quicker Delivery
PositioningLive Coffee
MessagingEvery name’s a story

As you can see – each one of the above is a different take, speaking to different people and delivering on different objectives. To market effectively you need value props, messaging, and positioning, but they need to be good and effective, meeting their unique objectives.

What’s my job?

In today’s modern sales funnel, a marketer’s job is to help educate, guide and advise prospects to help them make an informed purchase decision. Or in simpler terms, our primary job is to help the target customer buy from us. 

To do this job correctly, it requires that you nail the value prop, the positioning and messaging for your specific target customer. Before diving into positioning vs messaging vs value propositions, we need to understand each one individually.

value proposition visual

Alright let’s dive into this bad boy, starting with value proposition or brand promise. 

Value proposition

A value proposition describes the job your product is being purchased to do. Or in simpler language, the overarching promise or benefit of a product, service or company. Value props should be clear and short, they are the elevator pitch you hear so much about. They communicate exactly what the customer will get and how it is different or better, as the case may be. 

Here are a few examples of good value props:

SlackBe more productive at work with less effort
Salesforce   Tools to help you find, win and keep customers  
ZendeskKeep it beautifully simple
PayPalMake online payments safe and secure

To be effective, your value prop should explain: 

  1. How your solution solves a problem 
  2. The benefits a customer can expect 
  3. Why they should buy from you vs your competition

Harkening back to Starbucks as I stare into my never-ending mug full of goodness…does Starbuck’s “Live Coffee” satisfy the above? 

It is definitely one of the most concise value props in the world. My verdict is that indeed it does capture what they intend to communicate. Specifically, that with Starbucks, you experience coffee. You don’t drink it, slurp it, slam it, you experience it. Prior to Starbucks’ existence, I’m confident that there was no other company who had ever entertained living coffee. And that is core to their overall brand promise, they offer an experience or as they like to say a “third place.”

Brief interlude…I’m sure you are wondering; how does Starbucks value prop compare to other coffee companies. Is it differentiated? Check out these three examples and the contrast will reveal not only Starbucks’ differentiation, but also the essence of the benefits it communicates.

Philz CoffeeOne cup at a time
Peet’s CoffeeThe original craft coffee
NescaféCoffee that can be enjoyed everywhere at your convenience

Alright… once you have the value prop of your company, the killer exercise that so many teams get hung up on is….Positioning.

What is positioning?

Developed by Al Reis, ‘positioning’ moved advertising away from informing or telling the public exactly what your product did to owning a position or the all-important niche you establish in the customer’s mind. This started in the Mad Men days of the 50’s and was then broadly acknowledged in the 80s. (More about Reis and some great marketing history here)

Ries pioneered the idea that positioning is not what is done to a product, it is what you do to the mind of the prospect. It means placing your product in the mind of the prospect, and thus creating a perceived image or identity for your product/service. Incidentally, sometimes it is a new category and other times it is adjacency or extension. Either way you need to position appropriately.

The rationale behind positioning is that it doesn’t matter what your product does, the only thing that matters is how potential buyers see your product. Typically, the positioning is expressed relative to competitors and is rooted in your sustainable competitive advantage. 

Too often, marketers don’t have proper insight into what the target sees as the benefits and therefore base positioning on internally conceived benefits and that leads to just plain BP – or bad positioning.

Let’s take one wildly successful product with clear positioning and one with poor positioning and compare… and let’s stay with the coffee theme. Hold on, let me just take a quick sip.

GoodNot quite as good (aka poor)
Keurig  Starbucks Mazagran (soda/cola)
Pioneer and leading manufacturer of gourmet single-cup brewing systems   Sparkling coffee

Incidentally, Mazagran was a huge failure. It was a joint venture of Pepsi-Cola and Starbucks and was a cold, slightly carbonated coffee soda, or aka the first cold coffee in a bottle. It failed miserably, but gave birth to the Frappucino, which was positioned as “chilled coffee drink.”

Summing it up, imagine your friend has just told you about the cool new product they are using. You want to find it on the internet, but you don’t know the name. What specific search terms do you type in? These words are probably very close to the base positioning of the product – minus the competitive advantage. They represent the space it occupies in your mind… Side note, what you search on may or may not match what the vendor wants you to think.

Messaging – where the creativity begins

Messaging is the exercise of crafting “what is actually said.” There can be multiple messages for any one position. In fact, there should be and typically it is 3-5 messages max – think limits of the human memory (7 plus or minus 2). These messages should be critically reviewed, and every word carefully chosen. They need to be 100% rooted in your positioning and should bring your positioning to life for the target audience.  

At the most basic level, a message needs to say what you do and how it helps your customers. Let’s look at a few messages and see what we think and as we drink our coffee and connect virtually, let’s focus on virtual platform messaging:

  • Zoom Built for modern teams: simplified video conference and messaging across any device
  • BlueJeans  Stay Connected: Empower your remote workforce with secure video conferencing
  • Cisco WebEx: Bringing everyone together to do exceptional work
  • Microsoft Teams: Connect with your team from anywhere
  • GoToMeeting: Connect with anyone, anywhere. On any device.
  • Lumen: Communicate and collaborate without boundaries

There are loads of other helpful tests to make sure you home in on the perfect messaging. I like the following checklist, keeps me sane:

  • Is it speaking from the customer POV?
  • Is it original?
  • Is it truthful?
  • It is focused and to the point?
  • Can it stand on its own?
  • Is the language used plain and simple?

And if you are struggling to get your messaging created, check out this framework to get a leg up!

Bottom of my cup

I’m at the end of my cup and therefore the end of this blog…

I want to leave you with the base fact that value propositions, positioning and messaging statements are all different, they speak to different people and deliver on very different objectives. To be an effective marketer, it is critical you understand the difference and produce killer messages, which rely on good positioning and a solid value proposition.

If I was to appear in your dream tonight as the school-marm giving you that dreaded marketer’s pop quiz – how would you do?

If you’d like a second opinion (or just to share a cup of Joe and geek out on all things marketing), click here and we’ll book an assessment call.

Correct Starbucks answer: Value Prop: Live Coffee, Positioning: Authentic Coffee, Great Experience and Quicker Delivery, Messaging: Every name’s a story

Written By

Michaela Gubbels Botha

With over 25 years of experience in Silicon Valley working as a leader in product marketing and product management, Michaela brings a relentless focus on execution to every consulting engagement. Michaela started her career in high tech working in user experience for IBM, Apple, and HP. These positions solidified a foundation in what it takes to deliver exceptional customer experiences. From there, she moved into product marketing and product management with positions at SAP, Symantec, Calico Commerce, Sun, SalesLogix, Sage Software, and Apple. Originally from New Mexico, she received her undergraduate from Arizona State University and her Masters in Cognitive Psychology from New Mexico State University. Michaela recently relocated to the great state of Texas and lives in Austin with her husband, Buks, and her Greater Swiss Mountain Dog, Zoe.