On Finding Your Value Core

If I had to point to any single problem that nearly all companies had in common, it would be this: they only talk from one side of the argument.

Everyone is important. Every product is revolutionary. Every new business initiative is destined to rock the world and change Life As We Know It Forever. And when you approach your marketing from the perspective of only one side of the issue – the side that means you win – then you miss out on some of the best opportunities you’ll ever have for creating a truly effective sales message.

So how do you hit both sides of the story without turning your message into an ambiguous mess?

When I sit to start writing copy for a new project, whether it be for a Unified Communications technical brochure or a whitepaper about industrial robotics, I start by gathering a lot of information. Much of it will come from the client, and some will come from our own fairly extensive collection of files, technical journals, whitepapers and news clippings. Some of it will come from competitor research. And some – not much, but a bit – will come from insights gleaned from advances in recent unrelated industries.

What I’m looking for are the big questions. The basic trade-offs.

In the history of the human race, there are fundamental questions that have always been there. As long as intelligent life exists in the universe, these questions will go unresolved. At any given time, one side of the issue is ascendant; the other side bides its time, sharpening its arguments, waiting for the moment to be right before pressing the cause. Eventually it takes center stage, and the other side takes its turn in the wilderness. The cycle goes on forever, the arguments themselves advancing forward until the end of time.

Freedom versus safety, for example. How much of one is the other worth?

Material pursuits versus emotional/spiritual goals. Personal responsibility versus the duty to the group. The joy of the moment versus the need to build something for the future. The list is endless.

Those pivots are our value cores.

A number of years ago, I once worked on a project for a company that had built, and was now marketing, a community of homes designed to mimic as much as possible the nostalgic feeling of a mid-20th century small American town. That was the hook, and it was a fairly good one.

The background material they provided was mostly the typical feature list. Quality house construction, amenities, walkable community, nearby landmarks, workable terms. That sort of thing. And they had plenty of very solid features and benefits to show off, not to mention lots of beautiful photography.

The problem was, when you put all that into sales copy, you end up with one side of the argument. Our houses are great. Our neighborhoods are better. You also end up with a brochure that sounds an awful lot like every other housing development built since 2005.

I knew that wasn’t what they were going after – they needed to really stand out – so instead I took a different tack.

What ideas represented the opposite of what this client was about? The big city. Anonymity. Not knowing your neighbors. Crime. Traffic. Most of all, anxiety – just plain, everyday anxiety. People live in cities because they decide to make trade-offs: safety vs. convenience, anonymity vs. opportunity, a long list of others. They give up some things in order to make other things possible.

So I started there, with the anxiety that maybe – just maybe – the trade-off came at a high price. The rest of the copy came together around that, around the tension between the manic bustle of city life and the calm peace of rural living. By focusing hard on the value question, the core one that will never be once-and-for-all answered, we hit an emotional gold deposit that turned into some very rich messaging.

The same thing works in any industry, for any product or service. Regardless of what you are selling, you are addressing a human need rooted in basic value questions. Rush to take only the side that works best in your favor, and you lose out on your best chances for making the sale.

Instead, dig down to the value core, the unanswerable questions. That’s where the real treasures are, and where the human nerve that says “yes” wants – demands, even – to be fully expressed.

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