November 14, 2013

The Great Messaging Divide

Does your company’s brand messaging align with your customers’ priorities?

If you are a business-to-business solution provider, a recent study conducted by McKinsey & Company would indicate that your chances of alignment are exactly “0.” Your brand messaging – the core of your brand – is asynchronous with your marketplace; no longer a brand asset, maybe it has become a neutral factor or perhaps even a liability.

The McKinsey Study

Published in the October 2013 issue of the McKinsey Quarterly, a study titled “How B2B Companies Talk Past Their Customers” examined the brand messages deployed by the top 90 organizations focused on B2B goods and services worldwide.

Researchers then compared these messages with the results of a survey of 700 corresponding global executives responsible for purchasing decisions at their firms. As dispassionately as the results were presented in the resulting article, the general lack of correlation between the two surprised even the McKinsey research team.

Case in Point – The top three messages most valued by customers were:

#1 – Cares about honest open dialogue with customers and society.
#2 – Acts responsibility across its supply chain.
#3 – Has a high level of specialist expertise.

By contrast, none of the B2B companies studied reflected Message #1 in their market facing communications. Message #2 was used by only 4% of the same companies. Message #3 had the highest correlation with B2B company messaging, but was used by only 36% of the B2B organizations researched.

Meaning for brand managers

The one clear takeaway is that B2B businesses are not talking with their customers, they’re talking at them. The companies studied are established, professionally-managed organizations. Yet, somehow they each fell into the gap between thoughtful message development and messaging without meaning to customers.

How can you avoid a similar messaging disconnect? Think of each of the following as something of a “Surgeon General’s Warning.” If you’ve already slipped into one of them, now is the time to stop, re-evaluate, and enlist the help of professional whose strategic perspective engenders thoughtful messaging that is effectively articulated through words and imagery.

Homogenized Messaging – This occurs when one or more companies are overly concerned about their competitive environment. The eventual result is that these competitors begin to look, feel and sound like one another over time. Differentiation becomes a moot point and any pretense of proffering a strategic brand becomes similarly ineffectual.

The McKinsey study clearly demonstrates that most of the B2B companies clustered around the same key messages, despite the fact that these very key messages were found to be wholly irrelevant to their customers.

While well-intentioned, these “Clusters of Irrelevance” include the following messages:

• Drivers of Innovation,
• Models of Social Responsibility,
• Global Reach,
• Sustainable Products/Services,
• Ability to Shape the Market, and
• Equal Opportunity and Diversity Proponents.

Messaging Renovation– At some point in their corporate history, 90 B2B companies developed the key messages they determined (either by intuition or research) were most representative of their businesses and most relevant to their markets. The resulting work was reviewed, approved, circulated, and applied to all their market-facing materials and interaction. However, since that time, it may be that little if anything was “renovated.”

Markets change, evolve and morph continuously – as do the companies that provide goods and services to those markets. In the same manner that products and services evolve as markets shift, so too must messaging be thoughtfully revisited and renovated to reflect customer priorities and realities.

The Do-It-Yourself Messaging Model – While it’s widely accepted that brand messaging is necessary to successful business, some organizations elect to take on the job of identifying and developing their messaging internally. Whatever the rationale, the reality is that internal teams are (1) unfamiliar with best practices, (2) seldom encompasses visual brand story, and (3) far too subjective in their perceptions to produce thoughtfully developed messaging that is valid and reliable. In the end, their results will almost certainly follow the findings of the McKinsey study.

Third party expertise isn’t a luxury. Brand messaging professionals provide an objective take on issues that are just too deeply engrained in the collective mindset of many management teams to ensure 100% rational, objective decisions. A brand consultancy can provide you with the aerial view you need to see it all.

Brand Messaging in the Mobile Environment

It’s not the “what” that changes when carrying your messages into the mobile environment, it’s the “how.”

A thoughtfully executed message development process, strategic perspective, resonance with customers, and unflagging consistency are still necessary regardless of platform. But what works on the traditional screens (television and laptops/tablets), doesn’t immediately translate to The Third Screen (mobile) all by itself.

In mobile, more than any other medium, the customer rules. Permission based, ultra-relevant and based on trust and credibility, mobile is one of the biggest opportunities brand managers have had since the Internet became a public communication channel.

Engaging messaging presented in an interactive and entertaining format is essential but, first and foremost, brand messages – whether dialog or imagery – must connect directly at a visceral level with the customers’ priorities.

So much to display on such a tiny screen. The trick is in distilling your messaging into powerful visuals and short, punchy content that can be personalized to the customer. Strategic and thoughtful solutions based on thoughtful processes and specialized expertise are critical. The result will be a growing number of Brand Advocates, who will help grow the customer base while improving customer retention rates.


To review several brand messaging cases studies that reflect best practices in visual story telling, along with the dialog of thoughtful messaging and an objective, professional perspective, click on the case studies presented in our November newsletter to the left of this article. More case studies are also available for review on our website.

This article was written and presented by Corey McPherson Nash (Corey). Corey, a national branding and design firm, helps clients connect better with their audiences through brand, print, digital and social media communications. Founded more than 30 years ago, Corey is widely recognized for its thoughtful design and strategic insights.

1. T. Freundt, P. Hillenbrand, and S. Lehmann, “Insights & Publications,” October 2013 (accessed November 1, 2013)

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