with Laurier Mandin and Margie Agin
Selling an innovative product relies on driving change. There can be a lot of resistance to adopting a new product of any size, and nowhere more than for B2B products with long sales cycles and complex onboarding processes. Margie Agin, author of “Brand Breakthrough: How to Go Beyond a Catchy Tagline to Build an Authentic, Influential and Sustainable Brand Personality” and chief strategist of Centerboard Marketing, helps product makers to accelerate adoption and achieve breakthroughs by distilling functions down to their core value propositions. Margie engineers “AHA!” moments for brands as well as for customers.
Be sure to grab Margie’s Brand Breakthrough Action Guide for hands-on activities, checklists, interview questions and templates to kickstart your brand journey.
Here are some highlights from this can’t-miss episode:
1:24: How to cruise through a blocker in the sales process
3:41: Using language and narrative to dissolve buyer resistance
4:45: Asking all the right questions (based on Margie’s market research experience)
5:41: “Poking the bruise” to trigger an urgent sense of need
7:10: Pulling the value from features to answer “What’s in it for ME?”
8:28: How (and why) small companies can connect better than the giants
10:50: Using archetypes in convincing tech people to embrace fun, customer-friendly narratives
14:43: Resonating with a diverse assortment of audience types
18:11: Building trust, in a world that distrusts brands
21:00: Testimonials that move buyers forward
22:35: Avoiding the most deadly mistake even the biggest product brands make
Laurier: Hey product makers and marketers. If you’re working to build a product that breaks through the clutter and turns prospects into customers, you’re going to love this episode. Welcome to Product: Knowledge, the podcast about creating and marketing products people truly need. I’m Laurier Mandin founder and principal of Graphos Product. Product positioning is hard and complicated products very often struggle to get it right. Margie Agin helps tech companies and product makers to figure out what makes them unique in the marketplace and to articulate it in a way that breaks through noise and complacency.
Margie started her career working in-house for Blackboard and Cisco. And as a consultant, she’s helped brands in cybersecurity, edtech, communications, and software products strip down complex functions into their core value propositions, driving prospective buyers to take action and become customers.
Margie is the founder and chief strategist at Centerboard Marketing in the Washington DC area and author of “Brand Breakthrough: How to Go Beyond a Catchy Tagline to Build an Authentic, Influential and Sustainable Brand Personality.” Margie works a lot with huge B2B companies where sales require substantial investment and onboarding time. I started off by asking her how product makers can shorten sales cycles and get buyers to take action — or at least move to the next step in the sales cycle.
Margie: That is definitely a problem, especially when you have, which is often the case in a B2B sale, more of a buying kind of committee. The answer to that question also depends on who you’re talking to in that committee and what their obstacles are are in the way. So for a business person it may be talking about, “How can you prove the ROI of this?” Poking holes in what they’re doing today, that they’re not necessarily seeing the results of their labor and making that case that your product may have a faster ROI or a measurable ROI, and, here’s how other companies have done this.
A lot of times that blocker though is often the IT department, which has to do some kind of a migration or an implementation. And that sometimes happens much further down the line, right? So you’ve spent potentially months building the case and your champion is on board, but then the IT department blocks it.
So we try to get ahead of that by thinking about what are their fears, right? What are their hesitancies and how can we show them, “Hey, others have migrated and you don’t lose all your data.” Or, “Here’s how we help you through that process.”
Laurier: You have to know what those fears are, right. So that you can address them.
Margie: Yeah. And, from content or other types of playbooks, it’s putting together maybe the migration guide or, “Here’s what to expect from our professional services,” things that just alleviate that fear and build some trust that you’re going to be with them every step of the way. So those are things that go a long way. And of course the product team is coming with a proof of concept and, proving the case.
But a lot of that decision, when it comes to the, “no decision” is emotional. It’s making people feel through a community of customers and the fact that you’ve got all these resources available to them, that they’re going to be supported.
Laurier: I think when the choice is no decision and there is a clear reason to move, usually there are some big fears at the other end of it, at the client side, they’re afraid of the disruption it’s going to make and what they might lose during that adoption period and pushback from IT.
There can be different types of barriers like that, and you have to know what those barriers are to create confidence that it’s going to be worth it, that the onboarding isn’t going to be as hard as you think. And when you get to the end of it, you’re going to be more profitable.
You’re going to be more efficient. People are going to be happier in their jobs, those types of things.
Margie: I work on a lot of content, product or product marketing kind of content, with companies. And I think that the way that you say that, and the examples that you bring forward can go a long way towards building that trust, and speaking to people’s emotions.
There’s the meat and potatoes of it, which is, ” Here’s how we do it. You will have a customer success person,” and a lot of companies can say that. But the way that you say that, the language that you use, the authenticity that you bring forward, should reflect the actual personality of the company and the fact that you’ve got these people that are going to be there for them.
We spend a lot of time and care in crafting the content that supports this narrative so that it feels like we’re speaking with one voice from one company.
Laurier: Your background helps you in it gives you advantage over others that might take on the same challenge because you started your career in market research. And something you and I have in common is we both come at branding and marketing from the perspective of a writer. So how does that background affect the way that you approach branding a product with the client and with a team of ad people and designers?
Margie: The market research, as we were talking about before, it really comes to, are you asking the right questions, right? Are you asking the right questions of the right people? And the follow-up question, and actually getting to that level of detail that you need. And this is where the positioning, the more detailed kind of positioning comes in.
Just to give you an example, as a brand marketer or, you know, a content marketer, you want things that are attention-grabbing and flashy. But sometimes that comes down to like a catchy tagline, or, you look at a website and the website has a header that’s something very high-level aspirational. “Truth in Action” or “Connect the Dots.” And then you continue reading and you’re like, there’s no “there” there. It all sounds very pretty, but I don’t really know what you do.
Laurier: Exactly. it doesn’t even resonate, right. Because positioning is about finding that value and connecting that to what the client really needs and what they really want to do.
Margie: Yeah, they should see themselves reflected in it. So the better that you understand them, the better you can poke that bruise. And ratchet up the pain a little bit, and then describe exactly how you solve that. We take that very catchy tagline, umbrella statement, down to a much more granular level and prioritize: what are the main pain points? What are the differentiators? What can we say that no one else can say, right? Let’s pressure-test that and look at our competitors and say, is it really true that, ” We are the only company to do X Y and Z?” Is that really true, or is it true that maybe we’re the only company to do this very specific thing? But if this specific thing is the thing that has the most relevance and provides the most value to your customers, then that’s great.
That’s the sweet spot.
Laurier: Yes. If that really matters, if that’s what they care about, that could be what triggers the buying decision, not all of the features and all the bells and whistles that have so much crossover and make you sound so much like the competitor.
Margie: Exactly. Exactly. So we do a lot of workshops and, exercises to draw out, say the difference between your product feature, which is what your product actually does, the capability, right? The benefit that someone might get from it. These are the advantages that users actually get from this feature. And this is where a lot of people stop, right? They’ll say, I get that. I don’t want to just talk about bits and bytes and features. I should talk about benefits. But they stop there. So we look at, now, what is the value?
What is not just the advantage or the benefit, but what is the underlying motivation that really drives you to take advantage of this. So for example, let’s say your product is a survey product. And the feature is, “we do micro-pulse surveys on a website,” something like that.
So that’s a cool feature. The benefit might be that you can capture the visitor feedback quickly. That’s a benefit, right? We’re getting in-the-moment feedback. But why does that matter? We take that next step. To just constantly be asking. Okay, so what’s in it for me? Why does this particular customer or buyer care about that? Maybe it’s because they’re measured on increasing website conversions or engagement. Maybe it’s because they need to increase engagement with job postings. So it can be something very specific that is for a different type of buyer and that’s the value to them.
So at the end of the day, if you ask them, “why was this purchase worth it?” That’s the answer they’re going to give.
Laurier: So identifying what the clear value is in the heart of the customer. And what’s going to hit on a pain point and something they know they truly need, that’s going to make their life easier or make them more profitable, that means recognizing that greatest value you can bring to those people that really care about it and recognize that it’s worth making the change to your product.
Something else that I think is really important is as a writer, how you bring that point forward. And I really liked the example that you give in “Brand Breakthrough” with Sprint and Verizon: how Verizon has their bland, kind of generic corporate-speak and Sprint breaks through by talking about big brands trying to imitate smaller brands’ mojo.
Using language like that speaks to the customer like real people and not just like a telecomm brand will speak to the masses. How can brands find their unique voice, especially when they seem disadvantaged in some major way or they just don’t have what the bigger brands, the bigger options seem to have?
Margie: You know, in some ways I think that makes it easier. Because you might not have the big budget of a bigger brand, but you likely have a smaller team, a more consistent and tighter culture. And a lot of times a smaller company still has a founder or somebody who’s involved, maybe has been involved from the beginning, who often has a very strong hand and voice in the development of the company. And so sometimes the culture and the brand personality really reflects the founder. But it’s not always easy to know that about yourself, whether you’re a big company or a small company. ’Cause you spend all day with yourself. So to be able to take that look from the outside-in and identify, what are the elements of my personality? I call it a brand personality.
Laurier: It’s really hard to do. And I think for, especially for smaller brands, they think they’ve got to sound big. So they emulate the big guys and, that’s seen in all businesses. I see it in marketing agencies. “Be authentic and be true” sounds so easy, but it’s something that brands really, really struggle with is, “If we’re authentic and we sound small or we sound…” they think they’re gonna sound like their weaknesses.
Margie: I agree. Yeah. And then you end up with companies that all sound the same, right? Like, “We are the leading provider of the most scalable interoperable… ”
Laurier: Yeah. Blah, blah, blah.
Margie: “It’s the platform for fast growing companies…” And you just glaze over because everybody sounds the same. And you’re losing an opportunity to actually engage with your audience as human beings. Like you said, you sound like a robot, and a lot of writers have been relying on the skills that they learned in school. Creating a paper for your teacher and you have to get to a certain word count. And using big words makes you sound smart or makes you sound like a big enterprise, you think. But writing to engage, especially a website reader or a B2B buyer, is very different from academic writing. So it’s a change in mindset.
Laurier: And you work with big tech companies. You know, you have to work with CTOs and engineers and people like that, that don’t often think the way you need to think in order to connect with those customers. So how do you bring them over and get them to understand what it is that you need to do?
That you don’t need to use the language they see all these competitors using and they feel they’ve got a least sound similar in order to be competitive.
Margie: Lots and lots of examples. That helps. And making it very relevant to their jobs. One exercise we do, we look at different brand personalities in the form of archetypes. So archetypes are different kinds of personalities that appear in literature. And they’re instantly recognizable because we know them from books and movies. They’re the character that keeps appearing.
And if you look at some great literature from The Odyssey to Star Wars, you’ll see some of these same characters pop up. There’s the sage, someone like an Obi Wan Kenobi, right? There’s the magician. There’s a jester, which is, the sidekick funny friend who lives across the hall. There’s a pioneer who’s the first to do things. So we just use this as a framework, basically, to get people talking. No person and no brand is exactly the same. And so there’s nuances to all of this, but we look at different brands that reflect these different types of personalities.
So there’s a lot of pioneer or even tech brands that are disruptors and they use a certain kind of imagery to reinforce the fact that they’re a disruptor, but they also use language. They’re using very strong words. They’re smashing the silos. Or the complexity in a product kills. Things that are extremely, like a vibrant and wake-up language.
So we look at these different examples of language as part of the brand personality workshop. And then begin to find the nuances. You may have a company that says, that’s too far for us. We would never say kill. And, okay. That’s cool. Let’s find a different way to say it that sounds more like something that you really would say.
And through that, we come up with lots of different examples about how to use language. And then we put that in different formats. So here’s what it might look like in an email. Here’s what it might look like on the website. Here’s what it might look like in an ebook. And, for the technical team that you mentioned before, who’s writing say a technical white paper, “1.1.2,” they have a very certain structure of doing that. It’s not to say that they shouldn’t do that. There is definitely a place. A tech person to tech person. They don’t want to see the fluffy kind of marketing language. They want to be respected and spoken to in the way that they speak.
It is not to say that everything has to be bumped up with this language. It’s more about clarity. So you can still write a tech document that says what you want to say in clear, straightforward language, without trying to sound like you’re somebody else.
So we just do a lot of exercises on editing, on paring things down to their essential meaning for clarity.
Laurier: Sometimes the audience can be diverse groups of people. What do you do or how do you approach it when your audiences can be a mix of personality types that might even think in opposing ways?
Margie: Yeah, that’s tricky and definitely true in B2B kinds of environments. So very similar to the example of what is the tech person, how do they want to be communicated with, versus the business buyer? The tone that you use depends on understanding where they are in their cycle and kind of who they are and what they’re thinking.
So if they’re at the top of the sales cycle and you’re trying to get their attention, they have certain expectations. If they’re an existing customer and they’re angry because something isn’t working, they have certain expectations about how they’re going to be communicated with. If they just want a help document and they want to get right to the answer, they have certain expectations.
Thinking about whatever you’re writing and how someone’s going to receive it, where they are in their sales cycle and who they are is just an important first step in that process.
Laurier: And sometimes you do have to get buy-in from a number of different departments or a number of different types of people within an organization in order to make the sale, as opposed to when you’re selling a B to C, or a consumer product like the kind we often market at Graphos Product.
You’re just trying to convince one type of buyer, but very often still you might not just appeal to one persona. There can be seven different types of people with a variety of different reasons each for valuing the product. So there’s still work to be done.
Margie: Yeah, it’s true. And a lot of times you have a person that is at the beginning of the cycle. Like we were talking about champions earlier in the conversation. I have one client who’s a privacy technology company, which is very hot and very important these days.
So it is a fast growing market and many people are new to it. So you’ve got lawyers that are now taking on privacy and data management responsibilities. Right? So the lawyers don’t necessarily understand the technology. I mean, This is not an industry that has been automated.
Laurier: No exactly. They’re still using the old school stuff as much as they possibly can. I find it really interesting with, with certain business models, lawyers, accountants, you want to send them a Dropbox file and they’ve never received one before. You’re thinking, “what?”
Margie: Well, I think a lot of that changed in the past year, but yes. And so they live in like, hell, and then this is how, this is the extent of what their tool set is. You can’t expect them to advocate for a technology product with their IT team because they don’t speak the language.
You’re talking to them about a cloud native platform and their eyes just glaze over. Right. Certain materials to send to them and then others for the IT team, but the more you can arm them and educate them so they feel confident, cause you can’t always be in the room, right. When they’re talking to their IT team.
I’ve done guides, and, sort of package things up for say the privacy person to then deliver to their IT person, that they feel comfortable explaining it. And yet the IT person says, “okay, now I understand the business need and I have to go look for requirements.”
But the salespeople are really responsible for understanding who the different buyers are, but the marketing team has to help to really figure out what their pain points are and how best to communicate with them.
Laurier: How best to communicate and then how to get that across in a trustworthy way is something that really stuck with me in “Brand Breakthrough”. You say that I think it’s half of Americans and 84% of millennials don’t trust corporate brands. And yet we work with startups, in some cases I work with a lot of startups or companies that are looking at changing their positioning and trying to break through to new markets.
How can they be the exception when it’s such an uphill battle?
Margie: Right. Well, they do trust people, right? Which is why trying to make your brand sound more authentic and human can make a difference. And also showing the people behind the brand, pulling back the covers a little bit and exposing the people. They also trust referrals, right?
From people that they trust. So influencers, and if possible, existing customers. Those are case studies and testimonials and making the most of those opportunities. That’s the most influential thing, that kind of of social proof, because then people are trusting people. They’re not just trusting a logo that all sounds the same as everybody else.
Laurier: Especially with consumers. There are so many people that have been scammed if you’re selling a product and doing marketing on Facebook, for example, so many people have bought things that never shipped and had terrible experiences. Whether the brand actually set out to be fraudulent or they encountered problems and couldn’t fulfill because they didn’t really know what they were doing, but having that social proof and being able to see that other people were successful with the product; it was everything that it claimed to be. That’s exponentially more valuable than having testimonials on a page or having people within the organization say that they like the product. And even more valuable than having influencers say that they like the Product because very often those people are being paid, compensated, getting commissions on people using their promo codes and things like that. All of those have value.
But, do you have kind of a hierarchy in your mind of what the social proof is and what the value is of having people standing behind a product?
Margie: Yeah, that’s an interesting question. Especially for like the B to C, I think you’re absolutely right. I think that it, you know, you see a quote, that’s like, you know, “I loved it.” John C from North Carolina. Like, uh…?
It’s not even necessarily the brand name that someone else bought it from one of your competitors or a big company, although, of course, that’s nice. But when I, as a B2B buyer look at a customer testimonial, I’m looking for a couple of things. I’m looking for, is this a real person? Does this sound like a real story? And, were they sort of in my shoes? So you could have a testimonial that says, “It was great. And I loved it,” right? Big, happy smiling face. But even though it’s a little longer, takes a little more space up on a webpage, if you have a testimonial quote that shows some change, right. Or maybe speaks to that hesitancy that we were talking about before.
Laurier: Yes, I love that. What did it do for you, as opposed to, “I tried the product and liked it,” to be able to talk about the outcome that they had, that’s similar to the outcome your customer wants.
Margie: Right. Exactly. And, even the worry. If you say, “We had to migrate, we were worried migration was going to be a nightmare, but blah, blah brand made it so easy that we were done in one month.” Now, I’m reading that. And I’m like, “Oh yeah, I’m worried about that too. But this guy did it and it was okay.”
Laurier: And it gives sales, something to work with too. The sales team can now when they encounter that, they can say, well, we have some testimonials, some case studies around this, where people had exactly that concern.
Margie: Exactly that concern. And now it hits me. Even like a quick little testimonial. It doesn’t have to be like a whole case study, but just you know, we were talking about influencers. I care that they’re like me. That’s what I care about. Not necessarily how many you have or that, they’re like the big flashy brand. I want to know they’re real.
Margie: And I want to see myself reflected in it.
Laurier: I don’t think that means there’s no value in having influencers that are saying great things about your product. That can be a tremendous lever to pull. It’s not enough just to have a logo farm on your website that shows, “Trusted by these companies,” but that helps.
Those things all work together. So when you have the logos of the brands that trust your company, and then you have that testimonial centered on the outcome, and how they overcame a barrier, as you suggested, mixing those things together with a variety of different types of social proof, those compound to create the response that takes down the barriers.
Margie: Yeah, I agree. Absolutely.
Laurier: I should have asked, especially from the perspective of a company that’s going to market what they need to do and how you at centerboard marketing can help tech companies in particular, because that’s your wheelhouse, to go to market confidently and with diminished risk.
Margie: Well, it’s a big question. Okay.
Margie: I think that, having seen many companies that go to market and then back-learn. Backtrack, try again from a different angle. Backtrack, try again from a different angle. I mean, they’re the lucky ones, right. That are able to do that…
Laurier: They get a second chance.
Margie: They get a second chance, right. And often the mistake they made is that they don’t really understand the context of the customer and, we’ve talked a lot about the pain points and the obstacles, but we kind of go back to the idea of sort of the alternatives that when you’re bringing something to market, you think it’s really new.
But a customer may not think it’s that new, because they’ve had this problem for a long time and they’ve been doing something to solve it. And it’s been maybe working okay. So unless their hair is on fire, or some massive change in their industry has caused them to make a change, they’re probably doing just fine with whatever it is they’re doing. Understanding exactly what it is that you’re bringing to the party that is truly unique, that does take a little while and honing in on that. Even if it’s a smaller thing, you may be solving lots of problems.
And you might get a chance to talk about all of those things in your conversation with the customer. But it’s really hard to talk about everything all at the same time. So finding the starting point, I think is maybe the trickiest part, like the pointy part of the spear and say, “this is the part that, you know, is the gap that I’m solving.”
Laurier: Yeah, the Job to Be Done is what you’re talking about, I think is you’ve got identify, and very often for product makers, that’s the reason why they made the product in the first place, but they lose sight of that and get buried in Featuresville and they forget what the main reason is they created the product, the main pain that people out there are dealing with, that they came to solve.
Margie: Or they feel like they have to have so much more, right. Because they look at these competitors that have been there longer and have had time to develop all these other things. And they think, “Well, they have that. I need that too. They have that idea too.”
But really, you’re talking about startups or people that are bringing something to market for the first time. All that stuff is already out there. Right?
Laurier: I know, but you see it happen all the time. You have that Job to Be Done, a product is created to address it. And then, that shiny penny syndrome happens where they’re looking around and becoming really alert to what everybody else is doing and thinking, “Well, we can’t just come out with this awesome thing that we built, we have to add all these other things that competitors have,” and then they start to market on those other things. And I think that’s where they get lost.
Margie: Yeah. Prioritization. Right. It’s, it’s really, really hard. I mean, it’s hard for me in my business to, you know, pick and choose. It’s hard if you’re a larger business, because you don’t want to give anything up and you think, I’m afraid that some people are going to want all these other things and I’m not going to have them.
But when you’re starting, that’s okay, because you just need to find that match with the people that care the most. Their greatest pain is the thing that you do.
Laurier: That’s it for this episode of Product: Knowledge and my conversation with Margie Agin, author of “Brand Breakthrough” and chief strategist at Centerboard Marketing. Find out more about Margie and her work at centerboard-marketing.com.
Download Margie’s free Action Guide at brand-breakthrough.com and get free activities, checklists, and templates to develop and fine-tune your company’s brand personality. And I highly recommend reading “Brand Breakthrough,” available at Amazon, both in paperback and Kindle ebook.
Be sure to also visit GraphosProduct.com where you’ll find all the podcast episodes with transcripts and get insights from our blog. Reach out to us on Twitter @GraphosProduct or email us through the form at GraphosProduct.com. Thanks for listening. I’m Laurier Mandin.