Value Proposition Storyboard
Too many businesses struggle to articulate what they do, let alone have a compelling answer as to why people should actually buy their products or services. To me, the value proposition is THE most important tool, THE most important asset that any business creates and uses over time. It gives you clarity on exactly who your audience is; how you’re going to engage with them; how you’re going convince them of your offering; how you can support and prove that; and how you will stand apart from your competition. Without being able to answer these fundamental questions precisely, and with conviction, you won't create support, demand and scale for your business. The value proposition is so much more than a messaging device though. The value proposition gives focus, saves time and resources, improves customer understanding and engagement, gives clarity of message, increases marketing effectiveness, and breeds team confidence. It determines where you’re creating value for your audience and customers, and where you're not. In this respect, it tells you what you should be doing, and what you shouldn't. It helps you to prioritise where to be putting your time, energy and resources to maximise the return on your efforts. It's no coincidence that the value proposition is at the centre of the Business Model Canvas, as everything else revolves around it.
"I think the story is important in every business. Why do you exist, why are you here, why is your product different, why should I pay attention, why should I care?”
Jason Fried, Co-Founder and CEO of Basecamp
Steve Jobs when he went back to Apple in 1997 gathered his team and he talked to them about value; he said: “To me marketing is about values. This is a very complicated world, it’s a very noisy world. And we’re not going to get the chance to get people to remember much about us. No company is. So we have to be really clear on what we want them to know about us.”
And that’s where the value proposition comes in. The value proposition allows you to be really clear on what you want people to know about you. It's your articulation of exactly what the value is that you’re delivering for your customers and, crucially, all your other constituents: partners, shareholders, suppliers, channels, influencers, employees and potential employees.
It is the story of your business, the narrative of your business...the value proposition IS your business.
The essence of the value proposition is one fundamental question – why?
But critically, the value proposition comes down to...
Why should customers buy from you?
If you can’t convince people of this, then you don’t have a value proposition and you don’t have a business. You need to give your audience a reason for them to move from their current state, their status quo. You need to motivate them to take action; principally in a commercial venture to ‘buy’ from you. This may not be immediate, but at some point the majority of businesses are looking to stimulate a financial transaction. To achieve this you have to convince whoever you’ve defined as your audience to sacrifice their hard fought and earned money in exchange for what you’re offering them. You therefore have to convince them of why?
Just because your widget can do XYZ isn’t enough. Invariably there will be another widget out there that can do XYZ as well...so why is yours better? What does it save your audience? How does it ease their pain? How does it increase their satisfaction or happiness? Does the customer really need to do XYZ in the first place? Enough that they are will to pay for it? Repeatedly? Over time?
The creation of value is the reason that your business or brand exists, and yet the concept of what value is has become abstract and nebulous...reduced to descriptions of features or benefits. To understand how to build an impactful, resonant and motivating value proposition, we must start by understanding the essence of what is 'value'.
In economic terms, the fundamental unit of human interaction is the exchange of value. Over time, value has become denominated through money – be that dollars, pounds, euros or today even bitcoins. This is a form of shorthand - it’s convenient to have a number that’s attached to the value but it’s not really inherent to what value is.
Value is basically when I have something and there is somebody else who wants something. If they want what I have, and we exchange these two things...and critically we’re both happier as a result...then we’ve created value.
The crunch point though is does anyone want it? Is there a customer? Do they want something? Do they want what you have?
Creating value in your business should be the cornerstone of your business’s existence. Value is the intangible asset of your business that keeps your customers returning.
Value allows your customers to feel the energy and passion behind your brand, to understand its importance and worth.
Without communicating value to your customers or suppliers you may find it hard to increase your business, retain valuable clients or keep clients returning.
An overall experience
“Our DNA is as a consumer company – for that individual customer who’s voting thumbs up or thumbs down. That’s who we think about. And we think that our job is to take responsibility for the complete user experience. And if it’s not up to par, it’s our fault, plain and simply.”
It’s important to remember though that value isn’t just derived from the core product that you’re delivering. Our product is only one element of the overall experience that we deliver to, and share with a customer. The key word here is ‘experience’. When you think of Apple, you don’t just see the iPhones, iPads or Macbooks that you buy and use; you also consider the experience that you receive when you’re downloading content from iTunes; when you’re engaging with their staff in an Apple Store; the support you gain through a Genius Bar; their cool advertising on TV; or the videos that you watch on YouTube of Tim Cook’s keynote or even someone unboxing an Apple product. Apple understands and pays absolute attention to every detail of the overall experience that they’re delivering to their customers.
Guy Kawasaki worked for Apple as an evangelist on the original Mac task force before going on to form numerous companies including the content aggregation site Alltop, as well as being a prolific author and speaker; as he testifies: “Your product is not what people download and install. It’s the documentation, the online support, the string of enhancements to come. That’s the totality of your product, not just the executable code. Great products are designed completely.”
Or take the case of GoPro: who needs another camera? Everyone has one and the market for cameras is dominated by Japanese companies. But GoPro founder Nick Woodman was simply brilliant...he sold the experience not the device. The camera is just a way to get the experience.
Every touch point with a customer, potential customer, or increasingly those who may influence customers, is part of and integral to that experience and therefore the value that you’re creating. The value proposition must therefore encapsulate the overall value that the target audience will experience; this goes beyond merely the product or service that is being delivered – it is everything that the potential customer perceives to be of value. This could reflect tangible aspects such as functionality, quality, design, price or brand; or it could be derived from the emotions that the customer experiences: status, confidence, belonging, happiness, satisfaction, excitement, relief, etc.
A clear and powerful value proposition therefore benefits your organisation way beyond just providing you with messaging. It is crucial to guiding how you build and maintain the experience that you’re delivering.
In a previous post, I defined a value proposition as:
The value proposition articulates the promise of the overall experience and resulting benefits that a specific customer audience can realise from the utilisation or consumption of a product, service or solution.
Fundamentally your value proposition is a promise. A promise that you are making to anybody who has a vested interest in your brand and your business of the value that you are going to deliver in return for their attention, effort or money. It's the promise of the experience that will be derived from the use or consumption of your product, service or solution.
Promises – when kept – lead to trust; and trust is the fuel of relationships that, in turn, are the basis for all businesses and brands.
"Making promises and keeping them is a great way to build a brand.”
Trust isn’t something that’s readily given and will only really be cemented over time. However, if the promise that is your value proposition resonates with your audience, is meaningful and reasonable to them, then you can start on this journey.
The promise has to be believable though; if people don’t feel that you can deliver what you’re saying you’re going to, they have no reason to pay any attention to you. You need to provide credentials and evidence upfront to earn the customer’s trust in order for them to make the effort, sacrifice or payment that you desire. People don’t give their trust lightly.
In this day and age where the currency of brands is trust, that promise is sacrosanct. It is everything.
This promise isn’t just to your intended customers, although clearly they’re of paramount importance to your business. You also need to consider that your value proposition is just as pertinent and relevant to other constituents who have a vested interest in your business.
Your business partners, be they suppliers, distributors, retailers, resellers, outsourcers, marketing channels, etc., all need to understand the nature of your business and how you’re providing value to your audience, and thereby to them. They have to be absolutely clear on who you’re targeting, what your key messages are, your competitive advantages, and so forth. In this respect they’ll be better positioned to support you, meet your objectives and address your requirements.
Crucially, if you can’t express the key components of your value proposition to potential investors then they aren’t going to have the confidence to back you. The value proposition contains the fundamental building blocks of your business and you need to convey them with clarity and the certainty that you understand and have thought through each aspect. Although first impressions are critical, i.e. being able to succinctly outline your value proposition in the form of your high concept pitch, having the depth of knowledge, rounded arguments, and demonstrable evidence in respect of each building block will be a key test for investors; giving them the assurance and confidence in you and your team. Remember, the investment process is a marketing campaign; your potential investors are your audience in this respect and the message – your value proposition – is just as relevant and important as with end customers...what do you want them to know about you? You won’t get the chance for them to remember much about you so you have to be really clear.
Other stakeholders such as advisors, mentors or supporters will also require a thorough understanding of your business so they can provide input that’s both rounded and meaningful. The value proposition provides a consistent framework that allows for easy reference between the organisation and its stakeholders, acting as a shorthand and filter for what constitutes the core disciplines and drivers of the business.
One of the key constituents to any business or brand is the media. Whether you’re acting at a local, international or global level, the media will play a crucial role in delivering and portraying your story to your intended audiences. In this respect, it’s imperative that you’re clear about what you want them to take away and ultimately say about you. When dealing with journalists, bloggers, commentators, influencers or media partners in general, having clarity of your vision, mission and offering are essential; all of which are defined by and stem from your value proposition. By starting with fundamental questions revolving around ‘why?’, you’ll be able to develop and deliver your story with impact, resonance and excitement, that will consequently build a narrative in and of itself going forward.
Finally, an often overlooked, yet critical constituent group for your value proposition is Employees - both current and potential employees of the future. The value proposition is a key tool for when you’re hiring - you need to give potential employees a sense of where you’ve been and where you’re going; they need to buy into your mission so that they’re prepared to join you, champion you and contribute. Remember, you’re competing for talent just as much as you’re competing for customers - and the former will lead to the latter if you get it right...so you need to be convincing. In 1983 Steve Jobs famously convinced John Sculley, then Pepsi-Co's youngest-ever CEO and president, to join the fledgling Apple company with his immortal line “Do you want to sell sugared water for the rest of your life? Or do you want to come with me and change the world?" Jobs was able to hire one of the biggest stars in corporate America by having a clear mission and value proposition.
Equally, for employees, the value proposition acts as a rallying call providing a guide as to what they should be doing and why? It focuses them on where and how they’re creating and adding value to the customer, breeding assurance and confidence. In all respects, a strong and powerful value proposition is a must for any business to successfully recruit, on-board, motivate and inspire its team.
All of the above constituents are part of the overall experience that you’re delivering and hence of the value that you’re creating. They need clarity, assurance and belief that your promise is good and worth mobilising behind. Your value proposition is all-important in this respect.
The ANSWER framework
There’s been a lot written and a lot of thinking put out there about what constitutes a value proposition. In turn, there are a number of models and methodologies that have been proposed for constructing a value proposition. Having studied these and looked at the different components that make up many of the most compelling value propositions that I’ve observed, I feel that these methodologies either miss the mark completely, looking at the value proposition purely as marketing communication, or are incomplete and only consider certain aspects of what is and what delivers value.
To this end, I’ve therefore devised my own method for discovering, developing and realising an impactful, resonant and motivating value proposition – I call this the ANSWER Framework:
The ANSWER Framework builds a picture and narrative of your business that, once tested and iterated against real customers, will form your value proposition over time.
The value proposition is not a static exercise; it’s a living, breathing construct that should evolve as your audience matures and your business develops. Think of it initially as a set of hypotheses that need to be tested and ratified in order to hone your focus, customer engagement and messages. As you progress this becomes more and more relevant and real based on your audience's feedback – both direct and indirect. You should always be in the mode of checking and aligning your Value Proposition to your audience. The list of businesses and brands who’ve failed to do this, to respond to their changing audience's needs and therefore been the architects of their own demise, is both lengthy and profound: Blockbuster, Coke Tab, Tivo and more recently Blackberry.
In 1974 Kodak invented the digit camera; by 2012 the company was filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the US. In the same year a 2 year old start-up largely built on the technology that Kodak invented called Instagram was bought by Facebook for $1 Billion. Kodak failed to understand the changing nature and needs of its audience; it failed to constantly review and refresh its value proposition.
The ANSWER framework is made up of a series of building blocks that form your value proposition. These building blocks conveniently spell out the word ANSWER to give you an easy to understand and remember framework that you can apply to any business or brand, no matter what industry or sector, what stage the business is at, or where you’re based or operate. This framework is universal in enabling you to understand the fundamental components of your business and the value that you’re creating and delivering for your customers. Each building block is progressive, i.e. each builds on the previous to create a picture and story of your business. They cannot exist in isolation and must work together to create the overall articulation of your value proposition.
The audience is the beginning, middle and end of your value proposition. Everything you do must be grounded in clarity and understanding of who you’re intending to serve either via delivering a product or offering a service. Value cannot exist without an audience as there cannot be an exchange. You could have just invented the wheel but if nobody needs it and isn’t prepared to exchange something for it, then you aren’t delivering value and you don’t have a proposition.
I’ve consciously used the word audience in this respect as opposed to customer – customers are derived from an audience; an audience is the delimitation of those who you could serve with your product or service; some of these will hopefully become customers but the chicken must come before the egg as they say. You must start by appealing to your desired audience before they actually become customers.
Identifying your desired target audience is one of the most important and yet difficult decisions that you’ll make as a business or brand. Many don’t do this effectively or rush to solve a problem before knowing who has it in the first place and therefore who they’re solving for. This is fundamental to creating something that will create demand and ultimately that people will be willing to pay you for.
To create value it must be based on a specific need present with your desired audience. A need is defined by dictionary.com as: “a lack of something wanted or deemed necessary; a requirement, necessary duty, or obligation; an urgent want, as of something requisite”. A ‘need’ therefore contains an emotional component above-and-beyond merely a fulfilling a functional purpose...there’s a want, desire or urgency – it is more than just solving a problem. The basis of the need must be relevant and meaningful to the protagonist such that they have a desire to address it. If this isn’t the case then they won’t be prepared to make an exchange, i.e. to pay for solving the problem. This is the starting point in deriving value. The more the need, the more conscious the potential customer is of it, and the more frequently they experience it, the greater the value that can be realised.
Most people when building their value proposition jump straight to describing their solution, but in the ANSWER Framework the solution must directly and specifically address the need that you’ve identified within your desired target audience. This isn’t a list of features and specifications; your solution must have laser focus on how you will explicitly meet this need. In this respect it should be simple and absolutely clear as to what you’re actually delivering to your customer.
These first 3 building blocks – audience, need and solution – are the foundation of your value proposition. The next 3 determine why your value proposition will create resonance and impact with your audience and stakeholders.
Once you’ve understood how your solution directly meets your audience’s identified need, we must then understand why it’s better than what they’re current doing or using to meet this need, or versus what else is potentially out there that could meet it. Many people think that they’re solving for something that’s completely unique, that they’ve found uncharted territory where nobody else is offering what they do. In my experience this is never the case. If a meaningful need exists, there will be alternative solutions of one form or another. The key is to identify why your solution is better than anything else.
I use the word ‘better’ intentionally here rather than the often applied marketing parlance of ‘different’. Merely being different is frankly irrelevant as you’re simply offering an alternative and people generally aren’t prepared to make the effort to move to alternatives. Being ‘better’ though creates preference, and people will pay for preferred solutions.
Until a customer has first-hand experience of your product or service, they have to make a judgement on whether or not they should trust that you’re going to be able to deliver what you say you’re going to deliver. Especially as a start-up or new brand where you don’t have any existing brand equity to play off, you have to stimulate some trust in the customer before they’ll be prepared to take the leap to adopt your offering, even as a trial. It’s imperative therefore that you provide them with evidence to back up your claims. Evidence comes in many forms, from research to expert endorsement to social recommendation, but it’s critical that you start thinking and planning from word ‘go’ as to how you’re going to accumulate evidence to support your value proposition. Think of a continuum, where on one extreme you have indirect indicators such as market research studies or website traffic, through to more qualified indicators such as number of repeat customers or customer satisfaction – you need to along this continuum until you can demonstrate that you have repeat, satisfied paying customers who will advocate on your behalf. You won’t have these from day one but you need to be conscious of creating proof points and building evidence to show that you’re credible.
The final building block to our value proposition story is potentially the hardest to ascertain – how are you ‘Remarkable’? Remarkable has two key components…firstly you have to create impact with your audience, make them sit up and take notice; but to truly be remarkable you need to do so in a way that’s really meaningful to them. If you have impact and meaning then your audience will likely share that experience – they will ‘remark’ about you to others and in this day and age this is imperative to growth.
Value Proposition Template
The six building blocks come together to form what I call the Value Proposition Storyboard. This is a storyboard because it's telling the story of your business or brand. Each building block builds on the previous to form an overarching narrative, from defining your audience through to understanding how you're remarkable, your value proposition develops and progresses in a linear fashion.
The Value Proposition Storyboard works in a very similar way to the Business Model Canvas, with the intention to populate each cell in order to form to overall construct. The objective here is very much quality over quantity; it is not an exercise in filling up the boxes - less is more. Keep it simple and focus on the core components of each element. A good starting point is to print the storyboard out, as large as you can, and then use sticky notes to populate each building block...literally throwing ideas against the wall and thereby building the overall story of your value proposition. This really helps to brainstorm ideas and iterate concepts, especially when working on the value proposition as a team.
Once you have your initial six building blocks you can start to reduce down your value proposition into a central focussed statement. To reiterate a previous point though this is not meant to be a marketing strap-line. The statement needs to incorporate the primary take-outs of the six building blocks contained within the storyboard, strung together as a honed statement made up of one to three sentences.
Alongside the value proposition statement you can also start thinking about a meme; this is made up of a few words that represent the essence of the value proposition. Some examples of memes that truly create impact and recall for the audience are Spotify’s 'Soundtrack Your Life', HubSpot’s ‘Create Marketing People Love’, Evernote ‘Remember Everything’ and Pinterest with ‘A Few (Million) of Your Favourite Things’. These simple focused lines represent the essences of each of the respective companies and brands. It is at the heart of what they do and the words form a short-hand for anyone to understand and appreciate the core value that they’re delivering. Your storyboard, statement and meme create the toolkit for the future developments and utilisation of your value proposition, messaging and marketing.
Tells a story
I keep saying that the value proposition is the story of your business and your brand; this is a crucial concept in building and articulating your value proposition, and the reason why I chose to lay it out as a storyboard.
Since human beings first started to communicate, we’ve used stories to share information, aid recall and build learning.
The summary of the research on storytelling points to two big conclusions:
A great story can inspire you. A great story can make you cry. A great story can make you move across the country without a job but with a dream. A great story can make you move home. A great story can make you start buying bottled water. And a great story can make you stop. A great story can change your life. The best thing about a great story? Your fans want to spread it for you.
Scientifically stories are the most effective way that we consume, interpret, understand and adopt information. If you want your value proposition to be understood, internalised and bought into, telling it as a story is the most effective way to do so...hence the Value Proposition Storyboard.
Today we need people to be emotionally invested in our ideas, brands and businesses – we need them to contribute and to share. Without this we won’t create value and our businesses and brands won’t grow. Creating that emotional bond is dependent upon showing your audience, rather than telling them. This is manifest in the tone and language that you use, but also how you build the narrative and animation throughout your value proposition. Your audience must feel above all that your value proposition is for them. Telling creates division and alienation. Be encompassing and empathetic – invite them in and show them what you can do.
Part of this is to humanise your offering as much as possible. At the end of the day you’re always dealing with human beings – yes, that’s true – and people respond to being treated and communicated with as such. In practice this means ditching the jargon and speaking to people in plain language that they’ll understand. You may feel that you have a highly technical product or that your audience are technically savvy but it pays to keep things simple and clear; never assume that people have the same level of understanding or knowledge that you do. Similarly, don’t use overly flowery or intricate language either – people won’t be impressed and you should minimise any potential friction to the understanding, acceptance and ultimate share-ability of your message.
As trust in all sorts of institutions has declined, people increasingly turn to other people they view as peers, not to anything they see as up on a pedestal. People relate to people, and they relate to brands when they behave like people – open, honest, even flawed.
Above all, be genuine. As I said before, trust is the fuel of relationships and the currency of business. The easiest way to destroy trust is to not be genuine. Be open, honest and real – don’t try to claim things that you’re not or that you can’t achieve. Once that trust is broken, it’s gone and you won’t get it back, no matter how hard you try.
Today, it’s also important to consider that as much as you want and need customers to share their positive experiences of your brand, there is the danger that negative perceptions will be shared to an even greater extent. People are more inclined to share negative experiences than those who’ll share the positive – we’re just more naturally predisposed to commenting publicly about things we don’t like or aren’t happy with. If you’re seen as false and not genuine then you’re risking generating negative word-of-mouth that could destroy you before you’ve even begun.
That said, don’t be boring. You have to bring your value proposition to life – you must connect with your audience emotionally to stimulate their decision making and impact behaviour to ultimately make your solution be perceived as a must have.
“Enchantment is necessary. The more innovative the product or service, the more you need enchantment. In a perfect world, something new and groundbreaking would have the world beating a path to your door, but it doesn’t work like that.”
Value proposition outputs
A value proposition is not simply a description of your company or product; it is not a mission statement or elevator pitch; it is not a marketing message or advertising slogan – although it guides all of these, and much, much more. Think of the value proposition as an umbrella construct that forms and directs all of your key communications and messages.
In its most honed and paired down state, the value proposition is the basis for your high-concept pitch – one or two sentences that you can deliver in 10 to 30 seconds to give the recipient an immediate snapshot of your business. Most people default to telling people what they do in their high-concept pitch; they focus on functionality and features – however, to create true impact and memorability, you need to focus on the value that you’re delivering to your audience, and why. The ultimate evolution of your high-concept pitch is where it’s adopted and shared by others. In this respect, your high-concept pitch absolutely needs to be remarkable – something that people internalise and then convey.
From your value proposition also flows your advertising strap-line or tagline – a 2-5 word sticky mantra that gives your audience a taster of your business or brand. The key with any strap-line is to leave your audience wanting to find out more. It should be absolutely consistent with your high-concept pitch but it isn’t the same. A strap-line needs to be punchy, impactful and most of all, memorable. The value proposition contains the essence of your message and the strap-line is the creative interpretation of this expressed as a single-minded thought. The great strap-lines exemplify this: “Just Do It”, “Think Different” or “Because You’re Worth It“. Not only are they catchy and impactful, but they also convey everything that those businesses stand for. The key to achieving this is to be absolutely clear on what that is in the first place; which comes from your value proposition.
Ultimately, all of the messages that you put to market must stem from your value proposition. Each of these need to be relevant to the context in which they appear, whilst expressing and building on the components of the value proposition. Your marketing messages will need to play different roles at different times; be that creating awareness, stimulating consideration, driving demand and intent, and so forth. Yet, they need to be consistent and grounded in the overarching message that is your value proposition. This is the story of your business; what you really want your customers to know about you.
The value proposition and business model generation
The value proposition is central to your overall business model - it’s no coincidence that it’s at the heart of Alex Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas, a tool that has been widely adopted and used extensively by businesses of all sizes and stages in their evolution.
It should form the anchor for all decision-making, operations, and customer engagement. It is more than a set of words; more than a set of marketing messages; it is the framework for how the business aligns its activities and outputs with its target audience’s needs, to deliver a compelling experience that can ultimately be monetised through an exchange of value. In this respect, the value proposition is key to validating your business idea, both as you start up and as you grow.
Everything stems from the value proposition; the other aspects of the business revolve around this central construct. On one side it determines the key partners, resources and activities that are required to create value for your defined audience; whilst on the other side are the relationships and channels that you need to communicate and deliver that value to them. Without defining, understanding and being absolutely clear on your value proposition right from the start, you can’t effectively determine these drivers of your business model, or at least they’ll be ineffective and inefficient.
Your value proposition is the guide for your business strategy and activities, your ‘true north’. It determines what you need to be focusing on; it aligns your resources to the areas of your business where they will make the most impact; and it increases overall clarity of what you should, and critically shouldn’t be doing.
If your activities aren’t creating value for your desired target audience, then why are you concentrating on them?