The orange test: Simplifying messaging for maximum impact

I have often heard messaging pillars described as “benefit pillars” as if messaging and benefits are interchangeable. I’m here to state clearly, defiantly, and unequivocally that they are not the same thing. In fact, I will go so far as to say that your messaging pillars should only have one benefit among them – maybe two, but you’ll have to really prove you need both. And if they are all benefits, then your messaging pillars are not as effective as they should be.

The orange test

When I was getting started in my career in New York, I worked with a wonderful creative team who helped me sharpen my thinking around great briefs and great messaging (and messaging is essentially a brief for your content). Always working to find ways to help our clients refrain from jamming too many messages into communications, making them confusing and ineffective, we came up with an interactive way to help the client understand the value of being single-minded in messaging and communications.

We would bring a basket of Valencia oranges to the client meeting. We would start by having me pick up a single orange out of the basket, call out a client’s name, and throw it at that client. Typically, the client would catch the orange.

Next, I would pick up two oranges. By this time, I had the room’s attention, so in theory catching an orange would be easier. I would call out another client’s name, and then throw both oranges at the same time at the same client. Often, the client would catch neither of the oranges. Occasionally, the client would catch one orange. Very rarely would the client catch both oranges.

Then, I would pick up three oranges. The eyes of every person in the room were on me at this point – the conditions should have been at an all-time high for catching oranges. I would call out a third client’s name, and then throw all three oranges at the same time at the same client. Now, it’s very hard to throw three oranges with only two hands. In fact, the only thing harder than throwing three oranges at the same time is trying to catch three oranges at the same time. Never did a single client catch any of the three oranges.

Crafting unified messaging pillars

Broadly speaking, I’m opposed to three benefit-oriented pillars because that’s three oranges you’re asking someone to catch – and it’s unlikely they will catch any of it. When I think about messaging pillars, I want them to hang together like slices of a single orange. People can catch one orange. I want my messaging pillars to be done in a way that if I had to put them all in a single sentence, they would tell a one-sentence story, without any conjunctions.

Strategic alignment with perception-based objectives

How to get there involves circling back to the perception-based objectives you have for your brand, based on your business goals, market dynamics, and current customer perceptions.

In defining the perceptions that you want to set or change, you have to make sure your goals are relevant and achievable based on your audience’s current perceptions and your business’s current position in the marketplace. Perception objectives will change over time, as perceptions among your target audiences shift and as your business performance and goals also shift.

Overarching messaging goals

Ultimately, most perception-based objectives will ladder up to one of four over-arching messaging goals:

  • To relate or resonate with/drive affinity for
  • To differentiate from alternatives or competitors
  • To create credibility or establish authenticity
  • To define, which can include to educate, or create framing or understanding for your offering
Balancing attributes, benefits, and credibility

Some of these goals are best achieved by delivering a message about your product, and its differentiated capabilities or point of view. Those won’t be benefits but will most likely be attributes of your product or of your brand or company. Other goals will be best achieved by delivering a message about why your customer should care or how you can help them – these are your benefits. Other messages still will be about certain aspects of your business or current customer base or capabilities that make you believable or credible – like number of customers, specific performance metrics, or who your founders are. Remember the classic brand strategy adage: not all differentiators are important to your customers, and not everything that’s important to your customers is differentiating. When determining what to say, you want to make sure what you’re saying matters, that you’re differentiating your brand in a meaningful and important way to your customers, and that you are relating to their lives and concerns, conquering the objections they might have through proof of your authenticity and credibility.

Strategic messaging implementation

Just picking three benefits and calling those your messaging pillars isn’t strategic, and it won’t be effective at using messaging to achieve your goals in the market with your customer. Take the time to understand your current customer perceptions and your current market position relative to what you want those perceptions and positioning to be and write your messaging relative to the movement you want to see. Stress test your draft messages using the “one orange” test: Can you write them all together in a single sentence without using any conjunctions?

Ready to take your messaging to the next level? Download our Messaging That Works Whitepaper, a practical guide that will help you refine your messaging approach and improve how you connect with your audiences.

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