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Message Strength: Tips for Beautiful and Effective Product Messaging

Sourabh Sharma and Paul Janssen
  • The strongest beauty product messages can be developed through a three-step process of refining, articulating and delivering.
  • Creating the best message for a product relies on specific, distinct language that conveys the proper tone and benefit information.
  • A message’s delivery mechanism needs to be taken into consideration, whether it is packaging, advertising, press or something else.
  • The competitive landscape also needs to be highly factored into a product’s message in order to create something that’s a winner. Base a good message off what not to do.

Effective messaging: You know it when you see it. It hits home. It resonates. And the proof is in the sales numbers. But before a claim can be launched into the real world, it falls on the beauty brand owner and marketer to anticipate what will resonate most with consumers.

A meta-analysis conducted by SKIM, a marketing research firm specializing in the CPG, health and beauty industries, examined more than 850 marketing messages in 16 categories—including personal care, cosmetics, food, home care and durables. The researchers uncovered both winners and losers in these categories. But even more importantly, they came to some valuable conclusions about the common characteristics of winning claims.

The researchers created 38 codes representing hypothetical drivers of message/claim appeal. They then coded all of the claims and identified the key success drivers. The inclusion of a broad range of interrelated categories provides a universally tested framework that can be applied across multiple product markets for developing winning messages. The result is a three-step process for developing winning messages:

  • Refine: Develop an effective core message.
  • Articulate: Write compelling marketing claims to support core messages.
  • Deliver: Understand the context and environment into which the claim is being delivered.

Refine: Four Rules of Message Creation

SKIM’s meta-analysis found strong messages have four common characteristics.

1. Be specific. The more specific a message can be, the better. People like clarity—they want to know exactly what tangible benefits a product will deliver and, if possible, how much or how much more it will deliver than the competition.

Specificity can be achieved in different ways, but bottom line, you want to describe precisely what consumers will receive. So “Provides all-day protection against UVA and UVB” is a better claim/message than “Now our best protection against UVA and UVB.”

2. Put the key benefit(s) first. When there’s only a split second to capture attention, mention the key benefit of a product first. Messages that contain one or more benefits perform significantly better than others. And while it’s critical to have one benefit, it’s even better to showcase multiple benefits.

A powerful way to address multiple benefits is to offer a solution to a dilemma by combining two seemingly incompatible benefits into one appealing statement (e.g., effective and gentle). For an example, “Get a beautiful natural tan safely with our new and improved formula” offers a stronger message than “Our new and improved formula will give you a beautiful natural tan safely.”

3. Promise value. A prerequisite for successful messages is to promise value by communicating relevant and tangible statements. This is the essence of a winning claim and its defining point of difference. You also want to avoid fluffy, unsubstantiated statements. “For perfectly smooth skin” conveys the claim/message better than “Created for perfection.”

4. Set yourself apart. Every product is being measured against a set of alternatives. Depending on the competitive landscape, there may be an increased need for a differentiating value promise that sets a product apart by default.

This is all said with one important caveat: The meta-analysis did not find any evidence of significant differences in appeal between comparative and non-comparative messages, which suggests that merely drawing a comparison with competition is not enough.

When using a comparative claim, it is most effective to benchmark against the category. Benchmarking against one’s own brand can be a sign of weakness, and targeting a single competitive brand can be detrimental as consumers may like that brand and feel offended, dislike it and feel indifferent, or not know it and feel alienated. Therefore, a stronger message is conveyed to consumers with “12 hours of nonstop waterproof protection” versus “Protects you from the sun for two times longer than Brand X.”

Articulate: A Message Checklist

The SKIM meta-analysis findings also revealed that every message must meet certain standards for style and tonality in order to succeed. While adhering to the message checklist below might not guarantee that a message is successful, it will ensure the claim does not fall short because of weak articulation. In essence, these are the best practices for avoiding common pitfalls.

Does the message clearly articulate the following values?

  • Positive—Offer something positive instead of avoiding something negative.
  • Respectful—Know your audience; don’t inadvertently be condescending or presumptuous.
  • Clear—Use simple, unambiguous language to ensure the message is understood.
  • Coherent—Connect the dots; are the benefits and reasons to believe related to each other?
  • Fluid—Create sentences that flow naturally and do not sound contrived.
  • Jargon-free—Use words and terms that are meaningful and known to your target audience.

Deliver: Consider the Message Environment

Messages should be evaluated with consideration for the competitive landscape. Winning messages are most effective when they are designed to work in the real world.

First, benchmark new messages against current messages. Include current messages in the testing process; it’s the next best thing to a benchmark. If you don’t include current messages, it’s impossible to know if the new “winner” is as good as the old winner.

Second, consider the decision-making and product ecosystem. Is there a single decision-maker or are there multiple influencers involved in the decision? Does the product reside in a highly competitive landscape, like the beauty aisle of a store? Is it a product that is bought repeatedly or often alongside other products? Does it cater to impulse buyers, or is the product part of a series of interrelated line extensions of a successful product? Take into account the influence of all these factors before choosing a winning message.

Third, find out exactly what makes the message a winner and what makes others losers. From a research perspective, this can be achieved using a clickable claims tool that asks respondents to highlight positive and negative parts of the winning and losing messages. The resulting information can provide valuable insight for creative and brand teams.

Fourth, context can make or break a well-worded message. Test the messages in various delivery environments (e.g., print, Web and packaging). Sometimes a message that seems compelling as words on a page will fall short in the context of the overall graphics or packaging. Test the message within a graphical context using a tool that allows respondents to identify what it is about the message that makes it the winner, as well as what is negative. The cliché, “You only have one chance to make a good first impression,” is true for every visual representation of a product.

Powerful messages are a critical part of successful product marketing. The insights and recommendations derived from SKIM’s meta-analysis reinforce that fact and provide an additional level of certainty for successful message development.

Case Study: Illuminating Sunscreen Claims

In a case study about packaging communication of sunscreen claims, 16 marketing statements were ranked by attendees at InnoCos USA 2012, a conference that brings together senior executives from the beauty industry to discuss key issues on front-end innovation, new product development and high-growth markets.

For the study, attendees ranked a collection of hypothetical claims after being exposed to a fictional 2-in-1 sunscreen and self-tanning product. The goal was to put marketers on the receiving end of various claims so they could experience the most and least effectively crafted messages. Just like consumers and survey-takers, attendees were asked to evaluate claims that emphasized various benefits articulated in different ways through maximum differential scaling, thus making trade-offs between what claims motivated them most and least. Given the opportunity to provide written, open-ended feedback, the experience brought to life the principles derived from SKIM’s meta-analysis.

When presented with the claim “12 hours of nonstop waterproof protection,” respondents offered comments such as “I like going in the water and hate having to reapply sunscreen,” and “Conveys a specific benefit that is important to me.” On the other hand, the lowest-ranking claim, “Your best beach buddy!” elicited such responses as “I need a protective product, not a beach buddy,” and “It sounds silly and says nothing.” These are completely in sync with aforementioned findings of the meta-analysis, and were uncovered by InnoCos attendees themselves, making the live case study an enriching experience.

The meta-analysis and supporting case study reinforce the continuing need to refine, articulate and deliver marketing claims in keeping with proven tenets of effective messaging.

Sourabh Sharma comes to SKIM with a keen eye for understanding consumer behavior. He adds perspective to marketing research from his years in brand management and product development at L’Oréal, where he launched hair color and makeup products for brands in Asia and North America. His work there allowed him to file for multiple patents and present a new technology at symposiums focusing on beauty. He built on this with his work in strategy consulting in the consumer sector, which allowed him to broaden his understanding of the beauty industry. With a multifaceted background, having earned degrees in engineering and marketing and an MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and the Rotterdam School of Management, Sharma enables the firms he works with to acquire a stronger understanding of their end users. Furthermore, he strives to extract value from the evolving brand-to-consumer interface through his work in social media research.

Paul Janssen is the director of SKIM’s consumer division in North America. He holds a master’s degree in international business studies and worked in brand management at Kraft Foods prior to joining SKIM. Janssen is considered an expert in the field of claims and communication, and regularly advises clients such as Unilever, PepsiCo and Philips on how to optimize their claim and communication strategies for specific marketing initiatives. In addition, he has hosted multiple claims workshops and training sessions for the consumer insights and marketing teams of various clients.

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