Should Your Messaging Use Your Competitor’s Terminology?

03/28/2011

One of the most difficult parts of marketing messaging is describing what your product is in a way that’s both easy to understand and communicates the unique value your product delivers. I’ve seen startup marketers really struggle with how to describe their market and specifically, whether or not they should use the same terms as their competitors.

For example, suppose your solution delivers many of the same features of a marketing automation solution but also includes features not typically seen in those types of tools – say built-in support for running campaign on various social media platforms or some types of pipeline analytics more typically seen in  CRM systems.  Should you describe your market as “Marketing Automation”, “CRM” or “Social Media Marketing” or should you avoid those terms and come up with some new terms to define the (clearly different) think that you do?

The answer is that it really depends on your company, your market, who else is in the space and the dynamics of what’s happening in the market. Here some things to consider on both sides:

Why using the same terms as your competitors might be a bad idea:

  1. Whoever “owns” those terms could own your basic positioning – Sometimes terms are heavily associated with a particular company, or have been created by industry analysts. The folks that created the terms may also have the power to shift the meaning and your basic positioning as a result. For example, if Gartner Group uses Marketing Automation as a term but decides tomorrow that it’s merely a sub-category under Customer Relationship Management – will you still be happy to call yourself that?
  2. It may put you in a narrower box than you are comfortable with – A more common concern is whether the term really represents what you do. If you do a bunch of things beyond marketing automation why would you want to define yourself to a more narrow category?
  3. You inherit the baggage of those terms – Again, using the example above, marketing automation has been historically associated with automated email campaigns. If your tool for example was more about social media and doing things to attract prospects (pull marketing) vs. traditional push marketing you might not be so keen on using those terms.

Why using the same terms as your competitors might be a good idea:

  1. It’s faster to describe what you do – You have mere seconds to describe to a prospect what you do so having a shorthand way to do that (even if it isn’t perfect) is a good thing. If the industry terms are good enough to convince prospects to spend a couple of minutes with you, you’ll have time to get into the finer points of your positioning later.
  2. Prospects search using those terms – This is a crucial point. Even if you consider your solution to be MILES beyond what the other players in a market are delivering but your customers still use the standard terms to look for you, you had better use them too.
  3. You don’t have what it takes to invent a market (at least for now) so you might as well not waste cycles trying – So exactly what terms would you use if you didn’t use the standard ones out there? I’ve seen startups try to invent new terms with generally lousy results, particularly if you have to educate your prospects on what your new terms mean. Getting an industry to use your terminology requires a fairly significant investment (time and often money) in content creation, analyst consulting and PR. And even then it doesn’t always catch on. If you’re a startup, it might just be way more efficient to start out using the industry standard terms until you are big enough to own your own stage.

I usually try to focus on how the customer might describe what I do and keep things as simple as possible. I might think my solution is much cooler than a typical ERP solution, but calling it “business efficiency software” doesn’t mean my cutomers will understand what that is or stop searching for ERP. 

I’d love to hear what other marketers out there have seen.