How to create a proposition

Proposition is a really broad word in a business and branding context. At its most fundamental, a proposition is the packaging for the thing you want to take to market. The word “packaging” of course, is used in a metaphorical sense here.

What we mean is: How are you going to get potential customers to understand what your thing is, why they need it in their lives – and why it’s better than what your competitors are offering?

Here’s an example:

Let’s say a company invents a new type of hair straighteners. They know they’re better than anything else out there. They don’t damage your hair. When you use them, your style will last until the next time you wash your hair. You can recharge them with sunlight. Even better, they’re made from completely recycled materials and the company can guarantee they’ll last at least 10 years, even with everyday use.

Other hair straighteners damage hair, their effects might only last for half a day, they might break after a couple of years and then they go straight to landfill, damaging the environment.

There are a number of benefits involved in owning a set of these hair straighteners, including:

  • They make your hair style last longer
  • They’re better for your hair
  • They’re better for the environment
  • They’re rechargeable with solar energy

When we’re talking about the “packaging” to take these hair straighteners to market, what we need is:

  • A story that’s interesting and delighting and that people will remember
  • We may also be talking about a positioning – is it a luxury product, an everyday product or a middle market product?
  • And a price point – do these straighteners cost £20 or £500?

How do you develop a story?

A lot of people were involved in creating the straighteners. The team that created the solar recharging capability are very excited about the new technology they’ve developed. So they think the story of the straighteners should be all about advanced solar technology. However, the teams that created the revolutionary straightening blades think the story is all about not damaging hair. And then the manufacturing and materials team thinks the whole story is about the environment – recycled materials, recycled packaging.

There are some interesting options from all of these teams. The MD’s wife says she would buy hair straighteners called “Sunshine” that has recycled packaging… and so the excitement ramps up (especially in the solar tech team).

But someone in marketing encourages their colleagues to talk to some potential consumers first. After all, the object of selling these hair straighteners is to revolutionise the market, making sure that hair straightening no longer damages hair or the environment. And of course, they need to make some money out of this. Because even if the company’s aims are completely social, they won’t be able to invent more great stuff if they can’t get people to pay for what they’ve done so far.

Talk to customers

So marketing runs some focus groups. They think the following types of people are likely to be interested in buying the straighteners, so they invite them to different sessions:

  • Fashion-conscious individuals
  • Environmentally-conscious individuals
  • Thrifty individuals
  • Professional stylists

The fashion-conscious people are lukewarm about “Sunshine” as a name, but they like the product – and suggest it should be available in different colours and with a more stylish carry bag. Their feedback includes comments like “totes amazeballs” and, “I would definitely put these on my Insta Stories”.

The environmentally-conscious group seem less trusting. They want to know exactly what the recycled materials used to be, where and how they’ve been recycled and who was involved in the process. They are, however, excited by the solar recharging capability. Comments include: “You should use the solar technology to benefit remote communities,” and, “Seems too good to be true”.

The thrifty people want to know how much it will retail at. You’re surprised to find they wouldn’t baulk at a higher price point if they knew it would last. They’re also interested in hair styles lasting longer and the product causing less damage to hair. Comments include: “I could save on trips to the hairdresser.”

Professional stylists like it – and like that their styles would last longer. They are undecided about “Sunshine”. They talk about “practical glamour” and they describe the product as “an everyday hero”. They love the recharging mechanism, but wonder if solar power alone would see them through a full day of use.

Remember the strategic goal

The MD still wants everyone to consider “Sunshine” – but starts thinking that “InstaGlam” and “TooGoodToBeTrue” or “2Good2BTrue!” or “Hero” might work.

The marketing person can see he’s thinking this and tries to get the focus back to a strategic level.

“At this stage, we need to think about how many units we want to sell, and how many of these segments we want to appeal to. We need to know which are our most important segments too,” she says.

“If we only want to be able to sell this via niche websites and healthfood stores, then we should go down the environmental route. If we want large volumes of sales, we need to go for the fashion-conscious market.”

“Let’s do that then,” says the MD. “Let’s call it 2Good2BTrue! and get influencers to talk about it.”

The marketing person says: “I’m not sure that will allow us to stand out enough. There are plenty of competitors out there who say their offer is so great it’s too good to be true as well. It would be a shame to lose the references to the solar recharging and recycled materials.”

She suggests they take a couple of days to review all of the feedback and then get their heads together again afterwards.

Don’t try to say everything, all in one go

When they all meet again, our marketing person outlines the business need – which is to sell as many hair straighteners as possible, and make any other hair straighteners a poor second choice.

Everyone is nodding along.

However, she goes on, if we try to say everything our hair straighteners do, then we run the risk of making people stop listening to us. No-one likes lists. As an example, she shows her colleagues a mocked-up product box bearing the name:


The world’s best hair straighteners

“Solar powered, totally recycled, lasts all day,” she explains to her confused colleagues. “It covers everything, but it’s a totally rubbish name. It sounds clinical and phoney. What we’re offering is much more emotional.”

Her technical colleagues bristle slightly, but she continues. “We want to appeal to the broadest possible consumer group, with a proposition that answers as many of their needs as possible.”

She flicks to another slide. This time, the words across the middle of the screen are:


Powered by sunshine

“We’re talking about a forever product,” she says, “Long-lasting style, no damage to hair or environment – so we’re helping the planet to be ever-after too. It’s made from recycled materials and it’s recyclable too.

“This proposition allows us to appeal to all our segments – and tell a powerful story. Powered by sunshine gives us a platform for campaigns too – Are you powered by sunshine? Have a day that’s powered by sunshine…” She explains that “everafter” has a romantic, fairytale quality to it – which will appeal to all target audiences.

She clicks onto a new slide and says: “And there were some great ideas and insights from the focus groups too. We could reinforce this story by allocating a percentage of profits to applying the solar tech to developing world challenges. This kind of R&D could help us to develop new commercial applications too.”

The hair straighteners company has arrived at a proposition it can take to market. It won’t know for a while if it can use the name “Everafter” – so it comes up with a number of alternatives that mean the same thing. The same for its strapline.

Find out more about naming here

And about straplines here

This is a strong proposition, because it cleverly meets the brief. It appeals widely, by implying benefits to different groups of people. It even keeps the MD’s wife happy.

Of course, this example is over-simplified. In a corporate environment, testing could go on for some time. The number of stakeholders could be vast – and many of them will disagree (“It sounds like a battery!” “UGH, sounds like a perfume!”) because finding reasons to dislike ideas is easier (and often safer) than coming up with them. But the scenario set out here is the general way these things go.

So what are the steps you need to take to get to a proposition?

A proposition is a way of articulating a clear, interesting and repeatable story about a new service or product. Here’s how we go about doing this:

1. Get as much information as you can

Talk to the experts who created it, find out why they’re excited about it. Talk to potential customers and find out if they’re excited too – or what needs they have that your new thing could address. In the hair straightener example, it would have been a good idea for the company to start talking to potential customers generally, asking them how they used hair straighteners, what they love about them, what they’d improve if they could. These kinds of insights help you to build a good story. If they’d been really smart, they might have even had these conversations before they’d even committed resources to developing the product.

The information you need includes competitor research. What are rival hair straightener companies offering? How are they talking about their products? How are they positioning themselves in the market?

2. Identify the benefits of your new product or service

The minute details of how technologies work are only interesting to technologists. Your customers – whether you’re launching a new mortgage product, hair straighteners, or a new accountancy service – are only going to be interested in what makes their life easier, happier, more interesting or more profitable.

If you don’t believe us, think about your smart phone. What do you love about it? We bet it isn’t the circuitry. You enjoy the things it allows you to do: Send emails on the go, play games, take and store nice piccies, log into your apps… You assume the technology in your phone will work and you don’t care how. It’s the same for your customers. They won’t care what the blades of the hair straighteners are made from. They’ll care very much that they won’t damage their hair, and will create styles that last all day.

So don’t make your proposition about the technology. Make it about the benefits. Make lists of what your new product or service allows people to do – and concentrate on making a story out of them.

3. Be clear on your reasons to believe

Generally, end consumers do not want to know about the science. They trust that the circuitry in an iPhone will work. And they don’t care how the algorithms in your new piece of software have been engineered.

But if you’re marketing a product in higher risk situations – where there is more money, reputation or even lives at risk – you need to show the credibility of your new product too. So talk about the crack team of scientists and how their technology is changing your whole sector. But remember to keep the messaging clear and clean.

4. Create a narrative structure – and stick with it

The Everlasting (hair straighteners) brand will be built on the idea of “Everlasting”. It implies your hair style will last longer, the planet will last longer, you’ll be able to go longer between haircuts. It also implies an everlasting connection with the brand.

So “everlasting” is the foundation stone of all storytelling for the brand. On top of that you can build stories about great looks, great hair, great for the environment.

Then there’s a second layer of storytelling – about sunshine. It makes you happy, it brightens your day, it makes you feel great.

In the early days of taking a new product to market, it can be easy to flipflop between different stories – especially if it’s your first product or service launch. Launches always take time to build momentum – but if you’ve got investors breathing down your neck and targets to hit, it’s easy to jump into the fray and copy what the rest of the market is saying – because that’s working for them, so why shouldn’t it work for you? The thing is, it won’t work for you because someone – in fact, several contenders – have already invested the time and money to occupy their space. You need to find a new space and be realistic about the resources you’ll need to invest to let people know about it.

And while you’re changing your story regularly, you’re not helping your customers to get to know you and trust you.

Locking into a good proposition story from the start helps you to waste as little time as possible. By all means test and test again to make sure the story is right – but then stick with it and work it, basing all of your campaigning and awareness in it.

Find out why going on and on is the best thing to do

Read more on narrative here

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If you’d like to talk to us about creating a clear brand proposition, we’d love to hear about your challenge. Get in touch.