What is a messaging hierarchy and system?

Creating a messaging hierarchy and system

In short, a messaging hierarchy and system is a framework that makes sure you’re telling a consistent story about your organisation, brand, product or service. It’s the backbone of your narrative, and structured well, it will help your teams and suppliers create any type of communication with complete consistency and brand cohesion.

This post goes into detail about what a messaging hierarchy and system is, how to use one – and how to think about creating one…

Branding – as so many readers of this blog know – is fundamentally about creating a story that is so interesting it sticks in consumers’ heads, is super-easy to recall and in fact becomes part of their go-to mental reference material.

To be interesting, the messages themselves have to appeal to consumers – and usually represent some kind of benefit. To be memorable, the story has to be consistent… and this is where a messaging hierarchy and system comes in.

When you have a messaging hierarchy and system, anyone in your organisation will be able to tell the same story about your brand, products and services.

Why is consistency important?

Here’s an extreme – though not unusual – scenario. International company ACME plc sells many different things – let’s say, washing machines, dishwashers, kitchenware, sanitary ware, cleaning products, storage boxes and racking. Its washing machines and dishwashers are manufactured and marketed in Turkey. Its kitchen and sanitary ware, storage and racking are designed in the UK, made in China and marketed in the UK and USA. Its cleaning products are manufactured in the USA.

If ACME plc doesn’t take action to control its story, each of its sites will tell a different story about ACME. In Turkey, employees may say: “I work for ACME, it’s a white goods manufacturer.” In China, teams might say: “ACME pays well… we make a lot of different things.” In the UK, the story might be: “ACME is all about innovative design.” And in the US: “ACME is a Portland institution”.

While none of these things are particularly bad, there is nothing cohesive about the way colleagues across the world understand the organisation they work for. This may mean they don’t even know that ACME’s work is bigger than the site they work from – which makes it impossible for them to talk about ACME more widely. Equally, it means that an ACME customer possibly won’t know that the brand they bought their washing machine from also offers amazing kitchen and sanitary ware. If they’re impressed with their washing machine, it means that ACME isn’t benefiting from any kind of halo effect across the rest of its products. (This is where you have a great experience with a product and then think: “Fab, I know who to buy other things from now.”)

If ACME was our client, we’d advise them to articulate a story that ties their whole offer together. To get to this, we’d probably do a lot of reading and interviewing of customers and key stakeholders. This is how we get our arms around all the stories people in – or associated with – the organisation are telling about it. We’d also look at competitors and positioning.

Then we’d distil down until we had a list of messages we believed were most important to the brand, its business objectives and its audiences. For ACME, they might go something like this:

  Message Explanation
1 BeautyACME’s products are the most stylish on the market. We elevate household cleaning to a whole new level of sophistication. Design is at the heart of ACME’s offer. Our products look beautiful, feel beautiful to use and perform beautifully.
2 InnovationWe’re always seeking out new ideas, solving fresh challenges and helping the world to clean in new ways.
3 KindnessKeeping clean and loving the environment don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Our products are built to last, not to cause harm – and to be recycled when the time comes.

This framework would then form the basis for all communications about ACME plc. Its teams then – wherever in the world they work – could say: “I work at ACME. We make the most stylish cleaning accessories you have ever seen in your life.” Which helps consumers to think of “ACME” and “style” in the same breath. It also helps ACME teams to understand and feel proud about their contribution to a wider ideal.

Even if you have the best, most reliable and innovative products in the world, without a cohesive story, your brand isn’t as strong as it could be.

You can see an example of where we created a messaging system for an international organisation here.

What about smaller organisations?

Even for a tiny organisation, it’s important to shape the story your teams are a part of – and that you tell the world. Let’s imagine a micro business. Its two founders and their one employee (plus occasional freelancers) have developed some really interesting approaches to executive coaching. Their clients are a mix of blue chip corporations and well-funded start-ups. They’re super-busy with both internal and external work and they haven’t thought about their company’s story in a strategic way.

One partner is great at networking and socialising – and spends a lot of time at events talking to potential clients. He is deeply interested in the potential of coaching and keeps up-to-date with leadership trends. But this often means that when he’s talking about his own company, he does it through the lens of whichever leadership approach he is currently investigating. So sometimes he introduces his consultancy with: “We are VUCA-proofing for your organisation…” and sometimes with: “We are here to navigate you through your change management journey…”

Meanwhile, the other partner is more people-focussed, and he describes the consultancy in terms of its inclusivity and diversity agenda. And their employee loves and lives for technology – so she describes the consultancy as a “coaching platform”.

Their website is kind of muddled too. They know they really want to work with organisations with at least 500 employees – but they’re afraid of alienating other types of client. So they feel they have to show they do everything for everybody. They write lists instead of stories – and provide multiple sections relating to technical approaches, rather than outcomes.

Find out why it’s important to know your customer here…

This means that someone who’s met partner A at an industry event and was interested in what he was saying about coaching for resilience, could be met by a website that seems to be offering an employee listening product. Or when the employee shares information on twitter and LinkedIn, it doesn’t really reinforce or align with anything that would help the company to grow.

None of the things they are saying about their organisation are untrue or invalid. But it’s not a cohesive or shared story. And the lack of a shared, cohesive story makes the organisation weaker.

Read about how we helped a smaller organisation to tell its story and articulate its brand.

How do you use a messaging hierarchy and system?

In the ACME example above, we’ve set out an example of a very top-level messaging hierarchy. It gives ACME a way to position itself consistently in its marketplace.

The “hierarchy” part means the order you talk about messages for particular audiences. At a very top level, we’re talking to all audiences – so the hierarchy would be as set out in the table. The number one message is about how beautiful ACME products are. The second is about ACME’s innovative approach. And the third is about being kind – to the environment, to teams and to customers.

This could mean that the “About us” page of ACME’s website could read something like this:

ACME

So beautiful

Beauty is happiness. So when we design, we know the end result will be products that look beautiful, feel beautiful to use… and that perform beautifully. An ACME product is so gorgeous, don’t be surprised if you want to Insta yourself with one the second you unpack it.

You can rely on us to keep bringing you perfect products, solve niggles and keep you ahead of the game. We’re always innovating, getting ahead of trends and making you wonder, “Why hasn’t this been in my life forever?”.

And there’s no guilt with ACME products either. They’re built to last, cause no harm – and to be recycled when their time comes. We are planet positive – so you can be too.

A messaging system comes when you build the top level out and create hierarchies for each product or offering and each audience type. What you should end up with is a series of tables, each describing the key messages for each audience and product.

So it isn’t just copy-paste?

No. Sometimes, people mix up “messaging” and “messaging hierarchies” with boilerplate text. A boilerplate is your standard, top-level way of describing your brand – and it is usually created in short, medium and long versions. A boilerplate is created to be copy-pasted into lots of different communications. Typically, it appears as a footer, on the inside front page of brochures and in “about us” type information – like your company profile on LinkedIn.

A messaging hierarchy, however, gives you themes, rather than bolt-together, ready-to-go text. This is important, because while consistency is an absolute necessity, repetition is not. In other words, the story has to be on message, but if you use the same words over and over, you’ll just sound like a robot – and you’ll find it incredibly difficult to make new products and services pop.

Having themes, rather than copy-paste statements, is important because it allows you to align all sorts of messages with your core brand. With the ACME example, if the company decided to launch a CSR initiative to provide free new equipment in schools, it could use the same themed approach to talk about its reasons for doing so. The hierarchy of the messages may change, so that “kindness” comes first – but it would be closely followed by innovation and beauty.

Similarly, when ACME plc advertises new jobs, it should use the framework too. They shouldn’t just want “product designers” – they should be looking for “seekers and makers of beauty”.

Not brand-alignedBrand aligned
Product developer

Sought to work within the development team and alongside Development Manager, Product Manager and Designers to design, develop and manufacture ranges of products in line with range strategy and profit requirements of ACME plc. To ensure originality and effectiveness of all products through design and development.  
Product developer
Seeker and maker of beauty  

You believe daily life should be gorgeous – and you design products that look, feel and perform beautifully. You’re excited by new possibilities, technology, people and places. And you translate everything you learn daily into new approaches, fresh concepts and brilliantly useful products.  

A messaging hierarchy – if it’s going to be effective – should be used in everything. The job ad would go on to speak about innovation and kindness – because the messages in the hierarchy become a way of framing all information the company shares.

When messaging systems, brand and culture align…

We’ve talked about brand alignment with messaging systems and hierarchies. And there’s a cultural aspect too.

Culture, we believe, should also align to brand. A company’s values, after all, should be central to everyone’s work – and also be a key factor in deciding who to employ in the first place.

But some organisations struggle to make a cultural ideal a daily, lived reality for its teams. Sometimes, there’s a disconnect between a carefully documented cultural ideal – often drawn up by senior leadership teams – and daily working life.

Having – and using – a messaging framework in all communications can help organisations make the connection between the big picture and daily reality. It works because human beings need stories and narratives to make sense of the world. We’re all hardwired to latch onto stories that give us shortcuts to understanding the vastly complex and messy business that is life. So if we live in the UK, we know we should eat “five a day”. Kids know “stranger danger”. And that Redbull gives you wings and that you either love or hate Marmite.

In the consumer world, these stories help us navigate categories of products, and simplify the task of choosing which of the many, many choices we have to put in our baskets.

In the world of work, stories can be equally as useful and powerful. More than ever, individuals want to work for organisations that give them a sense of purpose and belonging. A story starts to offer this by articulating clearly and tangibly what the organisation is all about – like ACME plc being about beauty, innovation and kindness. But stories have a special power – they’re viral. A good one is bound to be remembered and retold. And just like a virus, it burrows its way into the cells of our being.

So for the people who work at ACME plc, “beauty, innovation and kindness” will become as much a part of their mental furniture as knowing to brush their teeth twice a day.

This is why stories – and the hierarchies and frameworks that support them – are the ultimate vectors in culture, beliefs and norms, both in the workplace and in wider society.

So how does a messaging hierarchy and system work with tone of voice?

A messaging hierarchy gives you the “what” of your content – what you’re going to say. A tone of voice gives you the “how” – how you’re going to say it.

Messaging hierarchies and tone of voice are complementary brand assets.

You can find out more about tone of voice here.

Aren’t the ACME examples more like values?

Well, here’s the thing. If your values are strong enough, we believe they should form the basis for a differentiating story. And if they truly do represent the ethos of your company, then they absolutely form part of its story.

Checking if your current brand values could be integrated into a messaging hierarchy is in fact a really good test of whether they’re superb values – or just hygiene.

For example, if ACME’s brand values were: Honesty, reliability and friendliness, it would only be able to create a story like this:

ACME

Always here for you

Our products are brought to you sincerely, designed with honesty and integrity. You can rely on us to bring you great products – and to be the friendliest cleanliness company you’ve ever worked with.

It’s a story that has no edge, no point of view – and is bland blah. There’s nothing interesting to remember. Which probably means the values aren’t doing the heavy lifting that brand values should.

When we start to create messaging hierarchies and systems for new organisations, their brand documentation is some of the first background information we read. If their values feel more like hygiene (attributes you’d expect any organisation to have – like “integrity”, for example) than robust statements of difference, we suggest revisiting the brand before we start on messaging. Sometimes though, it’s difficult to change an agreed position that’s already been signed off on – and the messaging we create then almost becomes a de facto set of values.

Are there any other benefits to having a messaging hierarchy?

Yes – aside from brand alignment, customer-centricity and differentiation, a messaging hierarchy boosts productivity. When there isn’t an agreed framework about what you should say in a communication, it’s easy to get to a point where every stakeholder wants to throw their two-penneth into the mix.

What you end up with is endless rounds of amends and approval, unfocussed messaging – and even demoralised communications teams, who may, after weeks and months of comments, are simply relieved to see anything signed off. And then an ineffective communication is launched into the world.

With a messaging hierarchy and system, however, there is little room for dispute or adding in messages that individuals in the sign-off process have a preference for. This means communications can be created faster – and the checking process can be carried out against an agreed, objective framework, rather than descending into objectivity and differing individual tastes.

Do you have more questions about messaging hierarchies?

You can read about them in our FAQs.

Or you can give us a call or drop us a line. We’re always interested to hear about your comms challenges.

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