Why You Need a Product Narrative To Win the Market

New SaaS products enter the market every day becoming Silicon Valley darlings seemingly overnight. How do you drive growth in the long run and not just play a reactive role to your new competitors? For a long term unfair advantage in the market that keeps your product consistently growing, you need three things: 

      • A great product narrative (not necessarily great product!), 

      • The right category positioning for your product, 

      • And a unique brand story.

    But, the three aren’t all equal.

    Think of it as a bench.

    Of the three, your product story is the most important. You can be in the wrong category, and just starting to develop your brand, but if you have a good product narrative, your product will grow. Even though it’s the most important, it does need support. It’s supported by how you position your product in its category, and the brand you create for your company. Category positioning and your brand are the infrastructure that support your company’s product. Without the two, your product growth eventually churns. 

    What is the difference between category positioning, a product narrative, and a brand narrative?

    Category positioning

    Category positioning is your point of view on the history of your category and how your product fits. A lot of product marketers and entrepreneurs talk about category design, but the reality is it is very rare to have a SaaS founder who can truly design a new category intentionally. Those are moonshots. Most are scratching the surface of a new idea but have trouble articulating it and then decide it’s time to hire a VP of Marketing. It’s even rarer to have a marketing team that understands what category design is. 

    So to shoot for category design or becoming a “category king” is great, but not always possible. Instead, you can get started with getting the category positioning right for your product. The way to do this is to figure out that one pain point that your customers didn’t know they had and now cannot unsee. This problem is unique to your product because your view of history is unique to you, your founder, your brand.  

    Your category positioning becomes the opening to your product story, what your C-Suite will religiously repeat in every media briefing, and the core message on all content marketing. It’s told in three parts:

        • Your view on your product’s category history

        • A paradox or compelling event happening in the market right now in your category

        • A quick education on the category you are creating or explanation of how your product is positioned differently in an existing category

      Read about how I did this for Slack’s product narrative  here

      To find that pain point that customers can’t unsee, keep pitching and iterating your version of category history to potential customers until you uncover it. This way you craft a compelling story for your product instead of just copying what your competitors are saying and marginally differentiating yourself. When I was writing Slack’s category opener, I pitched and shared it with the whole marketing team and anybody from sales who wanted to start testing it with potential customers. Some of the feedback that came back was subjective and I read it but didn’t incorporate, and some feedback helped me clarify what I was already saying. When I got to a consistent place where there wasn’t any feedback coming in from marketing, sales, or product teams, I felt comfortable locking on the category opener.

      Iterating on your category positioning can take time. If you have a great product, it is okay if you are slightly off on your category positioning in the short term. Slack for a long time couldn’t define it’s category and then was in the wrong category for 7 years and still was the fastest startup to $1B. Your category will evolve as well or your product overtime will fit in multiple categories. Category positioning isn’t a set it and forget it marketing strategy. You will constantly be needing to follow the market and proactively evolve your category positioning Keep evolving your category positioning, otherwise it will break your product narrative and stall your revenue growth.

      Product Narrative

      Your product narrative is the story you tell about your product to the world, but specifically for a target audience. The best product narratives relate so closely for a customer that they feel an emotional connection and can immediately see themselves using the product and articulate that back to you in real time. 

      The reality is most product narratives lack cohesion, clarity and great storytelling so the CMO, sales reps and product managers end up spawning their own narratives confusing the customer as to what the real product narrative is. If you create a compelling product narrative, that makes your customer feel an emotional response, I promise your sales team will use it. I went from reviewing sales decks where every slide was customized by an individual seller, to seeing sellers use the product narrative slides in their decks and tell the product story consistently and cohesively. It was a great experiment for me to see what concepts really stuck for customers that sales would re-use, and build off of those for the next iteration.

      Your product narrative is the most important part of the equation mentioned above. You can have a mediocre brand or your founder is killing your brand with his personal values, your category positioning is slightly off, but your product narrative is so compelling its carrying everything on its back. 

      Remember, I didn’t say your product, I said your product narrative. You can even have a bad, buggy product but if your product narrative is compelling, you will sell your product. Elizabeth Holmes didn’t even have a working product and yet it was her product narrative that got her $1.2B in VC funding for Theranos.

      Brand Narrative

      The last leg of this bench is your brand narrative. Your brand narrative is one part of your brand and it’s broken down into three parts:

          • A short brand story about your company – this will usually include your mission statement, your values, and what you believe. Adding your origin story here helps give context to your values and mission. This is the equivalent of who you are as a brand. Anyone interested in working at your company will refer to this as the “culture” part of your company. Webflow gives you a great idea of what their brand feels like – their About page has a picture of the whole company, demonstrating the importance of their employees.The page opens with their vision and core values (that they call behaviors) in big, bold font. Scrolling down after their founders they reveal stats about their diversity and inclusion metrics, showing they value transparency and inclusivity.

          • Quick stats on your growth –  data credibility to your product growth and your growth as a company. This one is tricky because you have to decide what numbers to share and without context they don’t really mean anything. The best companies share these stats in the context of what they have given back to their customers, like Truebill.

          • A summary story on core founders – this context is mainly for investors, media, and recruiting but helpful to understand how the product roadmap and company is developing based on the backgrounds of your founders. Airbnb does a nice job of highlighting just the three main founders with a short background on each, instead of burying us in the whole executive team. 

          • Optional but a nice to have is a timeline of your growth as a company. These historical mappings are a signal that your company cares about storytelling and the point of view of your company’s story. Figma does this in a playful way moving you through a design experience of how they built Figma. 

        Companies with one product will often include parts of the brand story in the appendix of their product narrative.

        Most brand narratives are written for media, investors, recruiting and internal alignment across marketing, sales, and product teams. Customers will seek out your brand narrative when they need more credibility about who you are. It’s the engine that the customer doesn’t see, but that makes everything move in the right direction. If you don’t have it, customers feel that something is missing. 

        They are sold on the product but need to validate your brand and values.

        This is often seen in value-driven customers. For example, customers who really value sustainability or a specific lifestyle like veganism that has a set of beliefs associated with it. This nearly destroyed Chipotle in 2015. The darling of the fast-food world promised high-quality, sustainably sourced Mexican-inspired cuisine. Chipotle’s customers want inexpensive food that is safe, natural and nutritious. And that’s what Chipotle promised –that it adheres to more-rigorous standards for procuring and serving its food. After a series of food poisonings and other food quality challenges, Chipotle barely survived the brand tarnish. 

        A great brand can support a bad product, at least to a degree. Chipotle’s superfans stuck by the company during its crisis. Apple’s first iteration of the Apple Watch was full of product feature bugs and lacked functionality, but superfans bought it to support the next iteration of the watch. Google offered its customers Google glasses. The glasses were terrible, but people bought them anyway. Superfans will buy almost anything a great brand creates because of their emotional connection to the brand.

        But the reason that your brand narrative isn’t as important as your product narrative is because it is subjective. Some people will love your brand, others may hate it, but if your product or product narrative is great, customers will still buy from you. People still went to Chipotle even after the E.coli outbreak because the product – their food – was objectively good. 

        How do the three fit together?

        Think of the three like three parts we need to know before purchasing a cake. 

        The category positioning is what kind of cake it is. Is it a fancy wedding cake that only the middle part is a real cake with the rest being Safeway sheet cake? Is it a birthday cake for your baby’s first birthday so it just needs to be made with maple syrup and gluten free? Is it a graduation cake for a college graduate party? Is it an anniversary cake for your parents forty years of marriage? The category positioning is about why your customers want this cake and what purpose it will serve them.

        The story you tell about the cake and what customers say about the cake is the product narrative. Has the cake industry been doing it all wrong up until today? Have we lost the fine craft of cake making for wedding cakes? Are cakes made too slow and expensive these days for a simple birthday? Explain to me why I want to purchase a cake from you.

        What customers remember about their experience is also the product narrative. Were your staff extra attentive and efficient taking the order. Are the cakes consistently delicious from your shop? Are your designs flawless and never have misspellings on cakes? What is going to compel me to buy the cake from you and not the shop down the street if I have never tried your cake.

        The brand narrative is what we don’t see unless we look hard. Are the staff paid a good wage? What does your company think about waste management? Does your company believe in healthy, organic ingredients but actually uses commercial products? That is the brand narrative attached to values and mission.

        What happens if you’re missing one or more?

        Bottom line, you want to have every advantage in the market, and if you don’t have all three you are making it incredibly hard on yourself to compete against your peers who do. Over the long term, you will see your product growth stall out. Whether that’s because your category flooded with competitors or one large competitor overpowering you with their go-to-market.

        How do you build these three elements yourself?

        Take a look at how to create your category positioning in my guide How to Fix a Product Narrative. You can build your product narrative here by yourself, or we can do it together through product storytelling strategy.

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