Jonathan Hopfner | September 24th, 2021

Here at New Narrative we have a long history of railing against jargon. We’ve even created handy guides to help people cut through it. Yet every once in a while we have to (quietly) admit that an expression that might be in jargon territory, bandied around a bit too much but not necessarily well-understood, has its place.

Take ‘value proposition.’ It makes regular appearances in marketing presentations and pitch sessions the world over. Pretty much every enterprise (and more than a few individuals) agree they need one. But start asking what it is or how to ‘get’ it, and you’ll be treated to a lot of different answers.

Common definitions frame a value proposition as the statement that captures the essence of what makes a company, product or service relevant to current or would-be clientele. Or a succinct answer to the question that’s on the mind of every prospective investor or buyer, but usually not directly articulated - if I give you my money, what’s in it for me?

These definitions are fine as they go - but also a touch superficial, and tend to provoke a knee-jerk response. Most organisations are (rightly) confident that they have a pretty clear idea about what they bring to the table, and how to express that. And so after some quick internal deliberations they go a few steps beyond the company’s slogan to come up with a definitive statement on their corporate character, or world-beating capabilities. We are constantly client-oriented. We innovate in our sleep. Value proposition job done. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but it essentially limits the value proposition to a self-contained marketing exercise, suitable for propping up a website or providing a ready-made answer to employees who wonder just what it is they’re all doing around here, anyway.

That’s a shame, because done right, a value proposition is capable of so much more. Far from being an empty catchphrase, a value proposition with real, well … value, can serve as the foundation for an editorial campaign with long-lasting impact. That requires developing a proposition distinctive and intellectually credible enough to strike a chord with a time-starved and information-saturated audience, and that touches on big ideas that lend themselves to repeated exploration as you publish and communicate over time. A tall order, but certainly not impossible. Here are a few tips on where to start.

*It’s not all about you. A value proposition naturally has to say something about the organisation, but given the purpose is to communicate and build connections, must also make it clear what the organisation brings to the table for everyone else. That means the focus should be less on what the enterprise ‘does,’ or excels at; more on the problems or issues it allows others to overcome, or the contributions it makes to a bigger picture.

Put another way, rather than what an enterprise ‘has’ - even if their talent, technology or competitive advantage is worth boasting about - a solid value proposition explains what the company creates, and at least hints at some kind of higher purpose. Saying you’re building the infrastructure for a borderless world, for example, is a message that will travel a lot farther, and to a lot more people, than insisting you’ve got the fastest networking technology.

*Cast a wide net. Creating a value proposition that connects with external audiences and a wider cause is tough to pull off if you’re only consulting stakeholders or conducting brainstorming sessions in-house. Seeing the big picture means almost inevitably looking outside the organisation, to consider the changes sweeping your industry and society; the issues that are emerging as a priority; and how competitors and peers frame their arguments in response.

Given the amount of background noise in any market this is best tackled through a structured research process that includes systematic analysis of the content coming from leading voices and peers in the field, and in-depth consultations with both internal and external authorities to zero in on the themes or concerns that emerge as common and consistent. This allows the enterprise to determine where it is best positioned to speak to those concerns - and to develop a value proposition that does so in a direct, and distinct, way.

*See the proposition as a starting point. Consider a value proposition the opening shot in a protracted battle - or if you prefer a warmer, fuzzier image, the shelter under which everything to follow is built. If you’ve done your research homework, the proposition will touch on a broad issue that can be broken down into any number of sub-themes or topics - each of which could be seen as an opportunity for further discussion or publication on the organisation’s associated views or capabilities.

A value proposition based on the company’s commitment to financial inclusion, for example, could give rise to content on everything from pushing the limits of mobile financial services, to the most pressing needs for regulatory reform. One built around technological advancement could lead to an in-depth report on balancing privacy and consumer convenience, or a roundtable on best practices to promote innovation.

Value proposition framework

Map those out systematically - a basic structure that we’ve employed in our consultations is above - and you’ve got the basis for a full-scale content campaign that’s united on a powerful core concept, yet still capable of supporting dialogue with diverse audience groups. With a bit of work, a value proposition can move well beyond the realm of jargon, or serving as an internal creed, to actually deliver what the label promises.

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