The 40th Anniversary of a Key Message Gone Awry

Key messages are the building blocks for a strong brand – but if not done right, they can build a brand legacy you’d rather not have.  Today marks the 40th anniversary of just such a message.

The Goal: Getting the Message Perfect

Key messages are intended to grab the attention of your target audience while distinguishing your brand. In my last blog post, I shared our agency’s perspective on the hierarchy of the message. We believe the message is so important that it must be honed prior to developing the core integrated marketing strategy. Not until the message is perfected can the work begin to create the tactical executions. Getting the message perfect takes time and is not a step to be rushed or skipped.

Imperfect Messages are Powerful Too

Messages that are not perfect can be equally powerful, but with consequences. Often they form a negative brand legacy that is hard to shake. In short, when a key message goes awry, it does not go away. They tend to stick. A good example of this is President Nixon’s now infamous line as he was defending his Watergate involvement. Forty years ago today – November 18, 1973 – he uttered, “I am not a crook.” As we know, Congress and history judged him otherwise.

Fast forward 15 years. George H. W. Bush’s legacy was tainted by his memorable quip during his acceptance speech at his party’s national convention in 1988. “Read my lips. No new taxes” became a lasting liability for him. During the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton used this message-gone-awry in the most devastating way to create his own advantage. But what goes around comes around. No doubt you recall that Bill was later to be on the other side of an ill-conceived key message about Miss Lewinsky.

History does tend to repeat itself. Today’s headlines have been dominated for weeks with President Obama’s oft repeated pledge “If you like your health care plan, you can keep your health plan.” Public opinion on both sides of the political aisle is in a free fall over this mis-message.

The Common Ailment

Each one of these examples highlights a key message that really grabbed attention. They were memorable, melodic and delightfully simple. But also simply not true. Whether not true when they were said, or if they become untrue at some later point, these are not good key messages. The lesson here is if you like your key message, you can keep your key message only if it’s true – now and tomorrow. Horton offers some solid key message guidance. His mantra “I meant what I said, and I said what I meant. An elephant’s faithful one hundred percent.” combined clever copy with physical proof.

Capture the Essence of the Brand

While being truthful is the first step, an effective key message cannot live on truth alone. Messages must capture the essence of the brand. The essence is the benefit at the core of the product. It takes some effort to articulate the core, but once identified, it is a powerful and enduring force. Let’s look at the three levels of product for Apple’s iPhone to explain.

The formal product is a hand-held mobile device with a phone and internet connection. The augmented, value added components wrap around the formal product to make the iPhone more appealing because of its ease of use and compatibility with other Apple devices. This seems obvious so far. But note that the formal and augmented product is not what drives their key messaging. Instead the messaging is driven by the core benefit: the ecosystem that allows you to tailor your device for your own interests and tastes. The essence of the brand and the brilliance of their marketing are focused on making your life better. Mobile Marketer Daily recently posted about Apple’s strategy of telling a story about consumers’ lives without focusing much at all on the products.

On the anniversary of Nixon’s infamous phrase, take a minute to reflect on your company’s messaging strategy. Capturing the core benefit and sharing it truthfully and creatively will set you on the path to building brand legacy you can be proud of.

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Pat Henning Strother

Patricia has shaped Strother Communications Group’s client service drawing from her extensive experience in finance and marketing in corporate and agency settings including Vice President of investor relations for both a regional and national […] Read Bio »


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