Keep Your Marketing Campaign Messaging Simple

(#5. The messaging tips series)

“To strip an idea down to its core, we must be masters of exclusion.”
-Chip Heath and Dan Heath, Made to Stick

Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address is often cited as a great example of brevity that resulted in extraordinary memorability; especially when compared with the speech given by another orator that day, who ran on for hours (I forget his name). Lincoln’s address was two hundred seventy eight words. But what if his speech was boiled down to 10 words or less—the length of most 21st century messages and taglines? This is not an academic exercise. The need for simplicity is central to all great messaging, borne out by research that shows that too much information overloads audiences. I’m not saying that we should do away with longer narratives. There is a place for depth. But in an age when people pay attention in short bursts, if at all, they need a short message that pulls them in. Once they’re with you and paying attention, they’ll be more receptive to hearing your whole story.

Nike says Just Do It. Apple says Think Different. Coke says Open Happiness. None of these brands have the luxury to give a speech to customers. Even relatively brief company names end up being shortened by their customers (Dunkin’s, McD’s).

While most marketers recognize the need for short messages, not everyone understands how to pack a lot of meaning into a few words. The Heath brothers, authors of great books on messaging such as Made to Stick, say that we need to be “masters of exclusion.” That means cutting out anything that doesn’t get right to the core of the message. The core is the heart of it. The thing that is absolutely essential.

As just one example, I had the opportunity to create the brand for a company called Deepwater Wind. They’re an American offshore wind energy developer. At the time we were building their brand, Cape Wind was struggling to gain acceptance for their offshore project (still are, actually). The Captains team saw that the main objection to Cape Wind was from shoreline residents who did not want to look at the wind turbines. What Deepwater Wind brought to the table was offshore wind turbines that could be located far out to sea where they couldn’t be seen by beachfront homeowners. This helped us form the core of the message for the Deepwater Wind brand: that people would not object to their offshore wind projects because they wouldn’t have to look at the turbines. So our umbrella message (in their case, a tagline) became “Clean energy is just over the horizon”. We also designed their logomark so that it didn’t feature a wind turbine. It’s not a coincidence that Deepwater Wind will be the first company to build a wind farm off an American coast.

So, here’s your assignment. Below is the full text for the Gettysburg address. Today, you are Abraham Lincoln’s Director of Communications, and your job is to first write down what the core idea of his speech is. You can start with one sentence, even a long one. When you think you have it right, work on coming up with one short message that has all the meaning of the core message baked in. Remember, I’m not asking you to ditch the Gettysburg address. It’s one of the greatest pieces of writing of all time. But if you only had a few words, what would you say? If you get it right, the Civil War will be won by the Union. If you get it wrong, the Confederacy wins. No pressure.

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate – we can not consecrate – we can not hallow – this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Abraham Lincoln
November 19, 1863

Check out the fourth post in the series: Messaging Tip #4, the Power of Surprise, or Messaging Tip #3.

Harness the power of surprise for your messaging

Marketing Messaging Tips Series #4bearjpg

“We can use surprise — an emotion whose functions is to increase alertness and cause focus – to grab people’s attention.”
-Chip Heath and Dan Heath, Made to Stick

Picture for a moment a scene from your ancestor’s distant past. Let’s call him Grug, an early human living in a cave in France. Suddenly a giant bear leaps into Grug’s cave, rising on its hind legs and baring its razor sharp fangs. Grug sprints out of the cave immediately. The others don’t respond as fast. They have become bear lunch. But Grug goes on to lead a full life, living to the ripe old age of 29—long enough to sire many children. All of us in the modern world are descendants of Grug and others who were wired to sit up and pay attention when surprised. This trait is common in all modern human behavior.

In books such as Made to Stick, the Heath Brothers describe the process of surprising people as “breaking the schema.” A schema is simply the expected normality of something. An orange looks like an orange. If an orange had antlers it would break the schema.

Messaging – Tofu of the Written Word

Considering that the tendency to be surprised by unusual things is so ingrained in us, it’s amazing how many companies launch marketing campaigns with messaging that is downright dull. In fact, most messages are the tofu of the written word, a kind of bland background noise. For you and your company, this represents a big opportunity to leap out of the background and bare your claws.

Most advertisers are pretty good at this. Which is why commercials tend to feature something surprising in the first second – a talking baby, a giant jug of Kool Aid crashing through a wall. Or Donald Trump saying, well, anything.

But unexpectedness can also be used to make a simple message—a few words—wake people up. Coke had a successful seven year run with a campaign theme that consisted of two words that don’t ordinarily go together: Open Happiness.

Try Simple Messages

Surprising messages can also rely on simple statements of fact. A campaign to end gun violence in America ran an ad with this shocking headline: “Last year, handguns killed 48 people in Japan. 8 in Great Britain. 34 in Switzerland. 52 in Canada. 58 in Israel. 21 in Sweden. 42 in West Germany. 10,728 in the United States.”

To introduce the Rolls-Royce in the United States in 1959, classic ad man David Ogilvy didn’t need a flashy commercial. He simply did his homework and discovered a startling fact, which became this headline: “At 60 miles an hour, the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock.” In its own understatedly British way, this message is just as unexpected as a talking baby. Thousands of new Rolls-Royce owners agreed.

Later in my series of marketing messaging tips, I’ll share some insights into the creation of another surprising message: “Climate change is one of America’s greatest economic opportunities of the 21st century”. But first things first. In my next post, I’ll talk about the need for simplicity and clarity in your messaging.

Messaging Tips Series #3

Remember, you’re always talking to one little buckaroo.


When Fred Rogers of “Mr. Rogers” fame was starting out, he asked children’s TV cowboy show personality Gabby Hayes how he managed to create a personal connection with children even when he was speaking to millions of them at the same time. He responded by saying that he always remembered that he was really just talking to one little buckaroo.

Think about this. Too often, when people speak in public, they say things like “I’m sure all of you are wondering…” But there is no all of me, there is only me.

So we have to start by understanding that while our message may have to appeal to millions of people, it does so one person at a time. Which means your message needs to be very direct and tailored to a specific audience mindset.

Part of achieving this kind of directness is stylistic. In a speech, or TV appearance, looking directly at the person you’re addressing (like Mr. Rogers did) goes a long way towards building trust and establishing a personal connection. It’s not a coincidence that the idea of “being evasive” is used to describe someone who’s hiding the truth—they’re literally looking away, or using complicated phrases that evade understanding.

Another way to talk with just one buckaroo is to speak and write to them based on a deep understanding of where they are. Usually the “where they are” aspect is about someone’s belief system,which I’ll address in detail in a later post. But it can even be where they are physically. For example, this billboard Captains made for the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, with the headline “If you were homeless you’d be home by now,” stopped people in their tracks because they felt, in a visceral way, what it must be like to live out on the streets.


In this case the second person pronoun—YOU—lent an added level of directness to the message. Of course, talking with one little buckaroo is only effective when it’s combined with other key aspects of the messaging craft—like the power of surprise. For more on this, stay tuned for my next post.