Should Your Messaging Use Your Competitor’s Terminology?

One of the most difficult parts of marketing messaging is describing what your product is in a way that’s both easy to understand and communicates the unique value your product delivers. I’ve seen startup marketers really struggle with how to describe their market and specifically, whether or not they should use the same terms as their competitors.

For example, suppose your solution delivers many of the same features of a marketing automation solution but also includes features not typically seen in those types of tools – say built-in support for running campaign on various social media platforms or some types of pipeline analytics more typically seen in  CRM systems.  Should you describe your market as “Marketing Automation”, “CRM” or “Social Media Marketing” or should you avoid those terms and come up with some new terms to define the (clearly different) think that you do?

The answer is that it really depends on your company, your market, who else is in the space and the dynamics of what’s happening in the market. Here some things to consider on both sides:

Why using the same terms as your competitors might be a bad idea:

  1. Whoever “owns” those terms could own your basic positioning – Sometimes terms are heavily associated with a particular company, or have been created by industry analysts. The folks that created the terms may also have the power to shift the meaning and your basic positioning as a result. For example, if Gartner Group uses Marketing Automation as a term but decides tomorrow that it’s merely a sub-category under Customer Relationship Management – will you still be happy to call yourself that?
  2. It may put you in a narrower box than you are comfortable with – A more common concern is whether the term really represents what you do. If you do a bunch of things beyond marketing automation why would you want to define yourself to a more narrow category?
  3. You inherit the baggage of those terms – Again, using the example above, marketing automation has been historically associated with automated email campaigns. If your tool for example was more about social media and doing things to attract prospects (pull marketing) vs. traditional push marketing you might not be so keen on using those terms.

Why using the same terms as your competitors might be a good idea:

  1. It’s faster to describe what you do – You have mere seconds to describe to a prospect what you do so having a shorthand way to do that (even if it isn’t perfect) is a good thing. If the industry terms are good enough to convince prospects to spend a couple of minutes with you, you’ll have time to get into the finer points of your positioning later.
  2. Prospects search using those terms – This is a crucial point. Even if you consider your solution to be MILES beyond what the other players in a market are delivering but your customers still use the standard terms to look for you, you had better use them too.
  3. You don’t have what it takes to invent a market (at least for now) so you might as well not waste cycles trying – So exactly what terms would you use if you didn’t use the standard ones out there? I’ve seen startups try to invent new terms with generally lousy results, particularly if you have to educate your prospects on what your new terms mean. Getting an industry to use your terminology requires a fairly significant investment (time and often money) in content creation, analyst consulting and PR. And even then it doesn’t always catch on. If you’re a startup, it might just be way more efficient to start out using the industry standard terms until you are big enough to own your own stage.

I usually try to focus on how the customer might describe what I do and keep things as simple as possible. I might think my solution is much cooler than a typical ERP solution, but calling it “business efficiency software” doesn’t mean my cutomers will understand what that is or stop searching for ERP. 

I’d love to hear what other marketers out there have seen.

43 thoughts on “Should Your Messaging Use Your Competitor’s Terminology?”

  1. April,

    Finding your own positioning that differentiates you from the competition without distancing yourself from the marketplace is what makes Product Marketing such a challenge.

    I can’t agree more about focusing on simplicity. From a startup perspective, if you are competing with an entrenched competitor, they usually have the basis covered for just about everything.

    You don’t want to have to explain your new concept for 5 minutes before getting to the 30 second (or less) elevator pitch on what you company actually does.

    Thanks for the post!

    Josh

  2. OMG – can you come and talk to my boss? We’ve been having a fight about this for months. Our product is clearly in a certain space but he refuses to use the term for it because he feels like he’s “promoting the competition.” My stand is that we are talking about the space, not our competitors specifically. He’s not listening and our prospects don’t know what the hell we are.

    1. I’ve been there too so I feel your pain. The only way I have gotten around that in the past is to have to CEO hear it over and over from customers that it’s an industry term and not a term specific to one competitor. This is an important distinction btw – just because your competitor uses a term doesn’t mean everyone understands it so you do need to be careful not to follow them over a cliff.
      The funny thing I’m seeing a lot of with startups right now is the desire to define a company by referencing another company in addition to a space. i.e. We are the YouTube of ERP or we’re the Salesforce.com of HR solutions. While there are some things about this approach that I like (you have an instant frame of reference for both the market and the differentiator), I have seen it used in ways that didn’t add any value. For example, I know a startup that’s using the SalesForce comparison when I think the only way they are like Salesforce is that they are a hosted service and every one of their competitors is also a hosted service. Adding the Salesforce reference in that case doesn’t add anything, IMO.
      April

  3. It’s easier and safer to use the terms rather than the actual competitor. You can get anchored to a perception that way (you’re like Bob but smaller – I’ll play it safe and go with Bob).

    If you add significantly to a space, you have the flexibility to get edgy to attract attention: “And you thought you knew what CRM could do for you” “Yea, we do CRM. But is that all you need?” etc.

    Tj

    1. Thanks for the comment Tim.
      Yes, there’s always the “We’re more than just tires” type positioning which I think can work. The trick is to do that plus answer the “What do you mean by more?” question.
      April

  4. Great post, April. And I agree that “prospects search using those terms” is crucial. Considering that most companies these days are found via the web, this point can’t be overemphasized. If your messaging doesn’t incorporate the phrases and words used by your prospects to describe their challenges and objectives, you’ll never show up in the search results. Another important point — unless prospective buyers are clear from the get-go about the type of solution needed to overcome their problems/achieve their goals, they aren’t going to start their searches by entering terms related to product types/solutions. Again, they’re going to use the terms that describe those issues. Once they educate themselves on whether or not other organizations are grappling with the same issues, how pressing an issue it is, options for addressing the issue, etc., they’ll start using terms to describe solutions they’ve read/heard about in the educational material they’ve consumed.

  5. Michael Emerson

    Fundamentally, customers buy products from categories that they are familiar with. I consistently have seen startups and large companies that have products that are innovative and compelling, but violate product category boundaries, fail to get traction. Prospects search on-line by categories. Prospects get advice from their colleagues about capabilities within categories, etc. Once you meet this guideline, you should avoid using buzzwords that may lock you into a bad spot. Even major analysts will push terminology that later turns out to be niche in nature.

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