We discussed the importance of messaging and the impact it has on the perception of your product/service by customers (i.e. its positioning). I would like to discuss two examples, where the choice of words used in the message had a profound impact on the product positioning. Let me start with the ‘bad’ example:

I used to work for a company called Daisy Systems where I was part of the marketing team responsible for a new product called the “VHDL Design System”. VHDL is a ‘hardware description language’, which is used by integrated circuit (IC) engineers to describe the intended behavior of the chip they are designing. Using VHDL, engineers can simulate alternative design approaches, and detect potential flaws early on. Once the functionality (aka “logic”) of the chip is accurately captured in VHDL, it is semi-automatically converted into fabrication-ready format. The conversion process is called “logic synthesis”.

When VHDL was first introduced, it held the promise of increasing engineers’ productivity, improving chip reliability, and reducing the overall design time.  The “old process” involved manual creation of detailed, low level electronic schemes of the IC, which were later converted into fabrication format (aka “layout format”). The “new process” involved the creation of a high-level model of the IC (much like writing a software program), which was then “synthesized” into low level electronic schemes, which were converted into fabrication format.

[Note: I realize that for those of you who are familiar with the IC design process, the description above sounds very simplistic. But hopefully it provides some context for those who do not deal with IC design on a daily basis.]

Now back to the messaging story. Our team was excited to launch the new ‘VHDL Design System’. It was fully integrated with existing IC design tools our company offered, and thus became the first end-to-end VHDL-based IC design solution. This was a great message and we expected the market to react very favorably. There was one catch though…

VHDL is a very rich and complex language, and it was designed with many potential uses in mind. In reality, IC designers could use only a small portion of the language constructs VHDL offered. Our technical team reviewed the language thoroughly, and chose to support the “subset” that was applicable for IC design. Unfortunately, the word “subset” was used in our marketing collateral.

I don’t remember the exact phrases, but we have mentioned somewhere in our collateral that: “Our VHDL Design System supports a subset of the language which is fit for real world IC designs”. The ‘s’ word wasn’t in the headlines, but it was visible enough for customers and competitors to pick up. That was enough to create a marketing disaster.

Shortly after our product was launched, it became known as the “VHDL subset” solution. Our competitors were quick to declare that their product was a “Full VHDL” solution. And who wants to buy a “subset” when they can get the “full” thing?

The reality was that none of the competing products supported the full VHDL language – they simply chose to claim otherwise. Customers had no way to test whether a specific product had “full” VHDL support or no, so vendors could get away with making such claims. It took a couple of years till customers started to realize that a definition of a “VHDL subset” was needed in order to support real-world IC design. And standardization bodies like the IEEE started working on such definition.

But the damage cause by the initial miss-positioning of our ‘VHDL Design System’ was already done. Just one word prevented us from attaining the leadership position we believe we deserved.

Now to a different use of words, with a different outcome:

Years later, I worked for a company called Cadence Design Systems. The product I was responsible for was a “system level simulator”. It was a tool used for IC design, which allowed architects to capture, simulate and test algorithms before proceeding to the next stage of actually designing an IC. This was a “next generation” tool, which again promised a lot of productivity improvements for the complex process of IC design.

There weren’t many companies out there who offered such tools, and the market converged on two main vendors: ourselves and another company. Both offered a ‘system level simulator’. Naturally, both companies needed to position themselves in the mind of the customers. The other company promoted their solution as being “event-driven” simulation. Our solution was “cycle-based” simulation.

Without getting into all the nitty-gritty details about simulation technology, I’ll just say that event-driven simulation has certain efficiency advantage over cycle-based simulation. As you can imagine, our competitors were quick to point those advantages in front of customers. We started feeling the competitive pressure on a daily basis.

We couldn’t go back on our ‘cycle-driven’ position and claim that we too are ‘event-driven’. First, it was technically untrue, but even more importantly it was mentioned in all of our collateral. We had to find a way around the positioning trap our competitors set.

After much research and brain storming, we came across the answer. The vast majority of ICs designed in our target markets was “synchronous”. They used one or more on-chip ‘clocks’ to synchronize operations. Everything on the chip happened based on clock cycles. Hmm, cycles… that rings a bell, doesn’t it?

We decided to position our simulator as the best fit for ‘clock-based’ IC designs. While one could perhaps simulate an algorithm faster with an ‘event-driven’ simulator, mapping the algorithm later into a ‘clock-based’ IC design would be very difficult, and involve lots of re-work.

We simply claimed to have a ‘cycle-based’ simulator which is ideal for ‘clock-based’ IC designs. The connection between cycle-based and clock-based did wonders for our positioning. Most of the customers planned to use a system-level simulation tool as part of their IC design process. They didn’t want to deal with the complex mapping of ‘event-driven’ designs into ‘clock-based’ ones. We won the competitive battle – fair and square.

So there you go – messaging and positioning are indeed important. Choosing the words used in your product/service message can greatly influence its success (or failure). As I said earlier – resist the temptation to skip the messaging process. The exercise will be well worth your time.

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