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I read Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate by George Lakoff, a renowned linguist – and I think it’s a must-read for anyone who works on positioning and messaging for their business.

With decades of experience, Lakoff writes about the US GOP party and their messaging machine — or rather, the foundational cognitive functions they understand to help them build awareness, influence political discourse, and own the narrative.

In SaaS, we can apply many of the same concepts to how we think about our positioning and messaging to drive awareness and influence, define categories, and build narratives.

Without plagiarizing too much, here’s a summary that may help you take your positioning and messaging to the next level.

It’s all about the framing

Frames are “mental structures that shape the way we see the world”. These are built-in, default concepts that guide our psyche and our understanding of life and the universe.

Frames already exist in your customers mind — influenced by their peers, the media, education, and more.

A frame might be a customer’s view of their problem, and the solution they think they need. It might be their opinion of a particular piece of software or brand. It might even be their interpretation of their problem.

Frames are hard to build from scratch, although they can be broken down and rebuilt piece-by-piece.

Frames need to exist to be activated

One of the core concepts is that frames must pre-exist in order to be understood.

Many, many SaaS companies are currently contemplating whether to name a category, or align with another. Popularised by Play Bigger, to differentiate you need to distinguish your proposition away from the competitors by creating a new category.

However some folks have taken this to new, weird, and almost unrecognisable heights. Odd naming that doesn’t quite stick, tangential application of concepts from other industries, and too much verbatim HiPPO (the highest paid person’s opinion) language.

One of my favorite quotes on category creation is from Andy Raskin:

A few weeks ago, I met a CMO named Yvette in the office kitchen at OpenView Venture Partners. She was chewing on a bagel during a lunch break from the VC firm’s all-day speaker event, and she was clearly upset.

“How in the world,” Yvette said, reaching for the cream cheese, “am I going to inform my team that our entire approach to marketing is wrong?”

The CEO of another company, overhearing Yvette, chimed in. “Right? I just texted my VP of sales that the way we’re selling is obsolete.”

In fact, virtually every CEO, sales exec, and marketing VP in attendance seemed suddenly overwhelmed by an urgent desire to change the way they worked.

Andy Raskin

Unless the core concept of the category can resonate that well, it’s unlikely to hit the mark. (See the difference between Drift’s former ‘Conversational Marketing’ category and their new ‘Revenue Acceleration’ category, in my opinion at least!).

Similarly in sales, we want to pitch and have prospects nod their head and agree with everything we say – not scratch their head in confusion, overloaded with cognitive effort.

Repetition works

Lakoff says that repetition is key, broadcasting a message until it becomes an unconsciously held belief.

When done well, category creation builds upon existing concepts and then activates them, bringing them into everyday public discourse. Of course, this is easier to do in our niche stakeholder audiences rather at national-scale political messaging.

Everything you put out into the world should cite the same core concept over and over again. It should build the frame in the mind of your audience piece-by-piece, strengthening the neural networks and priming their subconscious for your approach.

Frame your features

Lakoff uses the ‘tax relief’ framing as an example of understanding a core belief (taxes should be lower) and building the surrounding frame (‘relief’ meaning to release burden).

And we can use the same concepts in the way we name product features. For example, ‘invoice generation’ is plain and straightforward; ‘invoice automation’ feels smart and helpful.

Build the messaging machine

One of the most interesting parts of the book that isn’t covered in detail is the huge messaging operation that sits behind the Republican party. It’s not just the politicians and the policywonks, but a coordinated army of researchers, theorists, intellectuals, training programs, media relations, pollsters, and more.

I think there’s a ton of opportunity to think about building a messaging machine in your business. It shouldn’t just be the product marketing or marketing team who own, test, and iterate on messaging; every team should be brought into the process with a common goal in mind.

  • Every team should be trained on the messaging, from the theory to the execution
  • There should be clear learning and validation goals to help iterate successfully
  • Feedback loops should be obvious and well-managed, to quickly pass learnings from the frontline back to the intelligence center

The book is highly recommended for anyone in the messaging and positioning realm. Buy it, and let me know what you think!

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2 Replies to “Don’t Think of an Elephant”

  1. […] my post looking at a book on the American Republican party messaging machine, Don’t Think of an Elephant by George Lakoff, one of the main concepts is that frames (“mental structures that shape the way […]

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