We caught up with well-known positioning and messaging maestro Andy Raskin about the secret sauce behind his success, the difference between narrative positioning and descriptive positioning, the importance of getting CEOs bought in, and more.

Full transcript:

Bryony Pearce - PMA  0:01

Hi everyone, and welcome back to the Product Marketing Life podcast, which is brought to you by Product Marketing Alliance. My name’s Bryony Pearce and I’m the Content Manager here at PMA. This week’s pod’s sponsored by the Product Marketing Festival. For those of you who haven’t heard about it yet, it’ll be coming to a screen near you between June 8th and June 14th, and will be featuring headline acts from companies like Amazon, Uber, Adobe and Facebook, talking about everything from research all the way through to optimization. To get your ticket, just head over to festival.productmarketingalliance.com. As part of this series, we’re connecting with product marketers all over the world about topics they’re super passionate about, and in this episode, we’ll be speaking to Andy Raskin. Most of you’ll have probably heard of Andy but for those of you haven’t, he’s an industry go-to when it comes to strategic messaging and positioning. Andy’s been heading up his own consultancy since 2013 now and during that time, he’s worked with tons of huge global brands like Salesforce, Uber, Intel and First Round Capital, to either help them tell their story or deliver strategic story training. Pre-2013, he held senior product marketing positions at 500friends, Terracotta and Mashery, and going back to the very start of his product marketing journey, he spent two years at Skype. Anyway, before I derail the entire podcast with Andy’s CV, let’s pass over, welcome to the show Andy!

Andy Raskin  0:59

Thanks Bryony, great to be here.

Bryony Pearce - PMA 1:01

It's an absolute pleasure. We're really excited to have you today. Before we kind of get stuck into the heart of the show, for everyone listening, could I just get you to please give a bit of an overview of your consultancy company?

Andy Raskin  1:12

Sure. So yeah, as you said, I started in 2013. I was the VP, kind of interim VP of marketing at a company called 500Friends, which was a retail loyalty platform. And I joined them about a year before the company was acquired. And when that happened, I asked the CEO so, "Hey was it worth hiring me?". He was a very straightforward, straight shooter. He would tell me the truth. And he said, "Yes". And I said, "Well, could you sum it up, like, what did I deliver?", and he said, "You got our story straight". And that was really great for me because I'd been thinking about like doing this for a long time, just focusing on that, but I didn't do it because I thought well, you know, what CEO has a line item for like the narrative in their budget? And so I said to him, "Listen, if I had said that to you a year ago, like, I'm going to get the story straight and I want you to pay me this amount of money and this amount of stock, would you have done it?", and he said, "Yes.". And I said, "I don't believe you for a second". And he said, "Okay", and then he sent out - this was a YC company, YCombinator - and so he sent out a email to the Y Combinator founders list, talking about me and what he saw as that value and that led to engagements with three other YC companies. And that kind of started it where CEOs contact me for getting clear on the narrative and then aligning their leadership teams around it. And that's the work I've been doing since then.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  3:15

Yep. And then I guess, so we all see this positioning template plastered everywhere you know, for target customer description, our product is, name product category, and so on. So, given that's your specialty so for any product marketers listening who are currently following that approach to positioning, what would be your argument for stopping and taking this more customer-centric route?

Andy Raskin  3:38

Well, yeah, first of all, that's exactly the template that I learned when I was in Business School, which was back in the mid-90s. You know, I tried to trace back like, where does that come from? As far as I can see the first place that I saw it was Crossing the Chasm. Geoffrey Moore refers to it as quote-unquote 'a proven formula' for creating the message and communicating in a way that crosses the chasm from early adopters to mainstream. But you know, if you look at this, it really is based on this metaphor, this framework that I call descriptive positioning where it's 'customer, you have a problem, we have the solution'. And the positioning is about well, 'let me tell you why it's better'. And so, this really sets you up to be what I call 'the arrogant doctor'. So the customer has a pain, we're going to list up all the pain points, we are going to talk about our solution and how we relieve those. But a lot of what we're going to talk about is why our cure is better than the cures of other doctors. And so in a world where there weren't that many competitors, maybe that was okay because you could reasonably expect customers to figure out whose claims hold water. But now with cloud infrastructure, coding frameworks, it's just so fast to go from idea to feature, product, company. I saw research that said that there's now five times as many competitors for a new company out of the gate, then there would have been five or 10 years ago and so, the customer is basically being screamed at by all these folks, 'let me tell you about our unique differentiators'. And in the end, it becomes almost impossible for a message like that to reach customers, and even if it does, for them to suss it out, like, is it true? And all the rest. So, the way that I've seen that companies who are really breaking out of this noise doing it, is starting in a completely different place.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  6:24

And do you find that a lot of the companies that you go into, are they using kind of a statement like this? Are they in a blank canvas? Or what kind of status are they at when you go in?

Andy Raskin  6:33

I'd say it's kind of all over the map, but mostly, whether or not they're consciously using that framework, they are typically... their messaging is of the form of 'let me tell you about our stuff'. It's describing our stuff, our product, our service, etc, making claims.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  6:58

And then if I just go back to, I know in our first kind of email conversation, I mentioned your tweet about narrative versus descriptive positioning. And for anyone listening, I'll embed that in the post below. Can you talk us through the main differences between those two, and then the benefits of using the former over the latter?

Andy Raskin  7:20

So, for me, as I said, I was trained in what I would call descriptive positioning, that template from Crossing the Chasm that you mentioned, I was actually a software engineer coming out of school as a computer science undergrad, and a friend and I had an idea for an app, this is a Windows app back in the .com years, and of the two of us I spoke English fluently, so we decided I should write the business plan. So I wrote it. We sent it to a bunch of VCs and the reaction was really bad and one of them wrote back to me, "Andy, I rate every business plan I get on a scale of one to 10. And yours is a one". And just to make sure he wrote in parentheses *worst*. Then he wrote, "Not a compelling story", and I didn't really pay much attention to it until a few weeks later, I was walking by this Barnes and Noble and there was a sign in the window. And it said, "For anyone who wants to tell a compelling story", and there was an arrow pointing to these books, and they turned out to be screenwriting books, so I read these books, and they presented a very different way of telling the story, structuring it very different from that template you mentioned. And so we gave it a try, and I'm sure we did a horrible job. But it was enough so that everything started to change. We started to get interest from VCs when we sent out to a new batch, the pitches went better when we met them in person and we had a term sheet in investment a few months later. Ever since then, I've been thinking about like, what is the correlation, how does that fit to the business case? Because we're not building a three-act screenplay here, we're often very constrained in messaging to just a few words in some cases. And what I started to see in the pattern of companies like Salesforce, Drift, Zuora is they were doing something - they were leading not with a claim, but they were leading with what I call change in the world. And specifically, a change from an old game to a new game, meaning there was some old game - we would sell things to people, people would just want to buy them and own them. That game was a great game for many years. But something changed. Of course, you know, it's like sort of technology, phones and all the rest, smartphones, which made it possible for this new game called subscription, or, more broadly, usership where people would want the benefits of things without the owning of those things. What's really fascinating about this is this story is true, whether Zuora exists or not, it's really not about Zuora, and what it's about is urgency for leaving the status quo. Talk to most salespeople, what's the reason they lose most deals, it's not a competitor, it's they just did nothing. But even versus competitors, by kind of championing this new game, it becomes your identity, it becomes your brand. And people just associate you with having sort of the best take and ultimately the best product. That's how it seems to work anyway.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  11:36

And then I know in your consultancy business it's kind of all about going in and helping CEOs and executives, and I was actually listening to a podcast you did with Drift not too long ago, where you spoke about the importance of positioning and storytelling coming from the CEO. But for any product marketers who are listening to this right now and maybe don't have that level of buy-in from the above, what would your advice to them be and then how can they start going about starting that shift and getting the C-Suite involved in these sorts of projects?

Andy Raskin  12:09

You know, product marketing is this fascinating role. More than any other role, it really cuts across so many parts of the company. When I've held the role on the one hand, it is such a place of power because, for instance, when I was at Mashery, we were losing deals for a little while. And so I did this kind of analysis on our pricing, what we were charging for how we were doing it tiers and all this and we wound up changing the pricing quite a bit and it wound up having a huge impact on the success of the company. And at the same time, you're kind of responsible for things that are almost above your pay grade, above your level of authority in the organization, you know, so to bring together sales and marketing and product, often others, to enact these kinds of things, needs a lot of leadership sponsorship. And so at Mashery what I thought was really great was, the CEO Oren Michels was just a really good storyteller. Like he had this story that he was all in on, I didn't have to, you know, coach him or cajole him or anything like that, he kind of set that table for me, and then I could play in it. And in a way, I almost think it's a losing battle if your CEO is just not into this and you're going to try to convince them. I've seen it happen a couple of times, but it almost always is just not going to happen. So I would say for product marketers and you know, some product marketers, some marketing folks when I say that I work with the CEO kind of take offense at that, like, "Hey, this is my territory". And others are like, "Yes, I just really want to get our CEO like nailed down on this so that I can do my job". And obviously, those are the kind of situations where I want to play more.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  14:43

And then next up, and again if I refer back to your tweet, and again, everyone I will put this in the thread below. So the chart you shared about descriptive positioning and narrative positioning. I shared this with our Slack community and we're all super excited that we were getting you on the show and a lot of people put some questions forward. So I'm just going to run through some of those for people. So the first one was in regards to that descriptive and narrative positioning table, which one is inherently better than the other? And then if neither how do you choose an approach?

Andy Raskin  15:18

Well, in my experience, the narrative one, the narrative positioning seems to win every time. It's like who are the category leaders? What's the story they're telling? As we get more and more into this world where customers are bombarded by claims, it's the ones who are telling a story that is not about claims that is actually about the customers. So maybe I'm biassed because I've been talking about this for a while. But I certainly have tried both. And particularly in sales conversations, because you know, a lot of what product marketers are doing at B2B companies anyways is arming sales teams. You know, what we want to do is set up a really great conversation on those first couple of calls, all the calls really. And going in and saying 'you have a problem, we have a solution, here's why we're better', it just seems like not as good a setup for a conversation for them really being open, versus, 'hey, here's what's changing in the world. Here's why it's creating winners and losers. How is this playing out for you?'.

Bryony Pearce - PMA 16:45

And then so you kind of answered it in that question. So the next one, someone was asking if the two approaches can be mixed? What would your advice be if someone's trying to combine descriptive and narrative positioning?

Andy Raskin  16:58

Yeah, I think that's kind of impossible because, you know, it really is about what are we leading with? We can't lead with both. So are we leading with a story of change in the world? Or are we leading with a problem and our solution and why it's better? I think that there's a pretty clear choice between those two. That said, the narrative approach, there is a place for problems, challenges, and your solution. It just comes later. So, because of this change in the world, there's some I call 'Promised Land' sometimes or lately I've been calling it 'the object of the new game', you know, this new game of subscription economy or Drift calls it conversational marketing, there's some goal to it, there's some object. So in Drift's case, I forget exactly what they put it, but they said something like, 'connect with your future customers right now'. And this goal state should be kind of obviously desirable, but also hard to reach. If it was easy to reach, well, no reason for Drift or for your company. And so what are the obstacles to that? And you know, there, of course, should be many. And those obstacles are, those are the problems that people normally start with. But I think once they're in context with what's the urgency, why do we have to change from what we're doing and address these problems? That's where the magic of the narrative positioning works in framing them. Because if we just start with the problems and the pain, well, it's only the people who are screaming in pain, who are going to come and who this is going to resonate with, really just those early adopters.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  19:04

And then the next question one of our members put forward was, is one approach more or less difficult than the other and therefore better for inexperienced product marketers with maybe a limited resource and a lot of time pressure?

Andy Raskin  19:20

I don't know if one is harder than the other. I think they both probably have their challenges. My point of view is, why would you do descriptive? Like, why would you do that? It doesn't make any sense to me. That's not to say we shouldn't be identifying what the challenges are and how you overcome them. It's just not the frame for the high-level message. And it is challenging, I wrote this post a few years ago called 'the greatest sales deck I've ever seen', and it lays out this framework using Zuora's sales deck as an example. And I've had o many people tell me that it's been helpful for them. I've also had a lot of people tell me, "Hey, I tried it, it didn't work". And when I dive in, I asked them to send it to me. Nine times out of 10, they've basically like, replaced the Zuora logo with theirs and instead of the subscription economy, it's the whatever economy that serves them. And what I like to say is, "Hey, this is not a template. I'm not laying out like slide two should look like this, slide three should look like that. These are principles that seemed to work". But every time I work with a leadership team on the story, it's a different ball game, and it always seems to be slightly different in the actual progression. It's similar to movies, I mean, the authors of the greatest books on how to write screenplays will often say, "Hey, if you just follow my guide here, you're going to have a really bad film. So use these as sort of principles for, you know, maybe helping you figure out and navigate some of the trade-offs you'll have to make. But it's not a step-by-step template".

Bryony Pearce - PMA  21:17

Yeah. And could you think of any circumstances where maybe narrative isn't the better option? For example, is there any difference between B2B and SaaS or B2C? Or, you know, a legal company or a finance company? Like, are there any circumstances where you'd maybe kind of err on the side of descriptive or is narrative fit for all?

Andy Raskin  21:39

Well, my specialty and my experience has really been B2B, that's pretty much all of the work that I do. And so I think I'm not going to weigh in on kind of those other areas. I will say, you know, in the legal field, there's a company called Logical, a B2B SaaS platform for legal teams. And actually I'm about to launch a podcast and Andy Wilson, the CEO will be the first guest. And he's going to talk all about how this narrative positioning has been kind of his guide for him in kind of navigating a lot of trade-offs, or pitfalls and growth challenges in the business. I think whether you're, you know, this also gets to, you know, we're talking about this in the context of product marketing. But the work that I do, when CEOs are coming to me for this, they're looking for more than just what are we going to say in sales and on the website? They're really looking for this as a kind of strategic North Star. That this story goes beyond marketing. And I think that's the right way to look at this.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  23:01

And then you mentioned earlier what not to do in terms of using the slides as a cut and paste job. Do you have any best practices for narrative position if someone's kind of taken on this journey for the first time?

Andy Raskin  23:16

Well, pretty much everything I've learned, I try to tweet out or write posts about. You can read everything that I've written on my medium page, so it's medium.com/@Raskin has all the posts I've written. I'd say one of the things people struggle with is articulating this old game and new game. And a few things that I've learned there is one is that this switch from old game to new game should be independent of your product and even your company. So, the fact that we're now in a subscription economy that's true whether Zuora exists or not. Often I'll see people do them and say, "Hey, you know, the new game is basically our platform". That's not the setup we're talking about. The other thing is that old game often will kind of say, name it something really dumb sounding like the old game was you made bad decisions. That was never anybody's winning game. So we want to position it so that we're actually saying, "Hey, you were playing the right game, or you know, the game you're playing now it was the right one, but something changed so that now you have to change". So it's a little bit less sort of finger-pointing of, "Hey, you have a problem or you're you're doing it wrong". And then maybe the third thing I'll say is we are saying you're doing it wrong a little bit, right? We're saying, "Hey, this old game of you know, you're just selling things", so imagine Zuora going to Ford, saying, "Hey, you know, the old game was ownership". Well, okay, you're basically telling Ford that they're playing an obsolete game. And so how do we do that without being hated? And the way that I've seen it work really well is if the people giving the message can share something about how they made the transition, how they used to be playing the old game, so yes, we used to sell things or at my old job, we used to do that and it was great. And then you know, the subscription company came in and ate our lunch or whatever it is, you know, some way that we can create some empathy. Yeah.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  26:01

And then the final question that was put forward was, how do you differentiate positioning from messaging?

Andy Raskin  26:10

Well, I think positioning is the framework of what we're trying to do, which is we're trying to create space, own a space in the customer’s mind. I think this is actually very much tied to urgency. So positioning, we're not just doing it to like have a unique place, we're doing it to build urgency in the buyer’s mind for our solution. Messaging is the words, the instruments, or at least one of the big instruments that we have at our disposal for achieving that.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  27:01

Okay, well, that is all the questions from us today Andy, thank you so much for taking time out of your day, I know you must be super busy, but it's been great speaking to you.

Andy Raskin  27:09

You're welcome and thanks so much for having me on Bryony.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  27:12

It's been our pleasure.