Blog post

The Three Cs of Messaging and Positioning in Marketing: Pick Any Two

By Jake Sorofman | January 12, 2017 | 2 Comments

digital marketing

Late last year, I shared some thoughts on how and why positioning and messaging efforts so often go off the rails. One of the anti-patterns I described was what I called “hoarder complex,” where marketers treat messaging like a catchall for everything they’ve ever uttered or thought.

It’s a common affliction. We grow attached to our ideas. And we worry that perhaps what we’ve left behind will be the very thing that moves someone to action. Particularly in engineering-driven cultures, we’re also compelled to be accurate and complete. Accuracy, of course, is a virtue, but our efforts to be complete are often the root cause of hoarder complex.

In any complex project environment, one way or another, we face the immutable law of finite resources: We’re bound by constraints. Good, fast or cheap, we’re told. Pick any two.

This principle is illustrated by the classic triple constraint model that you often see knowingly posted on the cubicle walls of project managers and others who are frequently asked to do the impossible. A similar model applies to any messaging and positioning exercise:


Clear, compelling or complete: pick any two.

You see, while each of these things are important aspirations, they often work at cross purposes. Your efforts to be clear are undermined by your efforts to be complete, which are undermined by your efforts to be compelling. Something has got to give.

Because when you aim for clarity you’re forced to leave something behind. Same is true when compelling is your goal. You simply can’t capture it all and expect it to be each of these things.

As I’ve said before, positioning is an exercise in sacrifice. It’s bound by constraints. And when you try to defy these immutable laws, you end up with messaging that fails on each of these dimensions.

How can you tell your messaging has gone off the rails? In its effort to be each of these things, it becomes exactly none of them. So which pair should you choose?

  • Clear and complete messaging isn’t necessarily a bad strategy, but it may fail to drive your audience to action. This messaging can easily devolve into a product spec sheet.
  • Compelling and complete messaging may capture some interest, but talk past your audiences who are left scratching their heads or, worse, feeling a bit stupid.
  • Clear and compelling is generally my go-to pair. Sure, you’re leaving something behind, but you’re telling a story with coherence, logic and, critically, emotion.

There are no perfect answers in positioning and messaging, which is probably more art than science. But starting with the conviction that something has got to give may relieve you of the burden of trying in vain to make your messaging be all of these things. Because, chances are, unless you introduce one of these constraints, your messaging will become exactly none of them.




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  • Can we expect a follow-on post with real-life examples of the brands that have followed and the brands that have not followed the 2-out-of-3 approach?