Value Proposition Canvas vs. StoryBrand Messaging

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Mark Donnigan


May 21, 2024

Why Messaging Frameworks Matter for B2B Tech Startups


Imagine you’re a B2B tech startup with an amazing product. You know it can solve big problems for your target customers. But there’s one issue: customers don’t seem to pay attention.

In today’s crowded market, more than having a great product is required. You need to communicate your value in a way that grabs attention, resonates with customers, and inspires them to take action. This is where messaging frameworks come in.

A messaging framework provides a structured approach to telling your brand’s story and communicating your value proposition. It helps you understand your target customer, identify their key problems and goals, and position your product as the perfect solution.

This is especially critical for B2B tech startups and companies entering new markets. Without clear, compelling messaging, potential customers may never understand how your product can help them.

Sadly, they may opt for a competitor that better tells their story. Or they may stick with the status quo, unaware that a better solution exists.

To better make sense of messaging, let’s explore two popular frameworks: The Value Proposition Canvas and Building a StoryBrand. Let’s dive in!

The Value Proposition Canvas Explained

The Value Proposition Canvas is a framework developed by Alex Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur. Its goal is to ensure that your product or service aligns with your customers’ needs and desires. The canvas has two main parts: the Customer Profile and the Value Map. 

Customer Profile

The Customer Profile helps you clarify your understanding of the customer. It has three elements:

    1. Customer Jobs: What tasks is your customer trying to complete? What problems are they trying to solve? These can be functional (e.g., specific operational tasks) social (improve my standing in the company so that I can get a promotion), or emotional (e.g., feel more secure in my position/role).
    1. Pains: What annoys your customer or prevents them from getting their jobs done? These can be undesired outcomes, obstacles, or risks.
    1. Gains: What outcomes or benefits does your customer want? These can be required gains (basic expectations), expected gains (standard for the industry), desired gains (what they’d love to have), or unexpected gains (goes beyond expectations).

Value Map

The Value Map describes your product or service and how it creates value for the customer. It also has three elements:

    1. Products & Services: A list of the products and services your value proposition is built around. This is the equivalent “features and functions” section but at a higher level, as you need to communicate to the buyer what solutions you are providing to solve their problem.
    1. Pain Relievers: How your products and services alleviate specific customer pains. These explicitly outline how you intend to eliminate or reduce things that annoy your customers before, during, or after they complete a job.
    1. Gain Creators: How your products and services create customer gains. These explicitly outline how you intend to produce outcomes and benefits your customer expects, desires, or would be surprised by.

The goal is to achieve “fit” between the Value Map and the Customer Profile. This means your products and services address the most important jobs, pains, and gains for your target customer.

Building a StoryBrand Framework Explained

Building a StoryBrand is a messaging framework created by Donald Miller. It uses the power of storytelling to clarify your message and engage customers. The framework follows a seven-part narrative structure:

    1. A Character (the customer)
    2. Has a Problem
    3. And Meets a Guide (your brand) 
    4. Who Gives Them a Plan
    5. And Calls Them to Action
    6. That Helps Them Avoid Failure
    7. And Ends in a Success

Let’s break down each part:

A Character: Your customer is the story’s hero, not your brand. By positioning the customer as the hero, you engage them emotionally and make your message more relatable. 

Has a Problem: Customers buy products and services to solve problems. Identifying your customer’s problem is key to messaging. Problems can be external (tangible obstacles), internal (how the problem makes them feel), or philosophical (why it matters in the grand scheme).

And Meets a Guide: Your company (brand) is the guide in the story. A guide has empathy for the hero’s situation and the authority to help them solve their problem. Empathy builds trust; authority builds respect. With respect, buyers listen. Today, there is so much noise in most markets that buyers are confused and do not respect sellers.

Who Gives Them a Plan: An effective guide provides a clear plan for the hero to succeed. This can be a process plan (steps to buy/use your product) or an agreement plan (promises of doing business).

And Calls Them to Action: Customers need to be told exactly what action to take next. This could be a direct call-to-action (e.g., “Buy Now”) or a transitional call-to-action (e.g., free trial, consultation). With the advent of SaaS and PLG, many companies need to pay more attention to transitional CTAs, as rarely is a B2B sales motion possible to be a direct response.

That Helps Them Avoid Failure: Every story needs stakes. What negative consequences will the hero face if they don’t use your product? Articulating what’s at stake creates urgency.

And Ends with Success: Finally, paint a picture of the success the hero will achieve with your help. Show how their life will be transformed. This creates desire and inspiration.

Comparing the Frameworks (Examples)

The Value Proposition Canvas and Building a StoryBrand aim to create effective messaging. But they approach it in different ways.

The Value Proposition Canvas is analytical. It’s about mapping your product’s features to the customer’s needs, pains, and desired gains. For example, consider Slack, the workplace communication tool. Using the Value Proposition Canvas, Slack could map features like channels and integrations (Value Map) to customer jobs like “communicate with my team” and pains like “email overload” (Customer Profile). 

Building a StoryBrand, on the other hand, is narrative. It’s about crafting a compelling story with your customer as the hero. With StoryBrand, Slack would invest its marketing ink in describing the pains of teams communicating internally and across the organization. They could expand to talk about how difficult vendor-customer communications are and, with Slack, how communicating becomes easier and the impact on the business more meaningful.

The Building a StoryBrand book came out after Apple, in its messaging, encouraged the creative hero to “think different.” Here, Apple is the guide, providing beautifully designed tools (Macs, iPhones, etc.) to help them achieve their creative goals. The “villain” could be conformity or the status quo.

Another example is Hubspot, the inbound marketing platform. Their StoryBrand narrative might go like this: The marketer (hero) struggles to generate leads (problem). Hubspot (guide) provides an all-in-one platform (plan) to attract, engage, and delight customers. By using Hubspot’s tools and advice, the marketer can avoid the failure of falling behind competitors and instead succeed in driving business growth.

Both frameworks have merits. The Value Proposition Canvas ensures a rational fit between product and market while Building a StoryBrand taps into the emotional power of narrative. Savvy companies use both, leveraging the Value Proposition Canvas to hone their offering and Building a StoryBrand to craft their messaging.

The Importance of Frameworks for Effective Content Marketing

Gartner’s research shows that the typical buying group for a complex B2B solution involves 6 to 10 decision-makers. Each buyer researches, bringing in 4 or 5 pieces of information they’ve gathered independently.

Gartner also discovered that when B2B buyers consider a purchase‚ they spend just 17% of that time meeting with potential suppliers. When buyers are comparing multiple suppliers‚ the amount of time spent with any one sales rep may be only 5% or 6%. That means if you are in the top 2-3 logos on a buyers list, congratulations, you at least got a ticket to the party. But, if you are not on that list, no discounting, shmoozing, or deal-making can get you in the door. Buyers are too busy and simply will not respond to yet another vendor that looks like all the rest but has not built credibility.

This means that most of the B2B buying process happens before the customer contacts a vendor. They’re researching online, reading reviews, and consuming content. If your messaging doesn’t immediately grab their attention and communicate your value, you may never get a chance to make your case.

Content marketing needs to be more than just top-of-the-funnel, awareness-building content. Every piece of content must tell a compelling story, from your website homepage to your case studies to your sales presentations to your LinkedIn articles and posts. Your content must position your customer as the hero and your product as the guide to help them succeed (solve their problem).

Messaging frameworks give you the tools to do this consistently and effectively. Whether you use the Value Proposition Canvas, Building a StoryBrand, or combining the two, the key is having a clear, customer-centric approach to your messaging. 

I still see too much comparison-based messaging in my work with startups and larger marketing organizations in established companies. “This is why we are better!” or, “We are xx cheaper than our competitor!” or, “Our product is faster!” When all the vendors in the market are saying the same things, it’s noise to a customer. 

Don’t push your product; tell a story that puts the customer at the center. Be the guide they trust to lead them to success. Messaging frameworks give you the roadmap to do just that.

In the age of the self-educating buyer, you win by providing the information needed at each juncture of the buyer’s journey and focusing on uniqueness and differences. Based on the observation that startups need help to build marketing functions and implement the right strategies and tactics, I built a unique offer called the Marketing Pod.

The Marketing Pod is a modern B2B marketing engine perfect for medium to longer sales cycles, where marketing must address the buyer’s questions often outside the sales process. I have a Done With You model for companies with a marketer or small team and a Done For You model for those needing more implementation help.

In this Future Factory podcast interview, I shared insights on how startups and businesses can effectively reach their target customers and drive sales. Founders and executives will learn how to craft a successful go-to-market strategy by truly understanding their customers’ needs and building genuine connections.

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