No single tool transcends the various specialities within PR more than the key message.
It has been at the epicenter of communications, supporting and encompassing everything from strategy to execution to the ensuing public perception it helped influence. The key message has served communicators exceptionally well, but its time and usefulness has passed. In an age increasingly measured in nanoseconds, brand credibility rests on an organization's capacity to consistently anticipate, adapt, and deliver a compelling key position that stands the test of time.
Drawing a distinction between key positioning and messaging might seem like semantics - and it ultimately is. But in a business environment where credibility rests on the minutiae of shifting governance, transparency, and full-disclosure practices - to say nothing of tech innovations - subtle nuances can mean everything. In this context, the divide is stark and multidimensional. It includes clear differences between adaptability and consistency on the one hand, and reactivity and inconsistency on the other.
Ultimately, key positioning gives a communications team a greater capacity to anticipate and respond consistently and predictably, while key messaging can leave a team stuck with an untenable message that fails the test of time - e.g., what you said this quarter has no relation to what you said last quarter.
Still feel that this is a futile exercise in semantics? That key messaging could be crafted to have the adaptive benefits of positioning and vice versa? Perhaps. But I argue that, in today's highly fluid business climate, key messaging has outlived its usefulness as an adaptive means to credibly and convincingly articulating a brand's core values. So let's call a spade a spade and focus on the attributes of key positioning.
A key position is a principle, as opposed to a statement, that supports the articulation of a brand's core value. In fact, it explicitly emphasizes the value or end effect of a brand on a particular consumer need before and above the brand itself. In other words, the brand is a means to an end, rather than the end itself. In the case of a consumer electronics device, such as a digital camera, for example, consumers seek a collection of precious memories (i.e., prints) that can be preserved for posterity. The key positioning, therefore, would unfold (albeit crudely) as follows:
The advantages of this positioning (and key positioning generally) is that, regardless of technical innovations, shifting business goals, and consumer tastes, people are always going to snap pictures for the sake of preserving memories. Draw an explicit connection (position) between a long-lasting need and the means (brand) to get you there, and you have a key position that can stand the test of time. Approach it from the key messaging and brand-centric angle, and the result is as follows:
"Product X brings 6x and 10x optical zoom and four megapixels to the photographic experience. Sleek and versatile, the brand offers the digital muscle, along with the simplicity of entry-level offerings, to produce clean, crisp photographs."
Typical of a key message, the emphasis is on the short-term characteristics of a product - i.e., the parts of the digital camera that are hot today, but gone tomorrow. The enduring consumer need - the photo - is placed at the end of the message as almost an afterthought.
What results from this approach is a perception among consumers that the product's value is fleeting and limited: It might serve my purposes this year, but I'm not entirely confident that it will the next. By pushing the product as the ends rather than the means, which is a common trait of key messaging, we not only lose the brand's enduring quality, but the capacity to consistently articulate its quality over the long term.
Ultimately, it's not the term that matters, but how it's sequenced and articulated. I opt to call it key positioning, simply because the alternative, key messaging, has too much baggage attached to it. But semantics aside, we must help ourselves and our clients focus on the enduring and inescapable ends that our products and services support in order to create a foundation for long-term credibility and success.