High-concept pitches are not your friend

You already know the elevator pitch is critical to your business, not just for pitching but to crystallize the goals of the company in your own mind.

You might also have developed a one-line positioning statement — a single sentence that defines the company in a simple, clear, sentence.  Not one you’d use on customers, but rather something to tack on your wall, something that all marketing and communication should be working towards.

The Venture Hacks blog teaches us about something even smaller and tighter — the high-concept pitch. The idea is to boil your message down to a short phrase that references existing, successful products. Examples:

  • “YouTube is Flickr for video.”
  • “LinkedIn is Facebook for business.”
  • “Twitter is Blogger for Attention Deficit Disorder.”

I like brevity, but I don’t like the high-concept pitch. It leaves out so much it becomes ambiguous, possibly with unintended consequences.

Let’s make this concrete. Say I’ve invented a new compact, portable projector:

This projector weighs less than a pound and it’s the size of a cell phone. It uses bright LEDs so you never blow out a $100 bulb. Your sales guys don’t have to haul equipment or plug into projectors missing “yellow” that can’t run at their laptop’s resolution. This projector works 100% of the time and is small enough to get through airport security in your jacket pocket.

That’s my product pitch — contains all the details and reasons to buy it. Now for the positioning statement:

A compact, portable, rugged projector that eliminates surprise problems on the road.

Short and sweet, still including the primary features and benefits.

Now it’s time for the high-concept pitch. Here’s an idea, copied almost exactly from the Venture Hacks article:

iPhone for projectors

This sounds good at first blush. iPhones are known for being easy to use, pretty, coveted, and commercially successful. Also the analogy extends to size and portability. Good!

But these aren’t the only attributes of the iPhone. iPhones have a reputation of not working well with Microsoft Office, something particularly troubling for the travelling salesman. Readers of this blog are likely to use GMail and Open Office, but your typical salesman is on a strict diet of PowerPoint and Outlook. Just yesterday I spoke with a business traveler who has avoided the iPhone specifically because of its lack of integration with Exchange (now fixed).

iPhones are notoriously inflexible and not customizable. They bucket you in a culture. With the v2.0 software debacle, I could even include “buggy.”

When you use only three words and when you invoke something well-known and complicated, it’s not clear what message will be received. I’m brevity’s biggest fan, but there’s such a thing as “too brief.”

No, I’ll stick with Eric Sink’s definition of positioning statement as the fundamental particle in my marketing universe.

P.S. Another weird quote from that article is that “for investors, the product is nothing.” I get the point — that product != strategy, and product strategy is more interesting to investors than feature bullets. But still… “is nothing?” Perhaps intentionally exaggerated to make a point, but if you find an investor for whom this is literally true (and I have!), steer clear. Strategy with zero product understanding isn’t strategy.

P.P.S. Healthy disagreements notwithstanding, Venture Hacks is a must-read if you’re interested in funding or selling a company.

P.P.P.S. Someone should make that projector!

Do you think the high-concept pitch has a place in non-Hollywood business? Leave a comment and put me in my place!

21 responses to “High-concept pitches are not your friend”

  1. Nice! Thanks Ari. That article said they have "practically exploded over the past six months or so," so I guess it was a good idea.

    Now I just need to play a video of "Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope."

  2. Jason, you hint at the overwhelming problem with the "hollywood pitch" (such as, Jurrasic Park meets Schindler’s List.) The speaker is thinking of the benefits of the source items, but he can’t control what the listener imagines. As you point out, the iPhone means "easy to use" to some people but to others it means "jealously closed," "not interoperable" or "wastefully expensive."

    It might be possible to compress a statement into a few words, but using other products and services is dangerous, especially if they are highly charged or fairly recent. If instead, consider suggestions like "Pocketable projector" or "Handheld Data Projector." If you want a visual, use something neutral, like "Wallet-Sized Projector."

    I don’t think there is such as thing as too brief. Telling your spouse "I love you" is pretty tough to beat. But trying to leverage the surrounding culture in your messaging to save time is an inadvisable strategy, both in marketing and personal relationships.

  3. I think high-concept pitches can sometimes work, as in:

    – "LinkedIn is Facebook for business."

    If you know what Facebook is but don’t know what LinkedIn is, then that high-concept pitch makes a lot of sense. It gives you a decent 10000 foot view of what LinkedIn is. If it sounds interesting, you can learn more and figure out where the pitch has oversimplified things.

    But depending on how complicated your idea is, you may not be able to effectively cram it into a 3-word pitch, like your "iPhone for projectors" idea.

    I guess I’m mostly agreeing with you here. :-)

  4. I think "XXXX for YYYY" summaries/analogies are inevitable, but its probably best that the users create them, rather than the marketer. First, as people have mentioned here, different people will have different relevant analogies that will best help them understand your offering, without the risk of creating all kinds of undesirable associations and misleading abstractions.

    However, in a lot of cases (not all) it is simply bad sales practice.

    A good pitch uncovers the customers problem ("I need a reliable, effective presentation tool"), helps them understand the implications of their problem ("How much business have you lost in the past 12 months from malfunctioning projectors?") and then gives them the pill to relieve their pain better than all other pills.

    HOWEVER, if you tell somebody, "We’ve created the facebook for business," my IMMEDIATE response is, "… umm… but I can already use facebook for business?" By making the comparison, you have basically told me that your product is largely useless and replaceable with facebook.

    If your product is similar to the one you’re referencing, you’re basically saying, "yeah, we’ve made an incremental improvement, but we haven’t really done anything especially interesting or special." If your product isn’t similar to the one your referencing, you’re just left with a meaningless, confusing analogy, like "iPhone for projectors." What the hell does that even mean? A projector that does 4 other things?

    Let’s just call the iPhone "The Minicooper for cellphones." :)

    As a marketer/entrepreneur, I think its wise to guide people in the construction of their own analogies (i.e. "Yeah, in that way they’re similar, except…."), but marketing by analogy is a pretty crappy method of marketing.

    P.S. Immediately, when I think of this technique, I think of all of the new "Twitter for _______" startups. I cannot for the life of me understand why anyone would want another twitter like thing when you already have twitter. Is it the interface? I can choose from a million different client interfaces for twitter. Is it the user base? I can choose who I pay attention to on twitter.

    Perhaps if they answered the question of "what good you do?" instead of "who I can most readily compare you to?," I may take an inkling of interest in those companies.

  5. @Robbie: Agreed, shorter is better. You make a good point that "shortest wins" only if you’re packing in the pain-point or killer feature. If it’s just an analogy, I’m still not sure what either of those are.

    @Chris: It’s true, the 10,000-foot view might come over well. Unless their view is different than yours, and then you need extra time to convert their mental picture to yours. Why not hit the pain or main feature instead? Or, maybe if you were to lead with specifics, you then can use the high-concept metaphor.

    @Alex: Awesome, especially the bit about "We’ve created the facebook for business — but I already use Facebook for business." You’re right, it doesn’t explain how or what, which are the main things.

  6. LMAO Jason – "Twitter is Blogger for Attention Deficit Disorder."

    I completely agree – too much brevity leaves a lot of room for ambiguity. It might work for a few business, but I doubt whether it will work for most.

  7. What I don’t like about that is that you are not making your product yours. It’s saying your another product with a twist. It’s better to define yourself.

    But I agree that it is to short. I know people don’t have time things in todays world but if you don’t have the time to read a 2 sentence pitch then you really aren’t looking for a new product to invest in or add to your lineup anyway.

  8. @Cath: Yeah, I know Twitter is the Next Thing but it still deserve a poke in the side every once in a while. :-)

    @Jared: Nice point about how it means you’re talking about other products instead of defining your own. I see what you’re saying about attention span, but sometimes you do need to catch attention in 3 words. After all, people are inundated with words — they might not know to keep reading, even if they are genuinely interested.

  9. Jason, I’m actually a big fan of this type of description. Many times people use way too many words and never really get to the whole point of the product. Incidentally they talk about this in the book Made to Stick (one of my top 5 best books I’ve read).

    "The Facebook for business" is an awesome way to convey in 4 words the gist of what the company is about. If your answer is "but I can do business already in Facebook" indicates you don’t know much about product segmentation or defining the "job to be done" for your consumer. Netflix? That’ll never work, I can already rent DVDs at Blockbuster. Mapquest? That’ll never work, I can just use a map (someone actually said that to me about 10 years ago).

    I think the "iPod of projectors" example is a poor use of this technique… It doesn’t immediately convey the gist of the product like "Facebook for business" does. So the technique is good, the execution of it was bad. Mini-cooper of cellphones is horrible. :)

    Now I’m trying to think of "A Smart Bear" is the ____ of blogs, but I’m drawing a blank right now.

  10. @Dale: Thank God! I was hoping someone would disagree!

    I agree with you that if you’re unable to be brief otherwise, it’s better to do a high-concept pitch than to give me a paragraph. Still, "because otherwise I can’t shorten it" isn’t really a good reason to pick a form.

    I can understand your point about "iPod of projectors" perhaps being a poor example. But how would I know it’s poor? It’s a perfect analogy for size, simplicity, sleekness, and coolness.

    Taking examples from the Venture Hacks article, what do you think about "The Firefox of media players?" What would my mom do with that statement?

    Perhaps the real answer is that if the high-concept phrase is indeed a perfect match, it’s an awesome tool, but that often people mis-apply it thinking that "Like X but for Y" is always a good formula. Thoughts?

    Finally, what about the examples you give? What’s the high-concept for Netflix or Mapquest? And remember, you have to use analogies that existed when those guys were starting up and no one knew what they were. So, before on-line maps were understood, complete this phrase: Mapquest is like _______ for ______ (or a similar phrase).

    I concede the Facebook/LinkedIn example, but what about these?

  11. Jason

    As always, you’ve nailed it!!!

    By the way, I join you in taking SERIOUS offense at "for investors, the product is nothing."

    Tell that to a friend of mine who holds the patent but doesn’t have the funding to develop a prototype.

    He’s got the "sexy" part of the pitch down perfect – however all he can bring to the table is an illustration of the girl he wants to set up with investors. When that’s the case, let me just say that the investors want to see at least a PHOTO of the girl before they agree to a VERY expensive date with her.

    However, as you point out – sometimes you need a "word picture" to complete the deal. "The mind of Marilyn vos Savant with the face and body of Jessica Simpson."

    As you point out -more often than not, the high-concept pitch leaves out so much it "becomes ambiguous, possibly with unintended consequences."

    If you don’t know who Marilyn vos Savant – you may miss the point of the pitch!

  12. @Kathy: A Marilyn vos Savant + Jessica Simpson chimera would upset the balance of the universe! Let us not speak of this again, for all our sakes. :-P

  13. I’ve seen people use the comparison method A LOT in software sales, sometimes with disastrous results. Sure, using analogies like the ones you mentioned can help get people to understand your product/idea but it also misses one of the basic fundamentals of sales and marketing: benefits sell, not features.

    By simply stating that you’re the iPhone of projectors or that you’re like Facebook but for lawyers, you are pigeonholing yourself and your product, cornering yourself into a situation that may not be reversible. Not only because the product you are using as a basis of comparison may hinder your pitch (like the iPhone being inflexible) but also because it may show that you don’t really know how to sell it.

    If instead of comparing to something else, couldn’t you simply state something like "with our micro-projector you can virtually carry all your presentations on the palm of your hand" or even "the micro-projector eliminates the need to carry heavy equipment because it fits in the palm of your hand". Whatever your product, just think "what’s in it for them" being "them" the investors or customers.

  14. "High-concept pitches: they’re like Cliff Notes for your product ideas." :-)

    The listener gets to decide if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, based on their opinion of Cliff Notes.

  15. I like @Christopher’s the best… :)

    Also, this type comparison is only one tool, and it should be used when the tool is relevant. It’s like if I was talking about a screwdriver… it’s awesome for screwing and unscrewing things, but it sucks because it doesn’t hammer well.

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  17. @Chris @Dale — I agree with Dale, Chris’s response is the best! It’s like the iPhone of analogies. Also Dale thanks for the excellent reminder that every tool has its place.

    @Joanna — Thanks and welcome!

  18. Figured I would chime in. I’d have to concur with those who thought "iPhone for projectors" is a poor execution.

    – Im not sure why the word "for" is used in this pitch, because its not an accessory or modification for existing projects. This would have to be presented as "iPhone of projectors"

    – I think the projector product holds value beyond sleekness and style. I also, would think that there are other ways to convey its compact size. Iphone is actually quite heavy, and while its thin, its still kinda big in its other dimensions. Iphone is not specifically recognized for is compact size so its probably not the best product to use in this metaphor.

    – I’ve actually been thinking about using iPhone as analogy for my high concept pitch, but funny enough, I’ve found most people don’t see the iPhone the same way I do. I believe its such a success product because it offers a unique user experience for everyone (and of course the brand, which almost overshadows the product). You can make it what you want it to be, and that cannot really be done with any other phone.
    (note, im like anti apple and do not own an iPhone hehe..or an iPod for that matter)

    I think this could be simplified down to…
    "Picture perfect projector for your pocket"

    (i like all the p’s in that sentence)
    thats just a quick shot at it, thx for reading hehe

  19. @illYcut — Nice analysis, however it seems like you’re agreeing with the argument of the article that it’s not enough to compare an object to one other object — that you need something more specific — and sometimes more words — to communicate exactly the uniqueness, the benefits, and possibly the features.

    What you come up with at the end is not a "high-concept" pitch; we both agree that what you came up with is better than a high-concept pitch.

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