Meatballs are serious business. If you care not for your life, ask any Italian family about their Nonna’s meatballs…and then make suggestions on how they could “be better.” I love meatballs of any number of ethnic origins. Italian (of both the Americanized and original polpette variety). Swedish. Kofta. Albondigas. Bò viên. All delicious, although I will take a pass on the South African skilpadjies and the whole let’s wrap minced heart in liver and then wrap it in fat thing.

There is a world of difference between the meatballs of the world, from density to complexity. Yes…all involve meat that is shaped into a ball. But all have different uses, sauces, binding agents, spices and even spiciness.


Why is it that when corporate America decided to make its own meatball, aka the infamous meatball chart, we managed to make it in one flavor with only one note? Why are corporate meatballs dry, bland and only have one application?

Think about the last meatball chart you developed. I’d wager (and I’m sitting here hoping I am wrong) that it was for a sales enablement application (i.e. a brochure, powerpoint preso, webpage) and it compared product features and functions. Sure, maybe the features and individual comparisons were slightly different, but for the most part your line up of meatballs was vastly larger and more exciting than “theirs”.

These meatballs are fine for those sales enablement moments where customers need that quick visual outline of “what feature/price do I get with you versus them.” But we need to start thinking beyond this basic meatball to get to something far more flavorful and filling for both our internal teams and customers alike.

The Messaging Meatball

We all know about the meatball chart Marketing is asked to create that compare features and functions. But have you created a chart that tracks and compares WHAT your competitors say about themselves…you know…what they are “really” trying to sell. The reality of selling is that customers rarely “buy” what we believe we “sell” because customers buy more than products, features and attributes carefully collected in a PIM.

The act of developing a competitive messaging matrix forces those who compile it and consume it to realize the extent to which a customer is being forced to listen to 100 iterations of the exact same message. When every solution uses the same 20 words, rearranged and dressed up in 100 different ways, the end result is a sea of same-ness that drives buyers to wonder why they are even bothering to look around.

Ever wonder why influencers, peer reviews and editorial writeups tend to top the list of content buyers in enterprise technology find most compelling and useful? I believe that in part, it is because it actually doesn’t sound identical! Influencers don’t conform to the language of the products they are reviewing in the same way peers and friends don’t just adopt tag lines, hero messages and vision statements into how they would describe their own experiences with a product. But head over to vendor websites…apparently everyone used the same Cliffs Notes and are sharing a rhyming dictionary.

To break out of this unintentional mold, you need to see it first…then decide to rise above it.

The Global Meatball

An albondigas is vastly different from a polpette. Both are round. Both made of meat. Both have a binding agent to hold it together. You wouldn’t dare call them the same. From the texture to the seasoning and the way eating them make you feel, what makes each differently delicious is a feature that deserves celebration. That same difference, that same nuance, is far too often missed when we launch our messaging around the globe. We assume that every message is the same and will be received in the same way wherever it lands.

I’ve always advocated for that single song sheet of core brand messages that can be embraced across an organization and across an organization’s global footprint. These shouldn’t be “brand police talking points” but rather the themes and the sound bites that resonate internally so that they can be shared externally. Key to this is embracing that global teams are far more adept at localization than HQ’s messaging task force – no matter how terrific and talented the task force may be.

I’ve seen far too many exercises in developing terrific messaging at the global-HQ level be totally lost on global teams. Brands can end up in a situation where global voices were never involved in the development of the messages, or the egos and power-politics of HQ forced the teams on the ground to hide the “locally relevant” message translations from the HQ watchdogs. The most miraculous exercises in messaging will be forever lost to ego if you let it.

Instead of playing the game of brand police cat and mouse, embrace the diversity of the customer and their ears that these messages are intended to woo. Allow for cultural and regional diversity to flavor your meatballs. If you crafted the meatball base recipe correctly, you should be able to flavor each batch to reflect the differences of each audience without the customer losing sight of the delicious meatball they are consuming.

Should It Really Be a Burger?

Have you ever started cooking something only to realize that you weren’t going to end up with what you set out to cook? Take that one meatball where there is just TOO much meat…so you flatten that sucker out, toss it on the grill and voila…it’s burger time instead. (In my house it is more like I set out wanting meatloaf, everyone groaned and whined, but somehow, everyone accepts the meatball incarnation.)

As you embark on your messaging exercises, don’t be afraid of ashamed of switching up the output once you assemble your ingredients. This isn’t chemistry. Nothing blows up if you dabble here, mix it up there. Maybe you started out working on messaging around a product only to realize your brand is lost in a morass of industry-wide jargon so you actually need to get a bit more fundamental and foundational…you need to add more meat…turn your meatball exercise into the whole meatloaf.

The point of any messaging exercise shouldn’t be to “get more messaging.” That’s about as helpful to driving business forward as changing the color of your logo to boost lead acquisition. The point SHOULD be to gather as much input from as many critical sources as possible and being unafraid and unencumbered to change course just so long as that course still has customer as the destination. Sure, you might start out making a meatball chart. But you need to be aware enough about the needs of the business and of the customer to identify the need, demand or necessity to turn that meatball into a burger from time to time.

There IS Such Thing as a BAD Meatball

Just because you make it, doesn’t mean your customers like the taste and want more. If there is anything that messaging and marketing thru the global pandemic has taught us as marketers it is that despite our best intentions, not all words are received as we would like them to be. While we set out with messages of support and togetherness, soon our customers were taking to Twitter with social eye rolls and more than a few moments of mocking what came across as insincerity. The exercise isn’t about making a bigger or better meatball…it is about celebrating and being hyper-aware of the process of making the meatball to begin with. Know who is going to eat the darn things…let everyone be part of the test kitchen.

Messaging as an exercise and a framework has long been flawed. It is one of the reasons I wrote my latest Best Practices paper with Constellation. We all know that brand messaging is core to how a brand communicates to customers, partners and even employees. In these “unprecedented times,” we have an opportunity to think and engage differently. In the paper, I've outlined some steps I have deployed with clients across every shape and size of brand, all around the world, to help them land on better messages that help differentiate as much as they resonate with customers and internal teams. I've also pointed out some folks I think have done a great job...and some examples of friends who need some help.  The new paper, Death of a Messaging Framework is available now…free of charge as a resource for executives hoping to…well…build a better meatball.Mangia!