Marketing Language in Proposal Writing

Proposals are marketing documents. This should be something everyone knows, but you’d be surprised how often that knowledge doesn’t result in effective marketing language in a proposal. Below are some thoughts on how to ensure that your proposal readers are getting the most “bang for the buck.”

Showcasing Your Market Advantages

Most requests for proposals (RFPs) to the federal government require the following sections in their responses:

  • Technical Approach
  • Management Approach
  • Past Performance

In each of these sections, you have the opportunity to not just explain what your widget/process is, but kick up the language a notch by including details or support statements that show why your organization is the perfect entity to solve a particular problem.

Technical Approach

The technical approach section is where you describe your solution to the RFP’s problem. Whether Agency XYZ needs a part, product, or system, the customer is expecting the best product/service they can get for the lowest price. Marketing language here would focus on why your solution is best for the customer. The key is to argue from your strength(s):

  • If your product is a proven, known commodity, you emphasize its reliability, industry acceptance, or availability.
  • If your product is less expensive, you emphasize cost.
  • If your product is more efficient than others, you emphasize the ability to produce multiple activities quickly, operate easily, or reduce consumption of resources (money, part count, time, energy)
  • If your product’s greatest value is its advanced technology, you want to emphasize the benefits its new approach might convey (faster, better, cheaper–pick two). However, this approach also might need to include some sort of hedge to calm fears about using  an unproven product. If your product or approach are new, you can mitigate that risk by pointing the customer to your superior performance or staff in the Past Performance or Management sections.
  • If your product and all of its competitors are nearly equal in technology, quality, or capability, you need to emphasize some other aspect of your organization to help you stand out, such as the quality/experience of your people, your level of service, your past history with the customer, or price.
    (Note that I put price last. If “lowest bidder” is the primary consideration, by all means, go there; however, Section M of a typical federal RFP will tell you what the most important factors are in an award decision. If technology is the customer’s #1 priority, you want to talk about why your technology is superior. If price is the customer’s #1 priority, you will probably need to provide more detail in your cost proposal to show that you have accounted for everything and that your lowest bid is, in fact, realistic.)
  • Some managers will employ “ghosting” in their proposal language. This is where, if you know your competitor(s) and how they approach things, you make slight digs against their approach by explaining how your approach is superior to process X (without naming your competitor, of course). Just be certain that your approach is superior. I’m not a huge fan of this tactic, but then I don’t like negative advertisements in elections and people who use them still get elected, so if you think it’s necessary and appropriate, ghost away.

Management Approach

This is where you talk about the people who will ultimately do the work. You might be required to provide a paragraph or full resumes of your best and brightest. In either case, you shouldn’t just copy and paste from an existing resume or bio and consider your work done. Your team members’ background information should be customized to emphasize the types of relevant experience they have for completing the task you’re proposing.

I’ve observed over the years that a company’s management approach also has become increasingly important. This is especially true in Department of Defense or NASA, where more firm fixed price (FFP) or performance based contracts are being issued. In both cases, the government doesn’t always know what product/service it wants, only what outcome they want and how much they’re willing to spend. In that case, a company’s management approach becomes paramount: the customer will want to know who is doing the work, how they will be organized, and what processes or procedures are in place to ensure that the work is delivered as promised.

Because programs and companies can vary greatly in size and scope, I won’t attempt to name all the different types of management or team structures here or suggest which type will work for which situation. However, as with your technical section, the important marketing-language rule here is to focus on your strengths:

  • Experienced staff – An advantage when the customer is interested in reliability and in-depth knowledge of their operation; not always an advantage when the customer is looking for new thinking.
  • Relationship with the customer – An advantage if you are familiar with how an organization runs and are on good terms with them; not an advantage if your relationship has been contentious or if you have had performance problems.
  • Educational background – Having a lot of team members fresh-out of college is an advantage in scientific or high-tech proposals where new thinking is expected; and, too, many scientific projects require Ph.D.-level educations to handle the work.
  • Team structure – Is your team “lean and mean” to ensure low cost and quick communications or is it “deep,” with enough varied personnel to call upon in case you need “bench strength” for specialized problems or surge situations? Again, the low-cost alternative doesn’t always win, especially on high-cost, high-risk programs.
  • Supplier/subcontractor base – This one can get overlooked, but if you’re a prime contractor and depend on a lot of subs, the quality of that team matters. Also, if your team consists of multiple categories of small businesses (8(a), Minority Owned, Woman Owned, etc.), the customer can ensure that you and they get credit for getting work to those types of companies.

Past Performance

This is simply your track record to prove that you’ve done a specific type of work before or work of similar difficulty or scope. The marketing angle here is pretty straightforward, as you want to point out the similarities between your past work and the proposed work as well as how well you’ve performed on those projects. You have done well, haven’t you? Okay, maybe one of those projects wasn’t your company’s best experience. If you have enough experience, don’t include that customer and use another. If you don’t have any alternatives, what are you doing to fix the situation? As in most situations, don’t lie about your past. Don’t claim to do things you haven’t done or make a connection between past work and the proposed work if it doesn’t exist.

All that said, again: play to your strengths. In situations where the government is asking for something risky and high-tech, they will rely as much on your past performance as technical approach because past performance can be verified.

  • Cost: If you met your cost estimate or came in low, that’s a good thing.
  • Schedule: If you consistently met your proposed schedule or delivered early, those are good things.
  • Quality: If your delivered product service required very few “do-overs” due to workmanship or service issues, by all means, note that.

Do you know how you stand with your customer(s)? Do your front-line and project management teams have ongoing, positive relationships with them? Are you delivering the product or service they expect? Do you send your customers satisfaction surveys quarterly or annually to get some hard numbers? If the answer to all of the above is “no,” depending on your past performance can be risky because a) you don’t know what your customers will say, and b) the awarding agency will follow up with your references to determine if what you said matches the customer’s reality.

Concluding Thoughts

The “marketing” aspect of proposal writing is the messaging you include throughout your proposal document. Therefore, as with any marketing product, you want your messaging to be consistent. This can be challenging if you have multiple people writing the proposal, in which case it’s good to have a kickoff meeting to discuss your themes and messages before everyone runs off and starts writing. For example, if the people writing the management section are convinced that the strength of your proposal is the quality of your machining, your customer will be confused if that machining isn’t mentioned in the technical section. Your strengths also should be highlighted in your Executive Summary so that the customer knows what to expect when they dive into the details. You don’t just want to explain what you do, you want to show why you do it better than anyone else!

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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