Why this need to speak in tongues?

Much philosophy, an Oxford professor once said, is finding bad reasons for what we believe instinctively. Very much the same could be said of marketing and marketers, who are often accused of cloaking what they do in baffling, quasi-scientific jargon which on closer analysis signifies very little. The issue was given fresh piquancy at a recent Marketing Week conference, when a management consultant condemned category management as ‘an overly complex, jargon-laden number-crunching exercise’.

The same charge could be laid against other faddish shibboleths, such as ‘media neutrality’, ‘efficient consumer response’ and ‘customer relationship management’ (whose initials can be confused with another CRM, cause-related marketing). How justified is the suspicion that these concepts promote their promoters rather than corporate profitability?

The first point to note is that marketers are far from alone in subscribing enthusiastically to gobbledegook. All the professions are at it, from Pentagon officials to City economists, management consultants and corporate lawyers. Seemingly, it’s a kind of lazy verbal shorthand that sometimes spills out into the public domain. And also, no doubt, a device which fosters professional corps d’esprit while excluding the outsider – rather like the use of Latin in the mediaeval church.

There’s another consideration, particularly relevant to marketers. That is the increasingly important application of technology to what they do for a living. Today’s practitioners must sift, interpret and measure a mass of information which would have poleaxed their predecessors a generation ago. How can they achieve this without a grasp of database technology, the specialist tools necessary for its everyday interpretation – and, yes, the opaque, soulless terminology that goes with it?

Sadly, however, there has been too little rigour in the way these tools are understood and utilised. CRM, which appears to have passed its peak, is a case in point. Often the expensive software and back-up management seems to have owed its existence less to a true perception of what customers actually wanted and more to corporate imperatives, such as what the competition might be up to, or even an often erroneous belief that there would be eventual cost-savings once the ‘system was up and running’. The mistake lay not so much in the use of self-deceiving jargon but in the simple error of believing that sophisticated software could replace sound human judgement.

And let’s not forget another reason why marketers may love quasi-scientific jargon. It ministers to their sense of importance at a time when many are secretly worried that power is ebbing away from the marketing department. The debate about how many marketing directors are making it to chief executive of FTSE-100 companies is probably as relevant as angels on a pinhead. Far more disturbing is a recent piece of research from PA Consulting, which reveals that close to two-thirds of marketers have no say on pricing, one of the ‘four Ps’.

Yet the fact remains – however excused and justified – that the affection for smoke and mirrors is ultimately detrimental to marketers’ own interests. It suggests a lack of candour at a time when the issue of trust in brands and the companies behind them is becoming paramount.

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