The language of marketing is so imprecise as to be almost meaningless

In contrast to fields such as law, few marketing terms have agreed definitions, which prevents accountability. We need to focus more on the effectiveness of marketing’s language.

If you happen to have read one of my previous pieces – in which I admitted to not being particularly popular in school – it should not come as a surprise that I do not have any friends from that period of my life.

As a result, whenever I run into old classmates or the like, conversations are never really personal. Instead, they turn into regurgitations of one’s CV (yes, I do this now; no, I used to do that then and so forth) before similar questions inevitably are asked about other people in one’s life (yes, I do this person now; no, I used to do that person then and so forth).

It is a charade to uphold appearances, of course; you go through the motions as quickly as you can without coming across as entirely arrogant, so that you both can get the hell out of there and get on with your lives.

Once every blue moon, however, something is said that piques one’s curiosity.

Marketing strategy can be neither wholly planned nor wholly agile

A couple of weeks ago, I was checking off boxes with someone I used to know and from whom I happened to find myself socially distanced at the grocery store.

“My wife,” he said as I looked longingly at the exit, “it is difficult to say what she does.”

“She sells seashells by the seashore?” I asked, stealing a joke from Milton Jones in a desperate attempt to amuse, well, myself.

“No, she works in marketing.”

I looked at the man, who had just a few minutes previously spoken loudly and proudly about his career as a lawyer, with interest.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, she describes her work to me, but I still haven’t the faintest idea of what any of it means,” he sighed. “Whenever I think I do, she says something that proves to me I don’t. Marketers don’t seem particularly bothered with precision of language.”

Marketing language ‘undefined’

I know what you are thinking – the same could be said of lawyers. But as a strategist who also happens to be a former lawyer, I regret to inform that marketers are indeed worse.

Legalese, for all its perceived obfuscation of meaning, is established in the courts. Whenever a new word is introduced, its implications are tried until defined. This is why contracts, for example, are often written in what appears to be archaic language. Each word has a specific, contextually particular meaning, something laypersons often fail to realise.

Marketing speak, conversely, is almost entirely undefined.

Take the word “strategy”. Ask what it means and marketers will confidently give you their interpretation as if it were established truth. But you will find little consistency among the definitions provided.

I should know. I have run the exercise with companies, consultancies and agencies alike.

Where there is a lack of defined verbiage, there is not merely room for perception to outmanoeuvre reality but also ample opportunity for charlatans.

Most commonly, a strategy is considered a) a plan, a ‘how’, a means of getting from here to there; b) a pattern in actions over time; c) a position that reflects decisions to offer particular products or services in particular markets; or d) a perspective, that is to say, a vision and direction.

But, as you might already have realised, these uses are different almost to the point of being each other’s counterparts. A plan is the result of direct control and deliberateness, whereas a revealed pattern is the outcome of indirect control and emergence. A position is where one is, while a direction is indicative of where one wants to be (and therefore, per definition, cannot currently be).

Similarly, effectiveness is undoubtedly le mot du jour, but what is inferred by the word varies, entirely depending on who you ask. Some consider effectiveness to be long-term measures, others believe it to be short-term metrics. Certain experts argue it should be used as a counterweight to efficiency, but many well-known effectiveness awards define it as ‘how well one achieves one’s goals’, and what is to say that being as efficient as possible could not be a goal? And while marketers love to hate the ‘communification’ of their profession, they are simultaneously only too happy to equate advertising effectiveness with marketing effectiveness.

The same worrying lack of codification can be argued to exist for words and concepts such as view, viewability, engagement, reach, brand, positioning, creativity, content, purpose and even marketing itself. The list, as they say, goes on. No wonder that we are not making much sense to outsiders; we are habitually talking past ourselves.

Yet few seem to care.

Opportunity for charlatans

One might only speculate as to the underlying reasons. Perhaps it is meta-ignorance; that is, an ignorance of one’s own ignorance. Maybe it is realised ignorance; a full awareness of one’s own ignorance, but also an understanding that the stupidity of an uninformed remark made in plain language will be obvious. There could even be significantly more sinister forces at work. After all, where there is a lack of defined verbiage, there is not merely room for perception to outmanoeuvre reality but also ample opportunity for charlatans.

Either way, the end result is an industry that fails to reach its potential. Confusion leads to time, effort and ultimately money wasted. The more time we spend with the meaningless, the less likely we are to create anything of meaning.

Or, to put it slightly differently, we need to start considering the effectiveness of our language.

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Today, managers uncritically regurgitate consultancy lingo because they believe it to be how executives speak. Marketers adopt manager speak because they want to appear senior. The poor sods who actually have to do the work, meanwhile, comprehend little of it. The customers understand fuck-all.

The management consultant and academic Dave Snowden once said that if we want to change behavior, we have to change language. It appears as true for our marketing departments as it does for our buyers.

Consequently, I strongly encourage you to clearly define your terminology internally, then hold anyone who delivers against it accountable to the definition.

Get it right and not only will your marketing department run better and more efficiently, you might even be able to sell customers seashells on the seashore. Which, as I realised as I at last made my way out of the store, would be the worst place to sell them.

I will make sure to tell my old classmate the next time I see him, in about another 20 years or so. Maybe he has understood what his wife does by then. Unless we alter the current trajectory, however, I doubt it.

JP Castlin is a former consultancy executive turned independent strategy and complexity management consultant.