It’s time we admit marketing jargon is holding the profession back

Technocratic marketing speak is picking up where supercalifragilisticexpialidocious left off – and it’s not making anyone’s job any easier.

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What is it about marketing that lends itself to using complicated words and jargon?

I asked an 8-year-old the other day what the biggest word they’ve ever heard was. The answer’s obvious, isn’t it? Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. From Mary Poppins.

It’s a great word, and as you grow up it joins antidisestablishmentarianism and floccinaucinihilipilification in the great triumvirate of ‘big words’ that get used to demonstrate playground intelligence.

But Mary Poppins knew all about why big words were being used and sang about it in the film:

‘He travelled all around the world and everywhere he went /
He’d use his word and all would say there goes a clever gent.’

There’s a satirical undertone to the song, poking fun at the word which sounds big and clever, but has no real meaning.

The language of the boardroom: What to say and what to avoidMarketing could learn a lot from Mary Poppins. In our industry the habit of using big words that sound clever is more rampant than ever.

Think about the terminology used to describe what it takes to do great work nowadays. Can you honestly tell me that any of this makes sense to normal people?

Mental availability
Category entry point
Category heuristics
Distinctive brand asset

To name but a few.

And I get it. It’s important to be able to define stuff that we discover, and to tell people about it so they can discover it too. But it’s gone too far.

A few weeks ago, a new piece was published in ScienceDirect by Byron et al, called “the market-based assets theory of brand competition”. Genuinely, a bit sick in my mouth.

The desire to accurately codify what works and what doesn’t is fantastic, but when it results in the use of cryptic terminology it’s gone too far.

What’s the point in understanding something so deeply, and yet making it so hard to actually explain to anyone?

My hunch is that our admirable desire to prove the value of marketing (the marketing of marketing if you will) has led to a belief that we need to be able to speak geek about it, in order to prove we know what we’re talking about.

Suffering from impostor syndrome? The cure is simpler than you thinkThis is actually quite a generous perspective. In one brilliant interview, John James and Matt Watkinson discuss the history of the consulting industry. They articulate – tragically – how the services industry discovered that shrouding something in scholastic mystery made it easier to sell. “What makes it into the lexicon of management isn’t necessarily what works best, it’s what can be packaged and sold at scale,” they said.

Whatever the reason for it, the implications are pretty scary.

Even if the terminology is perfectly understood by the whole marketing department – which it’s not by the way – that’s not enough to deliver results.

Marketing isn’t an individual sport, but rather a collective endeavour, and it’s hard to have genuine impact and influence across business functions if you’re speaking all jargonistic.

I heard this week about long arguments being had at one of the world’s biggest and best known brands about the difference between brand personality and tone of voice.

I remember witnessing months of painful discussion at one CPG brand about whether brand loyalty existed or not, which ended up with everyone agreeing that it did exist, but still disagreeing about whether anything could be done about it.

At best, we’re wasting time, energy and budget and making it much harder for everyone to do better marketing. At worst, we’re putting up barriers to entry and diversity within our own industry.

What to do about it?

My recommendation is that we stop trying to introduce and learn new vocabulary and instead start practicing the discipline of asking really well informed questions.

Read the books, get the knowledge, the tools, the frameworks. Understand the jargon, but then use it to interrogate the business better.

Ask simple questions like: what impression do people have of us?

Not memory structures because someone will ask what that means. Not customers because someone will ask if we mean consumers. Not even our brand because someone will ask if we mean the logo.

What does the term ‘marketing transformation’ really mean to businesses?Or: what are we doing to give that impression?

Not have we got the right mix of digital sales activation and performance marketing?* Not are our distinctive brand assets strong enough? Not even are we investing enough in advertising?

(* and yes, this is intentional, and if you don’t know what’s intentional about it, I rest my case!)

I was once chatting with a board member at a coffee machine at Diageo. They had been in a leadership meeting listening to strategy presentations for the year ahead. The presentation finished, and eyes turned to then-CEO Paul Walsh.

“This is all great” he said. “But what has any of it got to do with selling bottles?”

That’s the sort of question we should pride ourselves on asking. Simple, deadly, brutal plain English questions like, “how is this going to sell more stuff?”

Marketing Week’s Room 101: What will you banish?My top ten ‘clever questions’ are below, and if you can get genuine and robust answers to all of them, then you’re a long way towards having what you need to put together a great brand strategy.

  1. What are people buying, that you are selling, and why?
  2. Who is buying what you sell, from where and from who?
  3. Who is buying stuff similar to what you sell, from where, and from who?
  4. Who isn’t buying either, but doing something else instead?
  5. Why would people buy you instead of the similar stuff, or instead of doing something else?
  6. Is that clear and compelling enough to them?
  7. Is it clear and compelling enough to enough of them?
  8. If enough of them buy you instead of something similar or something else, will that make you money?
  9. Is the money you make more than what it costs to achieve all of the above?
  10. If it is not, what would need to change in which questions above so that it does?

It’s difficult to ask and answer questions like these because it requires quite deep thought and the answers are often nuanced.

It’s actually much easier to explain and argue about definitions of technocratic jargon than it is to really understand what is happening in a complex and ambiguous world. But understanding that complexity – working through the ambiguity – is the work that needs to get done.

So next time someone says you need an ideation session or recommends you overhaul your VBI or proposes an evaluation of how well you’re activating against a market-based assets theory of brand competition.

Ask yourself one question: what would Mary Poppins think?

Johnny Corbett has worked in marketing and commercial leadership roles for large corporate businesses and startups, across food and drink, technology, financial and professional services, as well as politics and the public sector.



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