Monday, January 4, 2010

Six Words or Phrases to Ban from Marketing Writing in 2010

Resolve to set yourself apart by getting rid of the vague and the vacuous

In my many years as a marketer for technology, health care and consumer companies, I have gradually watched marketing become polluted by the vague and vacuous language popularized by politicians. As a result, much marketing writing has become white noise: everything sounds the same.

Smart marketers have an opportunity to break out of this white noise simply by using descriptive words instead of the vague and vacuous words that so many other marketers use.

As a consumer, when I see these words or phrases, I automatically write off the marketer as a poor or lazy thinker – or so uninspired by his own product that he can’t articulate its benefits more powerfully. Why in the world would I want to select this product?

Here are six of the more vague and vacuous words used in marketing today– and why you should ban them from your lexicon as a marketer.

“It’s All About”: “It” is very rarely “all about” anything, unless “it” is a work of art like a film, book or painting. “It’s all about” is not believable, except perhaps by the impulse buyer.

“Drive”: Do not use this if you aren’t talking about a motorized or animal-powered vehicle, or baseball. I am sure that this marketing gruel was cooked up by some expert: “It’s a very powerful word.” Allow me to point out that “drive” can be directionless: it can take you in reverse, off-course, or over a cliff. There is almost always a more precise and descriptive word. Here are some examples.

“Issues”: This is usually government-speak for problems that no one can define, no one wants to own or take responsibility for, and everyone has an opinion on – guaranteeing that they will never be solved and will eat up mass quantities of the federal budget. Why would you want to use this term in marketing? There is almost always a better word. Problem. Challenge. Opportunity. Controversy. Disagreement. Complication. All are stronger, more descriptive and more motivating words.

“Around, as in “our strategy around XX” where XX is anything other than “the world,” “the town,” or some other piece of geography: Often used by wimpy speakers and writers in place of more-precise words such as “for,” “about,” or “on.” It’s evasive and therefore has no place in marketing writing.

Here is an example:

In reporting about Intel’s latest technology for the home and office, an Intel blogger wrote: “Secondly, we are focusing our strategy around a primary 'hero' client brand which is Intel® Core™.” (italics added) Putting aside the concept of a primary “hero” client brand (?), if one is in fact “focusing” – a strong word that suggests directing one’s attention at a single point – how can one simultaneously be “around,” which suggests a circular or unfocused motion? The two terms conflict with each other. The use of “around” suggests confusion. Is the writer confused about his company’s “primary hero client brand?” If not, why didn’t he say “focusing our strategy on?”

Even scarier, here is “around” misused in a financial news release.

In disclosing his company’s second-quarter 2009 financial results, Citrix president and chief executive officer Mark Templeton said: “I’m pleased with our second quarter results. We are still in a tough economic climate, especially in the EMEA market, but our customers are embracing IT as an on-demand service, confirming our strategy around desktop virtualization, the next generation datacenter and SaaS.” (italics added)

Putting aside the barrage of buzzwords, I am confused. If the company really has a strategy, why not say “for” – or even better, “for taking advantage of” or “for making products to meet customer demand for” desktop virtualization, the next generation datacenter and SaaS. Desktop virtualization, the next-generation datacenter and SaaS are three fairly well-defined IT market segments or opportunities. By using “around,” the speaker makes it sound like the company’s strategy is just a pipe dream at this point.

“Smart,” when used to describe anything other than the intelligence of a person: Putting “smart” in front of the name of a mundane product does not (1) automatically make the product different/better/new or (2) make me feel better or more intelligent because I chose the product.

For example: As part of upgrading its guest bathrooms, Holiday Inn Express created a brand called Simply Smart.™ This brand applies to everything from the bathroom itself to the showerhead (ok, I might be able to believe this – fine engineering by Kohler), towels and amenities. Guests can buy Simply Smart products to take home at – where else – the Smart Mart.

One thing that isn’t very smart about these products is the labeling of its amenities: bottles prominently labeled “Wash,” “Tame,” and so on. It takes a bit of searching and very good eyesight to read the fine print that explains that “Wash” is in fact shampoo (and not bath gel or face scrub) and that “Tame” is hair conditioner (and not body lotion).

“Resonate, as in “it really resonated with our customers": What does this mean? I still don’t understand it. If it resonated with customers, perhaps this is because they are living inside an echo chamber, in which case it will be meaningless to prospects outside the echo chamber. Net result: lost sales.

By saying what you mean – with precise, descriptive words, not clich├ęs or vague, politically correct words – you can engage, enlighten and inform people. You can dramatically distinguish your company and product from competitors, and establish yourself as a thoughtful marketer who really understands and cares about your audience.

Happy New Year.

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