April 06, 2005Marketers, to making a sweeping generalization, tend to have a love affair with language. We're coo-coo for semantic arguments. And for making up words.
In this schizophrenic existence, we not only think that we understand the true meaning of every word in the language which we speak, we also seem to think that there are no single words in existence that capture the brilliance of our concept. So, we throw down at the drop of a hat on a particular term. And when we're not busy doing that, we either string along a number of hyperbolic modifiers to elevate our concepts, or we make up a word to describe it.
We have an emotional tie to language. Our mother tongue, for us, is a brand. Strange lot, we.
On the semantic side, marketers will argue, often to the death, on the perception-bending power of a particular word. I have seen more than one marketer leave the room gasping for breath as the whirlwinds of semantic arguments batter them about. And often, it's a simple word that causes all of the ruckus.
For a recent example of this dynamic, let's take the case of "What Exactly is a Brand" and "Empty Words Filled with Delusion," two columns in Business Week by Christopher Kenton of Marketonomy and Cymbic.
Now, I find myself having a visceral reaction to his stance. Wrong wrong wrong, I say. How could anyone think that? That's not what "brand" means. And so I start whirling like a proverbial dervish. Proposing arguments to the contrary. Researching examples. Trying to prove him wrong.
And apparently, I'm not alone. Kenton's Marketonomy blog is brimming with his feedback to marketers screaming marketing obscenities at him. He's got a week or two worth of content just responding to the feedback. He's already published "Brand Dialog," "Branding Claptrap," "More Brand Definitions," "Beyond Brand Semantics," and "Brand Semantics 102." (And quite frankly, I encourage you to read them all.) Not to mention the untold number of blog entries, like this little one right here, he has spawned with this.
And this is just one example of how this occurs, day after day after day, in meeting rooms and on telephones and in email around the world.
Now, I spend a great deal of energy getting upset about this kind of thing. Emotional and mental. Over one little word. Or several words. And it's not out of the ordinary for me to do this. I have a great deal of repressed anger. But, this one had me especially twitterpated. Fuming, if you will. Even if you won't. Until, at some point, mid-argument, I have a moment of clarity. A minute when my semantic addiction is momentarily quelled. A break in the clouds.
Here's the thing. He's not wrong. He just has a different semantic argument for his definition of the word "brand." It happens to be completely at odds with my definition. And that, to quote Stuart Smalley, is okay.
And why is that okay? Because I'm not his target market. He's writing for Business Week for heaven's sake. I can't even tell you the last time I picked up Business Week. It's a good pub, I just don't read it. And that's the point.
You see, Christopher Kenton is probably exactly the kind of marketing voice that the Business Week people want to hear. And I'm willing to bet there is a vast universe of clientele to whom he can preach that message and gain acceptance. But I am not one of them. And I'm willing to bet there is an equally vast universe of clientele who thinks he's full of hooey.
So, rather than get all lovey-dovey, I took all my argument energy and funneled it into thinking about semantics. Because that's where the really interesting dynamic lies. Lays? Lies. That's where we'll find the really interesting thought.
And that led me to thinking how marketers, like me, get all up-in-arms about language misuse when we're equally guilty of abusing the language ourselves. Kathy Sierra over at Headrush captures this -- quite brilliantly, I might add -- in "The new geek speak / neo-marketing language."
Recognizing myself in those words, just as I had in the pages of Why business people speak like idiots, I break into a cold sweat. So, I start searching for someone on which to pin the blame.
It didn't take long.
I've decided to lay blame on 8th grade English teachers. Globally. Sorry folks. You're the problem. Or someone of your ilk. It's okay, carrying this burden is no more difficult than trying to control a classroom of pubescent people. No worries.
But here's why you're getting the blame.
Along about middle school or junior high or whatever, everyone gets introduced to Shakespeare. Usually, in the form of The Merchant of Venice, or another one that's easy on the digestion. Romeo & Juliet. Whatever. Something Shakespearean. It's not the work that really matters. It's the trivial tidbit that the teacher drops into conversation as if it were nothing. Just a random aside on Shakespeare.
But, in actuality, this little mention goes off with the force of a small atomic explosion in the burgeoning marketer's quickly wrinkling brain. And it buries itself there as a fact. And the worm continues to turn, until the wee little marketer becomes you, a full-fledged marketing type, with the power to mold words and ideas. That's when the little culprit starts wreaking havoc.
So what's the seemingly innocuous phrase that causes all of these problems? Here it is. Are you ready? Okay, here we go:
"Sometimes," the teachers always say, "Shakespeare couldn't find the appropriate word to capture his thoughts..." (Wait for it, here it comes.) "...so he would often make up words."
That's it. That's our excuse. Deep from the recesses of our brains. Shakespeare did it. And Shakespeare is, arguably, one of the greatest manipulators of the English language. And he had to make up words. He had to make up words because no word existed.
Thanks a lot English teachers.
Now, mix this with the right amount of marketing ego. (For an example of that ego, return to the top of this diatribe.) Ouch. It's dangerous. Sodium and water dangerous.
That's why we wind up with marketing thought-leaders using words like multilogue and blogosphere and long-tail and blego and brand. Because we're drunk on semantics. And that's why we wind up passionately defending our views of the words that do truly exist and do have a particular meaning to us. Because, when it comes right down to it, it's all about our love of the brand that is language. A love of semantics.
So that's my take on why marketers tend to be schizo in regard to language. First, we love language. And we love toying with language. We love semantics. Second, blinded by this love, we dwell under the misconception that we know everything there is to know about language. And third, because of this purported knowledge, we think we deserve the power to make up language when we have the inkling that no word exists that captures our brilliance so succinctly. And finally, and truly worst of all, we all think we're right.
Strange lot, we.
I know I'm right, but feel free to tell me that I am. That's why the comment function is available. If you don't agree with me, you're wrong, but feel free to post anyway. And please, whether you are right or wrong, feel free to return. And I will be happy to tell you how I am right about something else.
Isn't it semantic?
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