Words, Words, Words, Diluting Value – One Cliche at a Time

By Bruce Marcus, author of The Marcus Letter

It’s amazing how quickly important words become jargon, and how soon after that their meanings become diluted and distorted. Marketing -- particularly professional services marketing – seems to cherish words and phrases that originally had substantive value and meaning, but have now been diluted and turned to mush. Their value as describers of sound marketing practice has been completely diminished.

All language is vibrant, of course, and people are entitled to define anything they want in any way that they want. But it subverts the marketing effort to misuse the language of marketing in this way -- ignoring the client at the center, and leading the accountant or lawyer down a dark, thorny, and unprofitable path.

It’s even more deplorable, because the professional marketer is trying to make something positive happen with lawyers and accountants who have no real tradition of marketing, nor the mutual understanding of a language required for real communication. They depend upon the marketing professional for the answers. But the right answers are always ideas -- not words, not statements, not clichés. Only words used precisely can effectively convey ideas.

Thus we have phrases like position statement, and mission statement, and strategic planning, and niche marketing, and branding. Now comes something called business model. They all have a solid foundation in marketing and management practice, but that foundation has been squandered through misuse. Now they are jargon, not accurate and valuable descriptions of sound marketing and management. Unfortunately, the feeling in some quarters seems to be that if you don’t know the jargon – the buzz words – then people will think you don’t know the subject. And the jargon may bedazzle, but it doesn’t communicate.

A case in point. A recent article in a respected professional journal described a positioning statement as focusing on something you wanted to sell to a prospective client. No way. It further defined position statement as the unique perception you want to create in people's mind about who you are, what you stand for and the benefits (utility) you provide. This is the common misperception. It’s not so. It talked of a position and position statement as if they were the same thing. No, they aren’t.

Why? Because, first of all, used this way the word talks about what you want to sell, and not what the prospective client wants to buy. That means that in order to make that concept work, you’re going to have to work like a coal minor to sell the prospect something he may not want in the first place. Works swell when you’re selling vacuum cleaners. Works badly when you’re selling professional services.

The implication with this definition is that you can define the position, and then impose it on your market. No. Positioning starts by determining what your prospective clients most need or want, then demonstrating that you understand that need and that you can meet it. That's a position. It’s one of the most valuable concepts in marketing. "It's the economy stupid" is a marvelous example. James Carville, during President Clinton’s first campaign for the White House, realized that the major issue facing the electorate was the economy. He developed that admonition as the focal point – the position -- for the campaign, and everything that was said or written during that campaign addressed the economy. A position is based on market realities. It's used internally, to guide the marketing effort to make it relevant to the needs of the client.

A Mission Statement, says conventional wisdom, defines what the firm thinks its purpose is, where it would like to go, how it would like to serve its clients, and how it would like to be perceived in the community. Again, that’s a mission. A mission statement is the statement of a mission. The mission comes from within the company, and is of concern only to the company. To the consumer – the client – it’s irrelevant. It’s a guide to your business, not the client’s. To the market, it’s a glib promise that lacks credibility until its proven, and if it can be proven, why bother with the promise?

A Vision, like the others, is something the managing partner, and all the partners, develop among themselves as an objective for the firm's growth and future. It has nothing to do with marketing. Here, too, the statement is not the vision, it’s a statement of the vision. "I envision an international practice within five years. Let’s work to make it happen." OK, that's your business, and good luck. But as a prospective client, it has nothing to do with me. If I have international business, call me when you've got an international firm. But your vision is yours, not mine, and telling me about it does nothing to persuade me to use your services.

As for the statement part, a position is one thing, the statement of it is another. That goes as well for mission statements, vision statements, or statements about the quality of coffee in the firm’s coffee room. Statements of these things may be important internally to understand the firm’s role in managing or marketing the firm, but they are internal guidelines for the practice. A mission statement may help define the mission to the staff, to keep them on a single track, but to the client it’s an empty promise that has nothing to do with the reason you should be retained. It’s self-serving, and offers no foundation for credibility. In fact, any statement that an attempts to tell the client how he or she should think about you is hollow. The proper response is, "Sez you." Or "Don’t tell me what you’re going to do – do it, and then tell me you’ve done it." Or "Don’t speak of love – show me."

The word Quality slips in here, as in "We do quality work," as if that’s a unique distinction. Simply being a professional, with all the traditions and codes of ethics, and reputations, is all anybody can say about quality. Quality is expected of professionals, so don’t tell people that you do what you’re simply supposed to do. No credibility in that cave, either.

Niche marketing is another case in point. Originally, market segmentation made sense because you could market a specific experience and expertise to a clearly defined market segment. And then the niche marketing suppliers got into it, and niche marketing took on a life of its own. Suppliers of marketing material are important to marketing, but not when they market their own products as the next best thing to a cure for the common cold. The concept of niche marketing – marketing segmentation by either demographics or need for a specific service or set of skills and experience, is an important part of marketing. But it’s the skills and the concept that matter, not the cliché. Niche marketing – marketing segmentation – is important and valuable, but it’s only one aspect of a total marketing program – a reality we once knew but seem to have forgotten.

Enough has been said about branding in The Marcus Letter without repeating it here, except to add that it, too has become a cliché that’s often used when the real concept may be reputation, or name recognition. Branding has a specific meaning in marketing, and a specific place in the marketing universe. It’s misused about 80% of the time, maybe more in professional services marketing.

Business model is a term that seems to be coming into vogue. It’s the structure a business uses as a guide to function, which means to develop and serve a clientele. It is not, as some would have us believe, a marketing tool, nor a device unto itself. First, it should be predicated on the principle that, as Peter Drucker so clearly established, that the purpose of a business is to make a customer, a serious concept that few professional firms have seemed to grasp. Second, a business model is dynamic, and should change constantly as the market changes. And third, like so many other clichés, its internal. Clients don’t care what your business model is, or that you say it is. They are concerned with the service you offer to resolve their problems.

Many of these terms come from product marketing, and unfortunately don’t translate easily into professional services marketing. That’s why precise meaning is important. Remember, too, the distinction between marketing a product and marketing a service. I can persuade you to buy my brand of toothpaste, even if you hadn't planned on it. I can't persuade you, as a happily married individual, to get a divorce simply because I have a great divorce practice. This distinction substantially affects the way professional services marketing is performed. It also defines why so many practices in product marketing don’t work in professional services marketing.

Marketing is serious business. It’s serious for the marketer and the professional, but more serious for the client, for whom there’s not likely to be a tradition or training, or even understanding, of marketing. The way marketing terms are misused make them a marketer’s language, not the language of marketing. To use this kind of corrupted language with people who don’t have training in the discipline is unfair, ineffective, and not worthy of the good marketer.

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