I admit I am irritated by the miss-use of language and the habit some marketers have of inventing terminology to bamboozle their audience. If you share my angst, you’ll maybe find justification in this connection between literacy and building a distinctly, different brand.

First impressions count

A week or so ago I received an e-mail from someone I didn’t know complaining that they had “sent me an invite [sic] on LinkedIn”, but I hadn’t accepted. I’m not going to go into the ridiculous rule LinkedIn are trying to impose that you don’t invite connections from people who you don’t know. That’s not my point here – although I suggest it’s not the point of LinkedIn either, which is, after all, a networking platform, so if you don’t invite people you don’t know it’s rather self-defeating.

The invitation and e-mail I received, between them, gave me all the information I needed to conclude this wasn’t someone I wanted to connect with and that’s the thing people who abuse language don’t understand. What’s more there are implications to this that I feel we should all be taking note of, because, in the world of brand, first impressions are critical and efficient communication essential.

Why being different is distinct from being wrong

There are two points here. The use of language is simple enough. I know that Collins dictionary excuse the use of the word “invite” as an “informal” noun, but this is just a sop to the lazy folks whose use of language is causing the problems.

“Invite” is a verb, not a noun, so you can’t send one. This much is simple, basic English. If the use of the word were correct or acceptable in this context it would be equally appropriate to reply by sending an “accept”, but it’s not and you don’t. The correct word is “invitation”.

I’m aware that some people feel unconventional or informal use of language makes them stand out or “trendy”, but while standing out is usually to be encouraged, standing out as someone who is wrong or in this context not businesslike, is rarely advisable.

Every day I encounter text or dialogue where the wrong words are used. I even found it in the submissions I received for a content writer’s role I was advertising a while back. Even an editor from The Daily Telegraph who I interviewed presented me with sample text that exhibited the miss-use of words. What’s more, the candidate was indignant that I had pointed out his errors and didn’t seem to care that his meaning was lost by the error.

Your use of language defines you

The point of language is communication. Our ability to communicate is what separates humans from animals – although evidence is growing that many species communicate, at least as well as someone who believes the words “invite” and “invitation” are interchangeable. Using the wrong words results in the failure of language. Failing to recognise this or its implications is not clever.

So, if you want to connect with me don’t send me an “invite”. “Invitations” I will consider.

The difference that distinguishes you

I recently came across a video of Mark Ritson delivering a talk on the 10 Key Factors Driving Advertising Effectiveness. I mentioned Mark in one of my posts last year and though I hate to agree with him twice in a single decade I have to admit he does raise a few interesting issues in the talks he delivers.

At one point in this talk he mentions the need for brands to both “differentiate” and be “distinctive” and raises another area where words are misused. He points out that the two words have different meanings and acknowledges that a lot of people don’t appreciate the difference. He suggests if you don’t know this you should look both words up in a dictionary, but I’ll save you the time.

What it means to be a distinctly different brand

Being different – or differentiation – means standing out from a norm. Being distinctive, on the other hand, means being recognisable. In the world of branding this is important. I agree with Mark that brands should strive to be both – stand out in a way that is unmistakeably you. Although I accept it’s becoming increasingly difficult to achieve both this is what real brand-builders do.

The differentiation part is really just a matter of digging through your business to discover that unique element. Mark believes this is impossible these days, although I think there are still opportunities for most businesses who want to put the work in. I do this in my Brand Discovery programme, so I know how challenging it can be to find the unique ingredient that nobody else can claim. In fact a distinctly different brand promise is usually a unique formula of ingredients rather than just one.

Distinctively different brands require discipline

The matter of being distinguishable is really just a question of discipline. Most organisations lose the plot from time to time and do or say things that are out of character. It can be a costly mistake, yet it needn’t be so. To avoid the error, though, you must have a very clear view of your brand and operate in a way that uses this as a reference in every decision you make at every level of your organisation. That’s the purpose of a Brand Model and it’s important because inconsistency is one of the biggest threats to any brand.

One point where inconsistency often occurs is where the interests of tactical and strategic activities collide. This also cropped up in Mark’s talk.  

Combining strategic and tactical elements to create a distinctly different brand

There’s been an argument among marketers – forever it seems – over the relative importance of strategic and tactical activities. In fact, it seems marketers are extremely bad at seeing the big picture and tend to focus on one thing at a time usually at the expense of good practice. The argument shouldn’t be taking place at all. We don’t need to be debating whether the ideal mix of tactical and strategic in a distinctly different brand should be 60/40 or 80/20. It should be perfectly clear to anyone who takes the time to look that formulae like this are a distraction. The answer is – it’s what works and when tactical and strategic are orchestrated over time the outcome is far better than when either are viewed in isolation.

In fact, the figures from the Effies (Marketing Communications Effectiveness Awards), that Mark’s team crunched and you can’t really argue with, show perfectly clearly that to be successful you have to weave both tactical and strategic together. Sometimes the most efficient formula is around 50/50. Not only that, but the formula that works best differs depending on what stage of maturity your brand may be and your share of the market. We’ll, I never said, being a distinctly different brand was simple!

In fact, combining the two is a no-brainer. I was telling clients twenty years ago that every tactical communication carries with it a strategic message. It’s unavoidable, you can’t get around it. You just need to learn to leverage that – some did and many became distinctly different brands, others didn’t and you probably don’t hear of them these days. Their failure to recognise this fact illustrates a lack of efficiency that simply isn’t tolerated in the digital economy.

Using your brand model to maintain discipline

When I work with organisations to define their distinctly different band I use “pillars” representing stakeholder groups, to interrogate the brand promise. This process is designed to ensure the promise at the core of any brand is valid. To be so it has to resonate with each of the stakeholder segments. It can do so in different ways, but it has to be the same promise made to everyone.

Strategic communications lead with the promise and will target individual segments through different media channels by addressing their particular interpretation of it. 

Tactical communications illustrates the stakeholder group’s take-out with precise examples. In it’s simplest form Tescos old “Every little helps” strategic message might translate into a tactical message aimed at a stakeholder groups to whom sustainability is an issue in terms of reducing packaging or eliminating plastics.

This is how the communications area of your marketing strategy remains consistent and it’s how tactical and strategic elements come together to create synergy. Problems only arise when tactical and strategic messages are developed in isolation, but if you manage your brand as you should it won’t arise.

The folly of invention

Marketing is a complex subject and there are plenty of opportunities for misunderstanding. That’s why marketers have to be precise. One aspect of this is understanding and using terms correctly. Inventing new words to describe stuff we’ve been doing forever, which is another thing marketers love to do, is counter-productive. 

We are not, for instance, “marketeers” but “marketers”. The former, invented word may have made someone who doesn’t have a life, feel better about their lot, but it rings of “Cavalier” which may have romantic overtones. This is both a noun – as in a supporter of King Charles 1st – and a derogatory adjective used to describe a happy-go-lucky attitude Cromwell’s roundheads accused the wealthy, aristocratic Cavaliers of having – the antithesis, of course, of the sensible, smart, thoughtful, business-like approach expected of people who in the digital age are leading successful organisations.

This may seem a small detail but its the thin end of a very thick wedge. If you don’t believe me consider Manx Airlines – Manx being the ancient tribe that originated from the Isle of Man where the airline was based. In the world of airlines at the time this was a step in the direction of a distinctly different brand, however, they crashed and burned. Their demise was due in large part to the association people made between their name and the term “manky” used “informally” in English language, to describe something the was dirty, old or unkempt. So you see, a seemingly innocent connotation can have dire consequences.

Phil Darby
November 25, 2019

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