I took the rant on marketing semantics to my Business Week column today. I never imagined such a seemingly simple issue would have such legs, but the resistance I’ve gotten from some quarters–dismissiveness, anger, derision–is unusual. There are a lot of marketers out there who don’t want the boat rocked.
But the struggle over the meaning of Brand is only scratching the surface. There are many concepts in marketing that are equally vague or confused, or conveniently reinterpreted to fit each marketer’s understanding or expertise. Depending on who you’re talking to, Segmentation can mean either market segmentation or segmented pricing. Positioning can refer to a competitive market strategy, a marcom messaging strategy, or even brand image.
In a conversation, the multiple meanings of a word are usually stabiliized by context. If I say "grab the wheel", and we’re sitting in a car, you’ll know I mean the steering wheel. If we’re outside the car changing a flat, you’ll know I mean the tire. Using context, experience and inflection to determine what meaning of the word was intended doesn’t change the meaning of a concrete thing. A tire is still a tire, and a steering wheel is still a steering wheel. But what happens when the word is referring to something that is no more solid than an *idea*? What happens to the idea of segmentation, or positioning, or brand, when, through my own channels of experience–through context, inflection, etc–I interpret the meaning in a way that is different? What happens when I downright confuse one meaning with another, and then transmit that confused meaning to someone else?
In an age of Information, when we make our living as Knowledge Workers, what happens is that we fill our universe with static. Knowledge is shared through the use of language, and if the language isn’t sufficiently clear, it’s like we’re talking to each other over a bad connection. In the short run, it’s merely annoying–your clients or colleagues don’t fully understand what you’re saying. But in the long run it’s destructive. People who are not marketers, but who depend on interacting effectively with marketers, begin to lose confidence in the value of marketing because every conversation is slightly vague, slightly confusing–and more troubling still, the meanings of important concepts seem to change from person to person. That lack of clarity and credibility has become the brand image of marketing, and until we get clear in our communication, we stand little chance of improving it.
If you’re coming in from BusinessWeek, welcome. I’d really like to get more of a dialog going than a rant, so please drop a comment, if you would. Thanks for reading.