I hadn’t expected this to be a trilogy. When I posted Prediction and Predictability, it was just some internal discussion document I’d written a long time ago, that somehow found its way to the light of day. Ironically, given the title, I had no idea that anything more would become of it.
But like George Lucas and that crazy standalone space story he had lying about, very soon, there were obvious questions that needed to be explored – and eventually, the demand for a whole three-parter.
Admittedly, Mr. Lucas was fulfilling the wishes of moviegoers around the world, whereas I simply asked if I should “turn this into a Trilogy” on LinkedIn and, very kindly, one person said yes. You might say that’s nothing like the same thing but I think, principally because of the way I’ve worded the second paragraph, the comparison still stands.
You see, words matter. Big time. I wrote something about the power of words here. They are the bricks with which we build meaning and understanding. There are whole branches of science that believe they even shape the way we think.
And they’re being weaponised like never before. Okay, not like never before, but certainly more routinely than ever before
Before we get into that, let’s re-cap the story so far, through the medium of The Marketing Textbook:
- You’ve looked at your list of customers and looked at where and how they differ. You’ve defined those groups and and chosen those you wish to contact. Using our friend Ed Mayer’s analysis, you’ve now determined your audience, something he suggests can contribute upto 40% of the success of any campaign. In short, you’ve chosen the people whose Attention you feel you can gain.
- You’ve looked at each pf these groups, analysed their various profiles and tried to understand what may best motivate each group. You’ve decided what the offer should be to most effectively reflect those motivations. Again, Mayer suggests that, done well, this should make up another 40% of your campaign’s success. The key metric at this stage is level of Interest you can generate.
- And now, the next bit: the execution. Specifically, what words and pictures, tone and format are going to take your campaign from being merely eye-catching and attractive to becoming compelling enough to achieve the best level of success? Mayer states that this is where the remaining 20% of a campaign’s effectiveness lies. Words must take us well beyond the constraints of simple communication at this point. They’re there to create Desire. Finally, we must also ensure we finish off with an effective Call to Action.
At this point, ‘old-school’ marketers would be gleefully deploying a wide range of linguistic and literary tricks of the trade to create a favourable image, to flatter the reader, to build credibility, to suggest like-mindedness, to build towards a USP. In short, to construct all the elements of face-to-face salesmanship, to take a curious prospect and point them towards the life-affirming status of customerhood.
Look at any 1970s press ad and, once you’ve tried to ignore the almost constant casual sexism – and, sadly, more besides – you’ll see that writing ad copy used was very often a protracted attempt to schmooze the reader into submission, with florid language and ridiculous metaphors. Even ads for bread could use up three columns of text to luxuriantly, verbosely, disproportionately extol the virtues of the open sandwich:
“The Danes call them smørrebrød. But never mind that.”
All this self-importance from a time of fewer distractions and greater attention spans has contributed to a lingering stereotype of marketing presentation being a little insubstantial, superficial… …’fluffy’. Like any stereotype, that may well be based on a kernel of truth but it isn/t really a fair depiction, especially without the consideration of context.
Time – the availability of it to the reader – seems to be a key reason behind the changes to the words to which we most-demonstrably respond…. Sorry, I’m in the wrong decade to structure a sentence like that. I’ll try again:
Today, we expect punchier words. Shorter sentences. Day-to-day language and less ‘correct’ grammar. If that means less nuance, so what? And it’s nothing new – the further back you go, the longer ads seemed to go on for.
It’s easy now to lampoon even famously ground-breaking ads from the mid-20th Century for the length of their prose, their seeming ‘over-production’ but again, context plays a part. They were consumed in an age where time and attention were more abundant, where you had a whole five seconds to lure the reader into deciding whether or not to read on for the full half-minute. To quote Obadiah Yorkshireman, “Luxury!“
Yes, even in those heady days, there were still limits to attention. Go back even further to the 19th Century and you see ads for the most utilitarian products, like soap, that were billed with the same sort interminable of ‘step right up’ repetitive hucksterism and dubious claims that you only really hear from boxing emcees these days. People back then must have had attention spans that ran into minutes! The very distinctive selling style from this time was memorably satirised by The Scaffold in the 1960s, a treatment which really was “most efficacious in every case”.
It seems inconceivable today that anyone could write a strapline like “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of improving prospects must be in want of a better soap“. But in the context and era-defining phrasing of the recently-published ‘Pride and Prejudice’, it could have been the 1813 equivalent of “Got Milk?“.
Back in the 21st Century, we’re now expected to get the whole ad done with in five seconds. How do you realistically establish credibility, demonstrate need, get to the Unique Selling Proposition and give your Call To Action time to land in that time? You have to edit it right down. and make every character count. It’s not just fewer, shorter words, it’s the maximum level of promise you can elicit from what remains – and for that to happen, there’s been a grammatical evolutionary advance.
Remember, we’re in the business of ‘promise’ here and this was almost always conveyed by description; how something was, how it made you feel. ‘Luxurious‘, ‘Tasty‘, ‘Confident‘, ‘Unbeatable‘. The product was represented with the most flattering describing words (adjectives) available whereupon the consumer was simply invited to appreciate that description and, if they agreed – how could they not? – do the obvious thing and buy into it. Literally. The virtues of the product were used as a means to appeal to – and unlock – the discerning customer’s critical faculty. The language might have become slicker over time but we were still mostly flattering the reader into submission.
With less time to process all this impeccable logic into two-stage flattery and recognition, even the loveliest descriptions quickly become little more than a mushy word soup, just as Jane Austen would have become to our Boomer parents and grandparents. How can we continue to assume that flattery gets you everywhere, if you don’t have time to do all that? More recently, all we really have time for is just to tell people what to do.
As you’ll remember, ‘doing words’ are not adjectives but verbs. They’ve always been there, evolving where their natural advantages allow but more recently, they’ve begun to out-compete slower, more cumbersome forms. Linguistically, we seem to be experiencing little short of a mass extinction event, a transition from the Adjectivian into the Verbian era, which is every bit as profound as the end of the Austenian eon, long ago. There’s an old political adage that says “if you’re explaining, you’re losing” and it follows that if you don’t then wish to ‘explain’, you won’t need to describe. It’s quicker and, it seems, more productive merely to instruct.
Many commentators have remarked at the growth of the verb-based slogan in the last decade over the adjectival equivalent, particularly its apparent suitability for political slogans. Thus ‘Take Back Control‘ out-performed ‘Stronger In‘ in the 2016 Brexit referendum. Later that year, Trump’s ‘Make America Great‘ pipped Hillary’s ‘Stronger Together‘. In 2019, Boris Johnson told you he’d ‘Get Brexit Done‘ while Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour were, as it transpired, unconvincingly ‘On Your Side‘. When we were faced with the stark uncertainties of the Covid-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020, the measures required of us were boiled down to similarly short, verb-led maxims. We now expect that such comms will follow this simple but clearly effective format and, inevitably, the same is true of marketing messaging.
But here’s the bit that’s often missed: you can’t just tell people anything and expect them to do it – there has to be something in it for them. Remember ‘feature’ and ‘benefit’? That’s still very much a thing, possibly more than ever. So the other stipulation in this new era is that the verb must convey some form of advantage. ‘Make‘, ‘Build‘ and ‘Save‘ all imply the construction or retention of something worth having. ‘Get‘ goes even further; it suggests the acquisition of something worth having. The only downside it has is that it’s harder to adhere to a promise of something being acquired – what if you can’t actually give the thing you’ve mentioned to everyone who read it?. Conversely, making and building things is a process, expected to take longer, which may even be revised thereafter, so it’s much harder to suggest that such a promise isn’t being kept.
Obviously, the other words have to convey some sort of positive outcome. Three words seems optimal but Subway and Alamo have boiled their straplines down to two. “Eat Fresh” and ‘Drive Happy‘ are notable for using only a verb which conveys the things their customers do, paired with a stated advantage imbued in that brand. Both choose not to turn the second word adjective into its correct adverbial form (“freshly” or “happily“).
Back to that hypothetical 1813 luxury soap ad channelling Miss Elizabeth Bennett’s narrator: such a brand would, throughout that century, have extolled at length its highly-acclaimed (but unverified) efficacy, just like Mrs. Lydia Pinkham’s’Vegetable Compound’. By the mid to late 20th Century, its tone would have changed to mirror a more aspirational time, in which even a brand of soap constituted a lifestyle choice. It would also stop being marketed at men because as a household item, only women would be responsible for its purchase. It might suggest an exotic, even ethereal provenance and address psychographic rather than utilitarian benefits. Full-page glossy magazine ads would be filled with nouveau-riche couples smiling confidently, while not using the product, with terms like ‘secret weapon’ and ‘jet-set freshness’ punctuate the lengthy prose before a small picture of the product, suitably lathered, to remind you what’s being sold.
In contrast, such a soap, would now find itself continuing to connote aspiration and success but having slipped to mid-market affordability – or even lower. Social ads now feature a suggestively-posed, provocatively-cropped pair of same-sex, ethically diverse, naked millennials in a bathroom with the ironic headline ‘Get More Lathered’. Obviously, its true market is still 30-to-50s, as it always was, but something has to cut through our heightened defences, to divert eyeballs just long enough to make another 0.05% think it worthwhile clicking for more. Obviously, any hint of sex is a proven way to do that and, given our more enlightened times, we can all pretend that it’s not prurient anymore but inclusive and challenging. Whatever, dude. I made you look.
Again, I’m possibly exaggerating a little for satirical effect – but not by that much. Marketing literature has always been easy to parody because it has always had to be easy to distinguish and recall. Remember: the reason why so many of these historical campaign are so easy to poke fun at now is because, then, they worked.
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