The Q word

Marketing is full of words that have lost their meaning. We need to be more precise

I hate quality. I do, I really hate quality.

I don’t think there is a more over-used and under-valued word in marketing. It has become meaningless. Everything is ‘quality’, from quality soap powder to quality programming. Even second-hand vehicles are now all quality second-hand vehicles. Have you ever met a brand manager whose brand isn’t a quality brand?

Every time I see a chart about a particular product and the brand values section includes the Q word, my heart sinks. Are we marketers so unimaginative that we can’t find a more precise or interesting way to describe the value of what our brands offer, other than resorting to the bland nothingness of quality?

Myself, I’m partial to Egyptian cotton sheets, Aberdeen Angus beef, and Welsh lamb. I like intelligent, thought-provoking writing, Italian design and German engineering, chocolate made with lashings of cream, and savings schemes that have consistently outperformed the market. All of these appeal much more than their plain old ‘quality’ alternatives.

It is as Al Ries and many others have said: in a world of hyper-competition, you have to differentiate or die. Quality brands are a dime a dozen. I can’t help but hope they do drop dead (or at least quietly disappear).

If we’re striking off quality from the marketing lexicon, are there any other marketing words and buzz phrases we could do away with? I can’t say I’m too fond of ‘customer-centric’. I was taught a long time ago that the difference between sales and marketing was that in sales you sold what you made, while in marketing you should try and identify what people want and then find a way to market it to them profitably. If you’re in marketing, you need to be customer-centric: talking about it is not only dull but tautological.

Convenience is another word of dubious value. Of course, I like convenience – but it can be a catch-all term. I’m much more interested in how and why a brand is convenient. At what stage in the brand experience does it provide this convenience? It’s important to recognize that convenience can have different connotations, too. There is widespread resistance to convenience foods, for example, even though we still often have an appreciation of food that is convenient.

If you want to find a whole selection of these fuzzy marketing words in one place, you just have to look at the values espoused by many of the world’s leading companies.

Over a number of years, I have used the publication of Interbrand’s annual Best Global Brands report as a prompt to review not only the missions and visions of these leading companies, but also their claimed values. A high percentage gravitate towards the same values and the same words, year after year: integrity, innovative, collaborative, caring – and customer-centric, of course.

We’re like a swarm of 10-year-old boys playing football in the school playground. We all rush to where the ball is, desperately trying to get a touch – then madly charge off when the ball flies away in a new and unexpected direction.

A perfect example of this has been the headlong rush to change everything from market research to insight over the past decade. The change reflects the necessary desire to get more from research, but the word insight has quickly become so devalued that it’s meaningless. Every finding, no matter how mundane or obvious, is now an insight.

We marketers have become lazy and sloppy when it comes to language and the words we use. We can do so much better.

Giles Lury is a senior director at brand consultancy The Value Engineers