We often joke with our international clients (who do not speak English as their first language) that anyone who can speak three languages is called “trilingual,” two languages “bilingual,” and only one language “American.” And, though we mean it only as a self-deprecating way to ease into our work together, the humor does call to mind just how difficult communicating can be when there is no widely accepted and understood language in play.
Another thing we just as often tell our clients is that the language of marketing—like the language of music—is a universal language. That is, the fundamental principles underlying excellent marketing are, like the principles underlying the construction and playing of a moving symphony, the same everywhere. Unfortunately, however, these principles are not always expressed in the same way from category to category or company to company. Some years ago, one of our former employers had the following senior marketers on its staff: a Chief Marketing Officer originally trained at General Foods and three sub-VP’s trained, respectively, at Procter & Gamble, General Mills, and Colgate-Palmolive. Though each had clearly received “classical” marketing training in his past, whenever they met as a senior staff they encountered problems communicating…because at each of their original companies there were different terms—and sometimes broader meanings--for the key marketing principles. So, perhaps we should say that the language of marketing is intended to be universal, but there are a number of dialects that often make getting to one common way of speaking it within an organization very challenging.
What makes it so challenging? We’ve already highlighted one of the “blockers” within many marketing organizations—their sourcing of marketing talent from a broad pool of blue-chip classical trainers, such as Unilever, Nestle, Procter & Gamble, and Colgate-Palmolive. These companies typically embrace the same successful marketing principles; it’s just that they call them by different terms. And then they do one thing that most other marketing organizations don’t do: they force the reinforcement of the spoken marketing language in their daily meetings, in their marketing universities, from their supporting agencies, and in their strategic and operational planning processes. No wonder, then, that the marketers these blue-chippers end up sending to other companies so stubbornly cling to their “native” marketing dialect!
But there are some other blockers that hinder the implementation of a common marketing language. A big one is the company’s degree of decentralization. Time and again we see those companies and cultures with highly decentralized operating divisions struggle to “cross pollinate” with similar terms and formats. What they really need to institutionalize a common marketing language is someone at the CEO or COO level to appreciate it and then insist upon it. In fact, we know this can work. Just a few years ago one of our client CEO’s (who was not originally from the Marketing Function, by the way) had mandatory attendance at a senior marketing training seminar and subsequent implementation of the language employed therein included in his senior staff’s bonus plan. You can imagine how that turned out.
Still another thing that gets win the way of inculcating a common language is simply the natural human desire to “name it and you control it.” It may be an influential person in the organization, say, the CMO, who wants to force his own interpretation of a concept into the organization. But it’s just as often a “marketing excellence team” comprised of human resources, marketing, and marketing service members who dictate something, “We want to call it ‘Support’ instead of ‘Reason Why’ to make it ownable to our organization.” Of course, what they usually fail to see when thinking this way is that the minor twisting of a term or two here and there does nothing to make the language ownable. If anything, by focusing on unimportant distinctions such as these, the teams usually miss the big picture: making a common marketing language happen.
For this week’s Boats & Helicopters we offer some proven processes that actually can make a common marketing language more likely to happen.
BOATS & HELICOPTERS:
For starters, any organization sincerely interested in establishing a long-lasting common language should benchmark some of those companies who have already achieved it.Practically speaking this means taking a closer look at how the Nestle’s and Unilever’s do it so well.As already noted, these companies have a fully integrated approach to common speech:their training programs consistently use the same terms and strategic formats; their managers (who have been through the training programs themselves) speak the language in daily interactions; so do their supporting agencies—many of whose members have also participated in their client’s training programs.These same “forced reinforcements” of the language need to be consciously adopted.
One of the most powerful techniques for instilling a consistent and long-running language is to agree on and then use with discipline the same marketing planning formats across business units. Getting agreement to formats such s these isn’t always a lay-down; it takes a team effort, negotiating, and some time; but once they are in place, various dialects much more readily become a common language.
Another seemingly minor “tool” that can help a lot is to compile a marketing dictionary for the organization—with examples of the commonly used concepts and terms. For example, if the organization makes a distinction among Brand Essence, Brand Values, and a Brand Footprint, then an example of each (maybe even side-by-side) should be included.
But here’s the one that we’ve found is the “hidden secret” for getting a common marketing language: have the entire organization focus on a common understanding of brand positioning. In our experience, nothing galvanizes an organization around effective marketing (including the speech of that marketing) like a common understanding of (a) what a brand positioning is and is not; (b) what its essential component parts are and to make them competitive; and (c) how positioning directs everything the brand does, every investment it makes. Posed another way, “If you really want a common marketing language, you have to start with a common brand positioning understanding…and appreciation.”
Oh yes, and we can help you and your organization accomplish #4!