• Warren Leppik

How NOT to sound like a typical marketer

Updated: Sep 13, 2019

We are exposed to thousands of marketing messages daily. One may conclude that, due to this exposure, we all have some idea of how products and services should be described. So, when business leaders are charged with describing what their company does in clear and simple terms, how hard could it be? Just emulate what everyone else is doing and that should be good enough. But this approach assumes that the marketing messages we are exposed to are actually good. And if my experience lately is any indication, the reason its so hard to get anyone’s attention today is because we are awash in a sea of platitude laden marketing drivel.

When I spoke at Sheridan to the Advertising and Marketing class, I asked if anyone could tell me what a platitude was. After a couple of attempts, I provided the Cambridge online dictionary definition:

a remark or statement that may be true but is boring and has no meaning because it has been said so many times before

I then shared this hilarious example, courtesy of “The Challenger Customer” by: Brent Adamson, Matthew Dixon, Pat Spenner, Nick Toman. An excellent example of the type of platitude laden value propositions in use today:

Our company is leading customer focused provider of innovative solutions supported by cutting edge innovations designed to empower organizations with different in-kind sources of broad-based value creation at their most critical moments of need. And, oh, by the way, WE’RE GREEN!

While the above may seem like an exaggeration, you don’t have to look to far to see that these useless messages are everywhere. Recently, we worked with an independent school to get to the heart of their value proposition. Here are the gut reaction answers I got back as part of our value proposition questionnaire for the following question: What are the top 10 reasons to attend the school?

Initial answers were:

  1. Intimate school environment

  2. Hands-on engaging approach to teaching and learning

Doesn’t say much. And worse still, based on our research, if you scratched out my client’s logo and inserted one of their competitors, the statements still worked given how general they are. So there was no differentiation articulated when there actually was a night and day difference between them.

Through our face-to-face brainstorming workshop, using these initial answers as a starting point, we showed the founder how vague these answers would be without her experience and understanding of what she meant and intended to communicate when she wrote these things. Our discussions revealed the detail lying just under the surface. The answers became:

  1. While some believe small class size is a negative, that kids will lack socialization, we know there is demonstrable value in building relationships with our students, understanding them and building a personal connection with them, resulting in many feeling for the first time that their school knows what they know.

  2. We’re not just imparters of knowledge. It’s not only what we do, but how we do it. A purposeful and mindful approach to engaging students based on their individual needs.

I believe I found one of the best explanations of this platitude-arama in Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace’s book: “Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace. For those who don’t know, Ed is one of the founders of Pixar Animation Studios, the makers of such movies as Toy Story, The Incredibles, A Bug’s Life and Monsters, Inc.

In Chapter 5, he believes in the following basic truth: “people who take on complicated creative projects become lost at some point. A phenomenon where much of what someone thinks is visible on screen isn't or only in their own head.” Almost identical to business owners not being able to see their messages have no meaning. Based on my experience with business leaders trying to articulate their value proposition, I'd liken it to something akin to auto-correction. They forget that their audience doesn’t know what they know and the only reason what they write makes sense is because their mind is filling in the blanks as they read.

In Chapter 4, I whole heartedly agree when he says “Advertisers look for words that imply a product's value and use that as a substitute for value itself. Companies constantly tell us about commitment to excellence implying that this means they will only make top shelf products. Words like quality and excellence are misapplied so relentlessly that they border on meaningless.” So is it any wonder that if you too are using these terms, your message won't break through the noise.

As much as I would like to say there is a do-it-yourself solution for this problem and send you on your way with the magic formula to enable you to compose a clear, concise, concrete, and platitude free value proposition, you are simply too close to what you do to see what you’re not seeing. I would argue that, assuming that the products or services being described ACTUALLY HAVE VALUE, every business requires an outside perspective and process that enables them to articulate their value proposition in a way that ANYONE can understand it.

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