How do we sell what we can’t hold or see?
I once had a client that was in the business of selling accounting software. Or so I thought.
“This isn’t software,” they said. “It’s more than that. It’s a complete suite of solutions.”
The client had just bought up a few other companies and had to consolidate all the other software products into one unified product. But we couldn’t say it that way, because it would’ve sounded too…plain. So they insisted on calling the whole thing “a complete suite of solutions.”
Advertising exists primarily to sell products. So why is the language of selling so complicated? What obstacles prevent people in the communications business from communicating clearly?
The rise of all things digital has made much of what we’re advertising a little tricky to understand. Take for example, a “SaaS” — Software as a service. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent advertising digital services that enhance other digital services, and it’s not always clear what these businesses do, make, or sell.
Convoluted sales language is more prevalent in business-to-business marketing and advertising. Because once you get beyond office supplies, the products get less tangible. More significantly, marketers often forget that at the core, they’re people who need to talk, and sell, to other people. So they tell their marketing and advertising agencies to sell something as a “suite of services.” Or a “holistic, cross-platform experience,” perhaps even a “value-added integrated package.” I’ll bet you’ve heard some good BS phrases as well.
But the lack of clarity is not a completely marketer-driven ailment.
It’s quite popular, even among advertising people, to pretend we’re not promoting more consumption. We aspire to sell something more fulfilling or enlightening, even if that comes in the form of fair-trade coffee or artisanal goose-down jacket. And some brands aren’t content to admit there’s something specific they want consumers to pay for. They want to sell an “experience.” Stores and hotels love this approach, in particular. It makes their brand feel bigger than it really is. But is calling something an “experience” that much more impressive?
For agencies, nothing’s worse than a creative brief, or a briefing from a client, that can’t define what needs to be sold. Or the desire to cram multiple selling messages to one ad. You know, like “Mention all 12 things a suite of solutions can do.” And heaven help you if you’re asked to shoehorn something like “saves time and saves money” into your work, which must be one of the most overused and meaningless phrases in the ad industry.
When a client can’t describe it’s own product well, it’s hard for us—even the ones good with words—to describe it to prospective customers. And that’s why so much advertising seems so unclear. Yet for many creative people it’s the challenge they have to deal with, because no one’s willing to address the best-of-breed elephant in the room.
As products (and they're all products of some kind) become more ephemeral, or cloud-based, or something we can’t exactly put our hands on, the more we need to describe them in human, relatable terms.
Yet I see an explosion in overwrought marketing-speak. As a writer, the bigger, more convoluted phrases don’t impress me. Your best-in-class solution is probably neither. Your complete suite of tools makes you sound like a tool. Your holistic experience isn’t going to give me eternal consciousness. Spare us all, please.
If we can’t master complex ideas with simple language, we’re not going to be very effective for clients. Let’s add value by subtracting the nonsense. It may be the solution we've all been looking for.
Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small.
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