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Jargon isn't the problem and 'Plain English' isn't the answer

About this time every year the Plain English Campaign has its gobbledegook awards. It goes roughly like this: they pick some prize pieces of incomprehensible twaddle, which fill some easy column inches in a few newspapers. We roll our eyes at all the rubbish jargon and business clichés we use at work nowadays and then we move on.

It’s good PR for the Plain English Campaign and, in a small way, it highlights how much nonsense people write in the name of work. What it doesn’t explain is who the main culprits are, why they do it and the root causes of it.

One reason why we never get to the bottom of why there’s so much incomprehensible writing at work is because we too easily dismiss it with one all-conquering word: jargon. But most of the words we label as jargon, such as the Latin or Greek medical terms doctors use, are harmless, as long as they make sense to the people who need to use and understand them.

No, jargon is relatively easy to spring clean. The problem is woolly thinking – when the words hide that there’s nothing to say. And that’s where the Plain English Campaign falls short. Writing can get a sparkly crystal mark and it can do it without saying very much at all.

You can spot writing that’s running on empty thinking as soon as words like ‘experience’, ‘solutions’ and ‘environments’ crop up. They’re not made-up words or jargon, exactly. They’re empty vessels that apply to everything, but say nothing. Going to Westfield is an experience, not shopping. A new phone is an experience, not a way to call your friends (the word ‘device’ probably gets flung in for good measure). It’s a one-size-fits-all strategy, what we call brand slop, and you find it in middle management at most big organisations.

Once you realise brand slop uses essentially empty words, it’s not much of a leap to notice that most of these departments operate on a meta level, creating strategies, PowerPoint presentations and charts that don’t have any reason to exist. Try translating brand slop into simpler words (or ‘Plain English’) and you soon find that you can’t. Or if you can, you find that it says nothing, just more simply.

Most of us come across brand slop at work. A while ago we met a friend of ours at his office. He’s a social worker and his job involves making lots of difficult decisions about whether a child would be better off with their parents or in care. As you’d imagine, it’s stressful and emotionally draining. Meanwhile, his well-meaning managers decided that the best way to help him would be to give him some positive words, or ‘values’, of encouragement. And what had they come up with? ‘Think’ and ‘Inspire’. Plastered over the screensaver of every computer screen ‘think’ and ‘inspire’ were spinning around in 3D. Some help.

Brand values are one of the biggest examples of brand slop. They’re either always open to interpretation so everyone can claim they’re ‘living the values’ (yes, these phrases exist too) by being ‘warm’ and ‘friendly’ and whatever. Or, as someone in the brand team of a big mobile network once explained to us, it’s nigh on impossible to take these mushy words out of PowerPoint presentations and make them work in real life. When someone from a call centre asked him ‘how exactly can I be more “bold” on the phone when I’m talking to a customer?’ there wasn’t an easy answer. Again, it’s easy to test this sort of brand slop. Let’s say your company’s values are ‘open, honest and passionate’. Now ask the opposite. Who’d want a business that’s closed, dishonest and indifferent?

Values are broad and are usually thrashed out internally to get buy-in. But as a result they’ve become a kind of pep talk for organisations to convince and reassure themselves that la-la-la everything’s ok really, without tackling any of their ingrained problems. Actually, ‘the opposite test’ is a good way to reveal what an organisation’s problems really are. We once worked with a company that had ‘adventurous’ as one of its values. We soon found out that they’d come up with this because their people were timid and they wanted them to take more risks. It didn’t work. Despite the words on all the walls, Ranulph Fiennes wouldn’t have fitted in very well there.

So where did all this brand slop come from? You’ll see its roots in the theories of management books, journals and consultancies, and the sort of things business students learn on MBAs. A lot of the original theory and research is sound enough. Pick up an old book by a management guru like Peter Drucker and it’s all pretty no-nonsense. Or read a bestseller by Jim Collins and you’ll find yourself nodding along.

The problems happen somewhere after that. Because what brand slop does is take management theory and tries to fit it into a neat model everywhere else, even when that doesn’t work.

You simply can’t sum up a brand – the irrational bit about how people feel about one company over another – by squishing it into a triangle, or wrapping it up in a list of (often the same) words plucked from a thesaurus.

It’s not just marketing and branding, it’s the same story in every management department. Once upon a time Human Resources was called Personnel and its main role was to do the practical things that companies need for its people, from hiring and firing to all the things in between. But in the seventies management books started talking about people as if they were numbers. Soon ‘human capital theory’ and ‘human asset accounting’ were all the rage. By the time the Harvard Business School introduced Human Resources to its MBA at the beginning of the eighties, there was no turning back and no one questioned the idea that ‘people are your greatest asset’. Well, not until the book ‘Managing Brand Equity’ came out a decade later and then brands were crowned the latest, greatest asset.

The idea of turning brands and people into ‘assets’ reveals a lot about the underlying problem with brand slop. It’s not that it isn’t quite true, it’s that you can’t treat things like brands and people in the same way as capital. Numbers can be moved around on Excel sheet, but in the real world people’s skills and talents can’t.

In the end most big companies are good at being just that: big. Using their muscle to cut costs in production and distribution. And business books or MBAs can help with that. You can learn how to make logistics (or the supply chain as the MBA-ers call it) more efficient from a book. The same goes for anything to do with distributing products and financially restructuring a business. But what do all those things have in common? They’re all about operations: the nuts and bolts of running a company. And, despite what all the strategic presentations tell you, most big companies still get their profits from these sort of operational tweaks. Whether that’s by finding more places to sell things, making more of them, or by or cleverly restructuring the way they’re made or work.

So the process stuff is easy to solve. Creativity, innovation and making people feel good about a brand aren’t. This is when big organisations turn to brand slop. Except it never works. All the good ideas and innovation usually come from copying smaller, gutsier start-ups or by buying them and, more often than not, messing them up with layers of process and bureaucracy. Just read What happens after Yahoo acquires you to get a first-hand account of what goes on behind the scenes when a smaller start-up is taken over and infected by brand slop.

But what about Apple, the consultant’s favourite anecdotal branding success? Funnily enough, if you read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, one of the most striking things is how little time Jobs had for PowerPoint, idea-sucking research, and elaborate strategies. You could argue that one of the reasons Apple are so successful is that they manage their supply chain well and they’ve cut out the brand slop altogether.

It’s not a bad thing to write down what your brand is or to improve how your company works. The problem comes when you over-simplify difficult things and use empty language to do it. It doesn’t add anything or help you run your business better. And if all the money you’re spending on marketing, management, and HR strategies isn’t doing anything, what’s the brand slop actually there for?