Time for Marketers to Reset Their Vernacular, Too?

September 8, 2020

By Matthew Schwartz

Viktoria Kurpas/Shutterstock.com

As racial unrest gripped the country this summer, the marketing industry tried to meet the moment.

Amid the upheaval, The Quaker Oats Co., a subsidiary of PepsiCo Inc., announced that it would remove the image of Aunt Jemima from its packaging and change the name of the 130-year-old brand of pancake mixes and syrups.

PepsiCo also said that the Aunt Jemima brand will donate a minimum of $5 million throughout the next five years to create “meaningful, ongoing support and engagement” in the Black community. That’s on top of PepsiCo’s pledge to devote more than $40 million on a set of initiatives to “lift up” Black communities and boost Black representation at the company.

Around the same time, Mars Inc., the parent company of Uncle Ben’s, said in a statement that “now is the right time to evolve the Uncle Ben’s brand, including its visual brand identity.”

Under intense pressure from the both the public and its corporate partners, the NFL team in Washington, D.C. got rid of its nickname and plans to rebrand the team.

Jettisoning anachronistic and racist iconography is all well and good, but it can’t be an isolated response to growing demands for change, as brands are increasingly expected to take a meaningful stand against racial injustice.


Reflecting Pool

As marketers face a crossroads — and alter both their internal practices and their overall messaging to reflect the larger changes throughout society — they may also consider reevaluating their marketing lexicon and the language they use to communicate with their constituents, customers, and the public.

Marketing terms of the inside-baseball variety — A/B testing, snackable content, cost‑per‑click, etc. — shouldn’t go anywhere.

However, terms and speech that John and Jane Q. Public generally equate with the marketing industry may be in need of a reset. If nothing else, doing so could serve as an emollient for the inherent cynicism many people have toward marketing and advertising.

Exhibit A: Since time immemorial marketers have used “targeting” to describe whom they’re trying to reach with XYZ campaign. At best, the phrase conjures up William Tell trekking through the Middle Ages, his crossbow in tow. At worst, it has a volatile connotation.

Using “targeting” to communicate with people now seems even more problematic when you consider the recent surge in gun violence throughout the country.

Sure, the phrase is in the context of products or services people may want to buy or events they may want to attend. But somehow I doubt most folks like the idea of being “targeted,” whatever the context. It puts them in a statistical box and doesn’t square with marketers’ constant chorus to “personalize” their communications and messaging.


Relatable Terms

When brands promote new marketing campaigns and/or ads on social channels why not use terms like “cater” or “appeal” to communicate to the audiences likely to benefit from what’s being marketed? What is the ultimate goal for marketers? To “try and reach” people. They’re certainly terms that are more relatable than “targeting.”

Of course, marketers use variations of “targeting” in the same breath as “consumers,” as if they are a monolith.

But with ever-thinning demos in the U.S. — and identity increasingly central to our daily lives, among the fast-emerging gen Z, in particular — marketers who insist on lumping everyone together may seriously raise the risk of alienating growing portions of society.

What’s more, with diversity and inclusion a major priority throughout the marketing field, the notion of selling to people en masse suddenly feels antiquated.

This is not a call to banish marketing buzzwords which serve a purpose, in terms of online collaboration and enabling colleagues to cut to the chase during a meeting or an impromptu conversation in the hallway. (It’s when marketers use jargon to communicate with the media or civilians that they come off as tone deaf.)

Rather, it’s for marketers to take a closer look at how they want to project themselves and their brands to multiple stakeholders — and the choice of words they use toward that end.

Altering marketing vernacular is not much of a departure from the ongoing changes in advertising creative and messaging wrought by the pandemic, the economic fallout, and calls to address systemic racism.

It’s such a weird, unsettling time right now. Brands need to more candid than ever and demonstrate that they have graduated from B.C.-thinking (Before COVID-19). The language they use — and people’s interpretation — shouldn’t be underestimated. Words matter.

comments (2)

Hank Wasiak

September 10, 2020 2:24pm ET

There are more important and productive things we can do as marketing professionals than worrying about searching for buzzwords to sanitize that don't need sanitizing. How about abolishing the term "being authentic" Authenticity isn't something you try to be...you either are or you're not. You can't fake it. The pursuit of "wokeness" by marketers is a slippery dangerous slope. It's being conflated with purpose. Common sense, responsibility and sincerity are needed more than ever today....those terms should never be sanitized.

Dane Solomon

September 10, 2020 7:23pm ET

With all due respect, this is a poor attempt at virtue signaling and means nothing.

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