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4 Popular Marketing Buzzwords That Are Really Complete Nonsense

2013 November 27
by Greg Satell

Ask any marketer what she does and you’ll get a different answer. That’s because marketing is a hard discipline to define. We don’t cure people like doctors or build things like architects or even blow up the economy like those slick Wall Street guys.

The truth is what marketers do most of the time is meet and discuss… endlessly.  We discuss the brief and trends and the consumer mindset and just about everything else you can imagine.

Crucial to these discussions are buzzwords, which serve as shorthand for more complex concepts that nobody really understands.  They save the time and energy that we would otherwise spend actually thinking about things.  The problem is that some of the ideas buzzwords represent are themselves nonsense and lead us astray. Here are four of them:

1. Engagement

Engagement is a prototypical buzzword because it is so marvelously sublime that nobody can actually define what it means.  Basically, it is a very vague way of pointing out that what you do should interest consumers and not bore them.  It is, in essence, a value distinction and not a strategy.

A much more operable term is value exchange, which can either be related to the product (e.g. Apple), content (e.g. Michelin GuidesAmerican Express Open Forum, etc.) or social experience (e.g. a local pub, Zynga, etc.).

While not a perfect term, thinking about value exchange leads to more serious strategies for building assets in the marketplace, rather than optimizing for questionable metrics such as tweets, likes and video views.

We have to get away from speaking about engagement as if it were a definable quantity.   If consumers perceive real value, they will be engaged.

2. Influentials

Ever since Malcolm Gladwell formulated the Law of the Few in his bestselling The Tipping Point, marketers have been obsessed with identifying “Influentials.”  These magical people, so the story goes, have “rare social gifts” that enable them to set trends for the rest of us. Look at any social epidemic, Gladwell argues, and you’ll find Influentials at the center.

As I’ve noted before, Influentials are a waste of time.  We know this because a vast body of empirical research has found no evidence that they are either necessary or sufficient to produce the long viral chains that we know as social epidemics.  Further, a common sense appraisal of events like the Arab Spring shows that influence is, at best, a moving target.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that some people don’t have more influence than others. Certain groups, like celebrities and heads of state, wield influence through mass media and powers of their office.  Others, like managers and moms, have influence over particular purchase decisions.

Yet we don’t need any mysterious terms for people like this.  “Celebrities”, “managers” and “moms” are perfectly sufficient.  In truth, social epidemics are driven by networks of people who are passionate about an idea and these can adequately be identified through conventional targeting methods.

3. Loyalty

Marketers love loyalty and are quick to point out that it’s easier to retain a customer than to win over a new one.  So when sales are suffering, it’s tempting to try to inch up loyalty metrics rather than to increase market penetration.  After all, even a small improvement in loyalty will be leveraged across the entire customer base.

Alas, the truth is that market penetration and customer loyalty are highly correlated, so the best thing you can do to improve loyalty is to sell to more customers.  While this may seem counterintuitive, it makes sense.  High selling items tend to get more shelf space, so strategies likely to increase initial purchases are likely to increase repeat purchases as well.

Further, there’s not much marketers can really do to increase loyalty.  Studies show that loyalty programs are generally not effective and that the most important factor for instilling loyalty is customer experience, an area in which marketers are only tangentially involved.

So don’t get caught up in the loyalty trap.  Your time and effort will be much better spent promoting advocacy through effective social marketing and value exchange than devising gimmicks to promote repeat purchase.

4. Unique

When Jack Welch first took over at General Electric, he decided that every business must be #1 or #2 in its category or it would be divested.  It was a successful strategy for a while, until his managers got wise and simply defined their category in such a way that they would appear to be leaders.

Marketers like to play the same game with “unique selling propositions,” narrowing down the product definition so that they are unique in a category of one, like “the very best nail salon with a blue awning on the west side of town.”  This is a complete waste of time.

First, you’re probably not unique in any significant way. Second, if you were, it would be obvious enough that it wouldn’t take a long drawn out discussion to uncover just how unique you are.  Finally, research suggests that differentiation plays a limited role in purchase decisions anyway.  After all, how many “unique” items do you buy?

So while buzzwords can be useful and are sometimes even unavoidable, they shouldn’t blind us to simple good sense.  If you able to identify viable markets, offer true value and communicate effectively, you’ll do far better than most.

– Greg

11 Responses leave one →
  1. Neno permalink
    November 28, 2013

    Storytelling. Or even more trendy: storyselling.

    Can’t seem to get enough of these two lately.

  2. November 29, 2013

    Thanks for the post. Great read.
    However, when it comes to your rant on Loyalty, I don’t agree. A good marketing department is not merely tangent to customer experience.
    Loyalty is really a worn out term agreed. It’s the result of great customer experience, and marketing is pivotal in delivering that experience. Not the old fashioned marketing definition, but the one started with New Product Management, where the marketing discipline includes responsibility for insights, customer experience and product development. I experience, that strong marketing departments will champion customer experience management focus in business processes, strategies, culture and performance metrics. I don’t see this as a natural law, but marketing department traditionally has worked with the experience focus in their communication and with metrics based experiences in their increasingly digital media.

  3. November 29, 2013


    I agree that marketers could potentially have a central role in customer experience and that, in some organizations, they do, but the fact is that in most contexts they don’t and loyalty is pursued by way of the communications function. Worse, this is usually done at the expense of customer acquisition and, as we know from the empirical data, penetration and loyalty are correlated, so this is counterproductive.

    Another issue is, of course, whether marketers have the skills to pursue customer experience in an intelligent and disciplined way. Over the past decade or so, UX and user centered design has become a highly developed discipline in and of itself and very few marketers are knowledgable in this area.

    So while I agree that this could be a viable marketing function, the fact is that in most cases it isn’t. Perhaps even more importantly, it doesn’t need to be (expect for monitoring and evaluation, of course). Operations people are perfectly capable of creating compelling customer experiences and marketers have more than enough to do. With digital technology, big data analytics, owned and earned media and so on, the plate is pretty full already.

    Marketers’ time would be much better spent pursuing advocacy, which is far more suited to their skills and historical role in the enterprise.

    – Greg

  4. Phil Whomes permalink
    November 30, 2013

    So ‘Engagement’ is nonsense, but ‘value exchange’ is OK? Sometimes I wonder about our profession.

  5. November 30, 2013


    Yes. Value exchange is okay because it leads to specific, definable strategies. I’ve linked in an article that explains how that works, but sometimes I forget that not everybody is digitally inclined and might have missed that, so here it is:

    As I said in the post, I don’t think it’s a perfect term, but at least it points to some meaningful directions.

    Thanks for your comment.

    – Greg

  6. December 2, 2013

    All of the words indicated are known as “Nominalizations” and that their definition depends upon each person’s own experience, values, perceptions, and so on. There is another type of language known as “Concrete” that is accepted by everyone: a glass, a book, etc. Anything that can not be put in a wheelbarrow could be defined as a “nominalization” – if it can be put in a wheelbarrow, it is concrete! I recommend that you investigate the “Milton Model” based on the works of Milton Erickson and the “Meta Model” based on work done by Richard Bandler, et al., for more information on this topic.

  7. December 3, 2013

    Hi Greg
    While I do agree with you on where core competencies traditionally lie, I believe that someone has to sponsor the holistic view of the customer across branding, acquisition, delivery, retention etc. Eventually this is the responsibility of the c-level, but a (talented) Marketing Dept. is in my experience as a consultant the best to pioneer this process. But as you say, if they are still just getting the digital basics in place, then this endeavour has little chance of success.

  8. December 4, 2013

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts Simon.

    – Greg

  9. August 20, 2015

    Well customer experience is a pretty BS term. Its been inflated because it sells software. Since to the conman everything is ‘an experience’ in the objective sense of the work, you need to measure everything. Duh! The levels of stupidity in business astound me. Nevermind the fact that its Experience Economy foundations mean something entirely different. Only problem being of course you can’t scale an idea.

  10. March 21, 2018

    Thank you for sharing. That’s an original way to look at some popular terms.

  11. March 21, 2018

    Thanks Vlad.


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