There are many ways to kill a marketing strategy, including bad execution of good strategy, political impediments, underfunding of marketing initiatives and other problems that drive marketing strategies into the ground.

But there are sometimes other, more subtle (but consistent) problems in companies. The main problem concerns the language that your marketing team uses.

Here is, in essence, the basic question: does everybody in your company speak the same language? For example, when you have a meeting, does everybody speak English, or maybe French? Or maybe, like in a lot of companies, you speak a lot of different languages, so it sounds like a cacophony.

Think about your answer. You may think you speak the same language, but do you really?

Speaking Different Languages

Viewing the way many companies work, I've observed a common behavior. When one person says a word, such as “segmentation,” it means different things to different people. Some think segmentation means grouping customers together, while others think it means grouping products together. So, when someone says, “Which segment should we target?” everybody thinks of different things (products or customers).

The same happens with the word “quality.” When you say the word “quality” in your company, does everybody know what you mean? Probably not. Unless you work in a manufacturing industry where quality has a clearly defined meaning (like reliability), many people will use the term quality interchangeably with other terms and ideas.

This confusion becomes even more problematic when Marketing interacts with other parts of an organization, like R&D, Product Marketing, or Finance—and even other companies (like the advertising agency). The words that marketers often use are not defined with shared meanings, so it's no wonder that a source of confusion of marketing strategy is often the confusion over the meaning of words.

Another term rife with misunderstanding and confusion is “brand equity.” To some, brand equity is something that exists in the brand. It's a characteristic of the brand that means what the brand stands for.

To others, brand equity is a characteristic of the consumer—it has something to do with the value of the brand to the consumer and the mind-share and pocketbook share devoted to the brand as opposed to competitors. To still others, brand equity is something that resides in the company—it is the value of the brand in financial terms to the company.

“Image” is another one of those tricky terms. Some think an image is something in the brand—what the brand stands for (of course, this begs the question of how “brand image” is different from “brand equity.”) To others, it is a set of associations that exists in consumers' minds (again, we need to ask how this differs from brand equity).

Image is sometimes used to refer not to the associations consumers have about the brand but to the picture they have in their head when they think about the brand (e.g., the physical product or its logo). Some talk about “image” in terms of advertising—an “image ad” is one that doesn't contain much information about the product, but rather associates the product with a certain type of person or lifestyle.

There are other examples. The well-known and often used marketing term “value” suffers from a problem of unshared meaning. People will use this word to convey all sorts of ideas, including the concept of low price. Indeed, the word value is typically just a general word to convey quality and price, but that raises the question, once again, as to what quality really means.

This observation holds true for a lot of terms used in marketing everyday: value proposition, positioning, attributes, benefits, branding, brands, target market, etc.

The Real Problem

So if people don't agree on what these words mean, how can you expect to come up with a coherent marketing strategy? Isn't this the same as speaking different languages? Wouldn't you expect confusion if you were speaking different languages?

If not outright confusion, how about the many mistakes and inefficiencies that crop up due simply to a lack of shared meaning? But companies accept such confusion in marketing every day.

One result is that people will agree with a certain marketing strategy, but then implement it in different ways—because the people who need to implement the strategy understand it in different ways.

Things You Can Do

Get your company or marketing team together and begin by listing the marketing words you use everyday; then, come up with common definitions. Make sure everyone means the same thing when they use the words such as these:

• Segment
• Quality
• Value
• Strategy
• Performance
• Image
• Position
• Branding
• Brand equity

Let's dig a little further. Ask yourself: What does my company's product stand for? If you could name just two benefits that your product provides (after all, customers rarely remember more than two or three things about your product), what would you say?

More importantly, is that what everyone in your company would say? Would your promotions people say the same thing, and your sales force say the same thing?

As in most companies, you'd probably get different answers. The reason is that you haven't determined the positioning of your product, or at least everyone doesn't agree on the product's position. Or, as I said before, you don't agree on what a product's “position” means!

Another thing to do is to avoid using terms like “value” that have different meanings for different people and can be interpreted in a broad and often confusing way. Otherwise, you're likely to find that the people in your company will convey very different messages to prospective customers.

So, if you've got such issues in your company, you might as well be speaking different languages.

Of course, you could choose not to worry about the lack of shared meaning at all—but do so with this in mind: in the United Nations they need a lot of translators, and the talk moves slowly, else confusion reigns. So get ready to hire translators, buy headsets, and deal with all the rest….

Indeed, you could end up hiring high-priced marketing consultants to clear up your confusion!

But, better yet, get your marketing department to agree on a common language—and you'll save yourself a lot of money, make your marketing meetings a lot more efficient, and end up with a coherent marketing strategy that everyone not only agrees with but also understands in the same way.

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image of Allen Weiss

Allen Weiss is MarketingProfs founder and CEO, positioning consultant, and emeritus professor of marketing. Over the years he has worked with companies such as Texas Instruments, Informix, Vanafi, and EMI Music Distribution to help them position their products defensively in a competitive environment. He is also the founder of Insight4Peace and the former director of Mindful USC.