Corporate Communications Consultant
Formerly Japan CEO,
WPP BrandZ Japan Advisor
How Deep Is Your Brand?
As a communicator, I am a fanatic when it comes to the use of words. Phrases should reflect exactly what one means.
This trait derives from early experience. Once upon a time, I was “adopted” as a mentee by the CEO of a multinational organization. This CEO was, and remains, an incredible leader and communicator – as well a stickler for clear communication.
“Too frequently, we are not precise,” he used to say. And if we aren’t precise, it appears as if we don’t know what we mean when we try to reach others. When this happens, he would say, we minimize our corporation’s credibility and reputation. Whether we mean to or not, we hurt our own company.
One example of this advice in practice: One night, my mentor and I were putting our heads together to prepare for his forthcoming address at a shareholders’ meeting. The topic of his presentation? A progress update on his company’s turnaround strategy. Drastic measures had recently been taken by the CEO to put his corporation on the road to financial recovery, and shareholders wanted to know if these measures were working as planned.
“We could use the metaphor of a patient who was hospitalized and is trying to get well,” I offered.
“Not precise enough,” he said. “The hospital metaphor is fine. But where exactly are we, as patient, in our treatment?”
“Post-surgery,” I responded. Then, after some thought, I added, “We’re in the ICU, recovering after surgery.”
“Exactly. Our condition after surgery remains delicate still.” He continued: “But the doctors are ready to call for a transfer from intensive to ordinary care. This is exactly what we should say: ‘We have finally reached the point in our turnaround where we are ready to leave the intensive care unit and to start receiving ordinary, but diligent, care.’”
He was right: There is a big difference between describing a patient who just had been delivered to the ICU after surgery, and a patient who is being released from intensive to the ordinary care unit.
The need for clear communication is even more relevant in today’s rapidly globalizing world. More than ever before, Japanese brands are looking outward, seeking growth in new overseas markets. This calls for recruits of different countries, cultures, and backgrounds to work together as one team.
Brand executives therefore must communicate with sensitivity, giving special attention to the delicate task of word selection in English, which second language to many. When asked, the best advice I can give mentees on this subject is that we should always try to find the simplest solution - a clear, common denominator. What matters is to select concrete and tangible words and phrases.
Conversely, the use of complex or conceptual language adds clutter and ambiguities. This gives rise to misunderstandings and misinterpretations – among team members, or, even worse, among consumers.
Precise language is especially crucial in our new age of corporate social responsibility. As in any profession, I encounter in my work many joys, but also many pet peeves. Chief among these pet peeves is the tendency for corporations to characterize their brands using superficial concepts, language, and labels. Too frequently, corporate taglines are assembled from a mishmash of trending words and phrases. What people don’t realize is that the adoption of those trendy words actually means making corporate promises – promises that a brand might not be able to keep.
Just listen all around us: “We are a company that values diversity in our work environment.” “The spirit of innovation differentiates us as it propels our future and growth.” “People are our biggest assets.” “Think green – we are environmentally friendly.” “Our company is committed to sustainability.”
Many of these words and phrases derive from the recent move toward corporate responsibility. The prevailing view is that companies should be able to deliver strong performance while also tackling deep social and environmental challenges.
This is all well and good. But the question is, are brand’s new promises truly bridged to and anchored in the company’s business goals? Are these promises truly reflected in enterprise-wide behavior? Are the promises contained in the new language of “corporate responsibility” being upheld at all touchpoints, including supply chain, point of sales, merchandising, marketing, R&D, IT infrastructure, financing, manufacturing, and human resources? Are employees fully on board as to how their words, actions, and behaviors need to be aligned with these promises?
I start to hear in my head the old Bee Gees’ melody from the seventies: “How deep is your love?” The real question is: How deep is your brand?