It’s Hard To Define But I’ll Know It When I See It-The Importance of Precision in Marketing

The title of today’s post is a partial quote from the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart. He wrote it in a famous 1964 decision involving (forgive me) the definition of obscenity. I use it to introduce the topic of marketing and business phrases that lack precise and universally understood meanings.

If a promotional message is ambiguous, its exact meaning is open to individual interpretation by every recipient. A prime example of a vague message is any advertisement that uses the word “value”.  We frequently hear phrases like, “A $75 value, yours for only $19.95 (plus shipping and handling).”

What exactly is value? Possible meanings might include:

  1. The seller’s cost;
  2. What competitors typically charge for a similar product or service; or,
  3. The original price of the item.

Most likely, it is none of the above. Buyers don’t usually know the seller’s cost of an item, and are indifferent even if they do. Furthermore, it’s unlikely a rational seller would promote sales that incur a $55 loss on every transaction. The dynamics of a free market system eliminate the second and third choices. If the intersection of supply and demand fixes the true price of something at $75, a prudent businessperson must offer it near that price, at least in the long-term.

My interpretation of value closely resembles the economic concept of utility, directly correlated to my level of personal satisfaction derived from or desire for something. The problem with this concept from a marketing perspective is multifaceted. Not only is my level of utility different from yours, but it changes over time. Therefore, it is impossible to measure within meaningful parameters.

A classic example is the value or utility of a simple glass of water. If I’m near death from dehydration, presumably I am willing to pay virtually everything I own for a single life-saving gulp.  The second glass of water would still have great value, although slightly less than the first. By the tenth glass, the water would hold little value, as I would be unable to consume it. Its only utility might be to store it for future consumption. In less critical situations, for example in a restaurant, water has no quantifiable value for me. I expect free water with unlimited refills.

The example illustrates a final challenge using the word value in a marketing context. The consumer, not the seller, always defines it!

The reality is words like value, savings, quality and worth are examples of intentionally ambiguous and ill defined terms; all-too-common marketing ploys intended only to suggest some vague concept of an “act now before it’s too late” bargain to the undiscerning consumer.

What is the message here? Effective communication always requires a high level of care and precision. Marketing is no exception. Choose your words carefully and communicate the same meaning to all recipients. Your brand and professional reputation may not survive the alternative.

 © 2012 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

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