Time to give peace a chance in marketing language?

Marketing has very little in common with warfare – but you wouldn’t guess that from the way that marketers talk

April 24, 2017


At a time when the world has many genuine horrors, it seems trivial to write a post about the violence of marketing language. Recently though, I couldn’t help noticing just how many of the marketing terms we use every day are related to warfare – and wondering what that says about our industry.

What do I mean? Ask yourself how often today you’ll talk about ‘targeting’ a particular audience and ‘engaging’ them, ‘launching a campaign’, ‘capturing’ attention or market share, ‘positioning’ yourself to ‘outflank’ the competition. Perhaps you’re operating on limited budgets and developing a ‘guerrilla’ marketing strategy as a result. Come to think of it, even terms like ‘tactics’ and ‘strategy’ have military roots if you go back far enough (the original Greek term ‘strategia’ means ‘generalship’).

My colleague Christina O’Connor wrote a fascinating post last year about how the different metaphors that we use in marketing can shape the way we actually think about our audiences and the task of gaining their interest and persuading them to buy a brand or product. She’s right – but there was one omission from her post that’s suddenly struck me. The most pervasive metaphor in marketing isn’t that we’re hunting prey, catching fish or growing plants; it’s that we’re conducting a never-ending war.

Separating military from marketing – it’s harder than it should be

Out of interest, I wrote that last paragraph to try and avoid using any military terminology (apart from in the last sentence of course). It was very, very difficult. Military language is so embedded within marketing as to be almost impossible to separate from the way that we talk and think about it. It’s become so intrinsic to our conversations that we’re not even consciously aware of it most of the time. It doesn’t make us aggressive or violent people – but I can’t help thinking that it must influence our marketing strategies. Language matters. The terms and concepts that we use shape our way of seeing the world – and have a direct influence on the types of ideas we come up with. If we encourage ourselves, no matter how subtly, to see the world as generals and soldiers would, then surely that affects our ideas?

Why is marketing obsessed with playing soldiers?

The question of where the military metaphors come from is an interesting one – I read an interesting thought from Greg Allum, Head of Social Media and Creative Strategy at Sony, who suggested it’s down to the rapid growth in advertising in the years following the Second World War – and there could well be something in that. However, I suspect that there are deeper forces  at work. Western society, let’s face it, has an enduring fascination with the military. It runs throughout the way we talk about sport and business, as well as the way we talk about marketing. The military is held in great respect – and there are many walks of life eager to learn from it. Just think how many professional development courses are run by ex-soldiers – or how often we pack our department off to one form of ‘boot camp’ or another.

We’re not the only industry that seems to have an unconscious instinct to make professional life more authoritative and exciting by playing soldiers with our terminology. However, the implications for marketing are arguably greater than elsewhere. It’s our role to find new sources of growth and build relationships with potential customers that can make both them and us better off. We do this by anticipating people’s needs and developing propositions to meet them. There’s absolutely no parallel here with the task of defeating and destroying an enemy, decimating morale or sapping another country’s will to fight you. For this reason, many of the military terms that we use in marketing end up steering us down narrow ways of thinking that don’t actually reflect what we’re trying to achieve.

Here are some of the assumptions that can seep into our strategy as a result of the military language that marketers use. Some of them are conscious, some of them are subconscious, and lots of them, lots of the time, are wide of the mark:

Our gain can only come through their loss

Military conflict is a zero-sum game: one side wins when the other side loses. Marketing doesn’t necessarily work that way. Our goal is to find growth, but the most sustainable forms of growth often come through expanding a market, anticipating and meeting needs that people were previously unaware of. If you’re operating in a mature or declining market where the only way to grow is by taking share from others, then a self-consciously military strategy where you focus on weakening the opposition might make sense. However, very few businesses would choose to be operating in that way. When we think in terms of a zero-sum game, we’re limiting our approach to what marketing can do.

We need to define ourselves by what the opposition is doing

Because warfare is a zero-sum game, generals tend to focus most of their thinking around what the opposition is doing. In a marketing context, this tends to encourage status quo thinking. When different brands and businesses keep defining themselves in relation to one another, there’s less incentive to come up with innovative, game-changing solutions. It’s the type of thinking that easily leads to FMCG or retailer price wars – and declining value all round.

The customer is a casualty

Of all the military terms embedded in marketing, the most potentially damaging is the concept of the customer or prospect as a ‘target’ that we must hunt down. Jeff Berry, the advertising copywriter (and author of The Unbreakable Rules of Marketing), wrote a thoughtful post about how using the word ‘target’ to describe customers diminishes and dehumanises them. Their goals, motivations and wellbeing don’t matter – what counts is how they fit into our objectives. He’s right – and there’s a certain irony to the point he makes. Targeting should enable more personalised, intuitive, value-adding experiences. However, the mindset of customers as targets steers us away from using that potential.

We are imposing our will on others

Marketers, and especially content marketers, talk a lot about capturing attention. Think about it for a minute, and that phrase has big implications for the way that we approach persuading people to consume what we have to say. It involves overriding their will and forcing them to do something that fits our agenda – either through deception or sheer brute force. The concept of attention as something you capture rather than something you earn encourages interruptive strategies that ‘bombard’ (notice that one) audiences with things they’d rather avoid – or use clickbait headlines to lure them somewhere they don’t really want to be. We talk about ‘ambushing’ our audiences as if we expect them to welcome the experience. It’s another way in which military terms encourage a vision of marketing as a ‘them and us’ experience – and that’s particularly damaging when it involves separating you from your customer.

I’m not saying all military terms are always irrelevant. However, I believe that we’re capable of thinking more clearly as marketers when we question why we’re using such language. Is it really appropriate to what we’re trying to achieve? Are potential customers targets – or are they partners or prospective allies? Will you really achieve your goals by capturing their attention or by earning it? Are you positioning yourself to gain territory or seeking to nurture and grow a market? Is the goal of your guerrilla marketing campaign really to cause chaos, destruction and confusion – or are you actually interested in making people’s lives better?

All in all, there’s got to be more room in marketing language for peace, love and understanding. Our audiences stand to benefit – and so do we.

Peace out!