Marketing Thought

A Plea About Language Used In Marketing

This page outlines a number of phrases that are used loosely, or just plain wrongly, by marketers. As such you can see this as a plea for more discipline in the language used in marketing. This is mostly aimed at academic writers. Still, hopefully, the advice will be useful even more widely.

It is very much my own pet peeves. In no way do I claim that these are the worse mistakes made by marketers. Nor do I contend that clarifying these terms will radically improve marketing writing. That said, it would make me happy if people stopped misusing these terms. This seems an excellent reason to change to me at least. The list will start small but I will update this when I find a new term that annoys me.

ROI (Return On Investment)

This is not motherhood and apple pie. It does not mean any good thing. Marketers often use the term ROI to mean some positive result. The problem is that there exists a term, ROI, with a specific meaning. Professionals in non-marketing disciplines, e.g., finance, find the term useful. It means something specific to them. As such when marketers use the term ROI as a general statement of something good it undermines the marketer’s credibility.

To take an example, creating awareness is not generating ROI. It might be a vital step to generating ROI. Yet steps towards achievements, and securing the achievements themselves, are not the same. Going grocery shopping is often a vital first step to getting dinner ready but don’t confuse bringing home frozen carrots with having a meal ready.

For more on ROI see here and notes on our Sloan Management Review article here.

Rationality And Irrationality

Too often academic marketers seem to enjoy describing consumers as irrational. The challenge is that few speakers or listeners have very clear ideas of what anyone means. If, when you use irrational, you mean that consumers aren’t demons who process all the information in the world in an impartial way, then sure. I agree. That said, do tell me who believes this. Or else it is a bit of a waste of everyone’s time to point this out. In academic marketing papers we don’t say ‘gravity applies in this market’. We just assume it does because it (pretty much) always does.

Your definition of rationality needs to be something that could actually happen or else I’m not sure what the point is. Furthermore, irrational is a perjorative term to normal people. Why call your customers it?

Just as critically, why surrender the positive term ‘rational’ to people who think selfishness is a higher form of thinking. This is a really silly thing to do. I can’t believe that well-meaning people think describing their thinking as irrational is the way to win over normal people.

Either clearly define what you mean, or just drop the terms irrational and rational. This website contains a number of discussions of rationality. Start here for more.

Competitive Advantage

This phrase is not chocolate sauce. It does not go with anything. In order to use the term competitive advantage, you must have some sort of reference to the competition. Ideally, you will also be able to point to some sort of advantage too. (This is not rocket science).

Often, however, competitive advantage is tacked on to a sentence to make it seem you are saying more than you are. We are doing it to gain a competitive advantage. Good for you.

Or, competitive advantage is used in a way that might as well say dormative properties. Molière satirized early doctors who said things that put you to sleep had dormative (sleep causing) properties. True, but you haven’t really said anything. It is all circular. Which brings us to First-Mover Advantage.

First-Mover Advantage

I believe that you might have an advantage when you get to market first. That said, if you tell me you have a first-mover advantage the obvious next question is, “what is the advantage?” How about helping the reader out and telling the reader what the first-mover advantage is before they have to ask. The phrase ‘first-mover advantage’ doesn’t tell us anything. First-mover advantage is a placeholder. It is waiting for something meaningful to be put in its spot. If you have something meaningful underlying the phrase — e.g., by getting in first we can sign exclusive contracts at favorable rates — say that. If not, what do you mean? See here.

For More On Language Used In Marketing

Visit The MASB Common Language Dictionary For Definitions Of Marketing Terms

For a comprehensive guide to marketing language please visit the MASB (Marketing Accountability Standards Board) Common Language Dictionary here (or directly at

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