Consumer Messaging & the Tyranny of Labels (2)

[January 16, 2012]

In my last post, I talked about the ways Language shapes our perception of the very things we use Language to express. The impact of this paradox on our conversation with consumers is little understood. That’s because so much of what we produce is the result of habitual, mechanical practice and unexamined marketing theory. 

Am I being too harsh? Maybe. But I don’t know how else to account for what I encountered on
1-10-12 at Honda.com. Here, in the slide show marquee, is Car Copy Gone Wild:

• We’re all different. That’s why there are 5 Honda Civics
• All New Cry. Inspiration is Calling
• Million Mile Joe Did It!
• Right Size Meets Right Time.
• 2012 Honda Goldwing. Prepare to go everywhere!
• The next Honda in your life
• 2012 Honda Pilot. The SUV made better
• Honda’s “Sweet Dreams” kicks off the Rose Parade
• Honda Has More 2011 JD Power and Associates
  Initial Quality Awards Than Any Other Automaker
• The Fit Is GO! 
• Do you possess dreams or to they possess you
• The undying dream
• A Commuter’s Dream
• Refinement to the next power
• We’ve been an engine of growth for the US economy for over 40 years.

Imagine, 15 different message strategies, each conveyed with a different visual style, rhythm, pacing and voice—yet supposedly the outward expression of a unified brand. As I see it, the seductive impact of labels on perception has blindsided Honda. Far from being branded communication, this is the very exemplar of Web Site Copy, that bland, inhuman style of communication that slides closer to the standards set by the supermarket circular every year.

Face it, anyone who spoke this way to a friend or lover in the real world would be considered a sociopath. It’s a communication style we might call “Just Keep Talking—Until You Strike a Nerve or Your Prey Cracks From Nervous Exhaustion.”

Of course communicating humanely is easier face-to-face than through any advertising medium, but that’s no excuse for allowing the medium to interpose itself between a brand and its audience. “Look at me, I’m a marketing platform,” squeals the marquee at Honda.com—as at Xerox.com, Boarshead.com and countless other sites. In the rush to follow form and produce Web Site Copy that meets Professional Standards, real communication is lost. 

“Isn’t there a better way?”
My answer is a qualified “Yes.” Not coincidentally, the solutions I find at MMS.com involve more than a different approach to copy. While the text is much less “websitey” than average, the real impact lies in the way the message unfolds. Instead of confronting a visitor with a wall of unrelated copy snippets, the site creates context, a framework for communication. 

Like an engaging sales rep, it appeals to you as a rounded, unified entity. Also notice that this site, though built from the same visual/verbal vocabulary as the offline M&Ms campaign, has reinterpreted that vocabulary for a different medium. Then, page by page, it unfolds different aspects of its message at a human pace—without the drumbeat redundancy of traditional marketing speak.

Now, lest you think this approach won’t work in a campaign for a high value product marketed to discriminating customers, have a look at two examples. The first is the recent general campaign for The Cosmopolitan Resort Hotel under the banner “Just the Right Amount of Wrong.” I defy anyone to say a swatch of traditional Hotel Copy extolling “the finest accommodations for the luxury experience you deserve,” could have such an immediate impact. 

At a less sensational level, see the House of Travel Make Your Own Policy Tool. Not as much fun, but just as engaging, in one important sense: Here’s a page that delivers far more than mere words or images can convey about what the company offers.

Fail to grasp the implications here and you’re doomed to produce another wordy Web presence that paradoxically says nothing at all. Because the ultimate folly of label-based communication is its focus on words. Real communication doesn’t depend on individual words or phrases but on the background message that emerges from its surrounding context—a combination of word, image and sound, real or implied. 

This background message and the value it delivers is the true definition of branding. No amount of clever words or design gimmickry can motivate consumers if it doesn’t add up to a meaningful emotional connection, as conveyed in a unifying message. Forget this point and your destined to become just another sad puppet of Language and its labels.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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