You know those conversations you get lost in?

The ones where you start off chatting, only to look up at the clock and find two hours have passed?

I had one of those recently with an old friend, Dr Paul Johnston, author, researcher and all-round value proposition expert. Paul’s co-writing a new book about the sameness epidemic in marketing communications. And that’s how he ended up interviewing me at Afia HQ on a sunny morning.

We covered a lot in a couple of hours. But it raised 10 good questions:

  1. Why aren’t marketers trained in how to give a good brief?
  2. How do you propose value to a customer?
  3. What’s the role of marketing?
  4. Why do we talk differently in business?
  5. Can you understand customers from behind a desk?
  6. What do good marketers do differently?
  7. Are we all swimming in a sea of sameness?
  8. Why should brands stop trying to talk to everyone?
  9. What should be marketing teams be doing?
  10. How can you take a different approach to change?

This isn’t a short article, it’s around 2200 words and if you read at my speed it’ll take you 20-30 minutes to toddle your way through. If you work in marketing and you’d like more, happier customers in 2020 it’s worth answering the questions for yourself

Kogan Page are publishing Paul, Stacey and Simon’s book later this year to help you develop the competences marketers need to stand out in a sea of sameness. In the meantime, check out their free value proposition tools

1. Why aren’t marketers trained in how to give a good brief?

Paul:                 You were saying the stuff, as marketers, that you ought to be trained in.

Ben:                 I learnt the foundations when I did my CIM diploma. But I didn’t learn to become a good marketer that way. I joined Boots and I was trained by a copywriter in how to get good briefs. My job at Boots was to help marketers brief and manage good writers effectively. So they got the right results from writing.

The big problem is that marketers are not trained in how to give a good brief. It’s unconscious incompetence. They don’t know they’re not giving a good brief. They don’t have in their head that crap in=crap out and that it’s 50% their responsibility. They just think it’s the creatives fault, but it’s their fault too.

A good agency will really get under the skin of the brief and get a good understanding. But that’s an unusual skill. I got training in it because my mentor at Boots was absolutely rigorous about getting under the skin of the proposition, the idea.

The reason why it’s more important with writing than it is with design, or other creative output, is because with words you have to have substance in order to say something. Unless you’re prepared to write shit. If you’re prepared to write brochure-ware blah, copy, fine, I don’t do that and nobody on my team does. Unless it’s just ‘mood’ copy but what’s the point of ‘mood’ copy? People see through it.

2. How do you propose value to a customer?

Paul:                 We’re interested in the idea of how do you propose value to a customer. The value proposition is a communicative act. Some organisations seem to be very good at saying it.

Ben:                 I come at it through writing because that’s what I specialise in. I’ve written about this in my Language Manifesto, which is about how writing reveals what you truly believe about your customers, about your staff, about what you’ve got to offer. The writing gives you away. So if you’re clothing things in business-speak or in academic-speak and say whatever you like, you’re just making stuff up. But if you want to say something that’s true and clear and connects with your audience, there has to be some reality behind it.

And if there is nothing differentiating about your products or your service, you’ve got nothing to say. You have to find something or you have to create a proposition that has something to say. I was working with a bank, a specialist lender in mortgages, they’ll look at individual cases in order to lend, rather than putting it through an algorithm.

What’s different about that proposition is that they do this manually. They have real humans looking at the case. That’s a value proposition. That is something that’s valuable to brokers and customers. My job is to unearth that proposition, help them express it and not hide it behind business-speak, jargon or formality. Unconfident marketers won’t delve into what is real. I don’t find many people really do that.

3. What’s the role of marketing?

Paul:                 What do you believe people understand by the role of marketing?

Ben:                 I think that there are different levels of discipline around marketing and different understandings. I’ve heard directors refer to them as the colouring-in team. In some places they’re just an internal service to deliver stuff. For example, guys creating things for sales. And we’re saying ‘go back to sales’ because you need to know how it’s being used, who’s going to use it, what do they need to know.

And in many organisations, marketing isn’t seen as powerful. In other organisations marketing has a lot more power, usually where they’re more consumer-focused.

4. Why do we talk differently in business?

Paul:                 Have you picked up on a difference between business to consumer and business to business organisations?

Ben:                 There are differences and I think there are some strange assumptions about B2B. That things should be done in a different way because it’s business, which I just don’t believe because it’s humans by humans.

I always think about when I was working with a large energy company, we did mostly residential stuff. And then we got onto the corporates, which is the business.

If you’re the account director for BMW in the UK, it’s a massive energy contract. You probably know your buyer at BMW extremely well. You probably have lunch here and there, you know their kids’ names, you have a human relationship. It’s much more personal than the mass market, ironically. Yet when it comes to the contractual stuff, it all goes very formal. And it’s this assumption that business means formality and that’s what I try to break people out of.

5. Can you understand customers from behind a desk?

Paul:                 I came across a wonderful quote by John Le Carre “A desk is a dangerous place from which to see the world”. That quote typifies the idea that you can understand customers and markets and how to communicate with them from a book or desk.

Ben:                 I started in sales and I’m very happy to talk to customers because I’ve been given the skills early on.

I think a lot of marketing people aren’t. I remember being at university and working out that marketing would suit me because it’s creative, varied and always changing. And actually it’s not quite so creative, because in an organisation of any size, you’re not creating, you’re hiring agencies who do the creating.

In fact marketing is a project management job and I think it probably attracts people who see it as a creative role, which it is in small organisations. But not in larger where there’s budget because the agencies do the creative. Your job is actually how to get the best out of agencies and freelancers. Good marketers are good at getting the best out of agencies and bad marketers don’t get results.

6. What do good marketers do differently?

Paul:                 When they’re good at their job, what are they doing?

Ben:                 I think they’re able to distill a brief. Unconfident marketers will just send you a lot of stuff, a torrent of stuff. You’ll get almost no brief at all. Good marketers know that they have to sit still for long enough to think a brief through, get really clear on the audience.

Most marketers don’t understand their audience. It’s shocking how little they understand about their audience. What do you actually want it to achieve? And then work out a strategy that leads the creative and that’s very difficult thinking. And I think it’s partly laziness, partly because they’re too stretched. Far too busy to sit still and say ‘This is an act of writing, of thinking’.

7. Are we all swimming in a sea of sameness?

Paul:                 We did some research in three sectors. We scraped the landing, why us and about us pages, from websites and downloaded all of the Twitter feeds of these organisations. We analysed this using software and concluded that everybody seems to be saying the same thing. We came up with this notion of ‘sea of sameness’. Many brands are swimming in this and they don’t know how to set themselves apart. I suppose the sea of sameness would resonate with you?

Ben:                 Absolutely. And funnily enough, one of my friendly competitors, Chris West, at Verbal Identity published a paper on this thing. He argues the same thing, in terms of tone of voice, for fintechs, what he calls new ‘neo banks’. The new banks like Revolut and Monzo, he thinks all sound the same. When Atom started out with a friendly tone of voice (or whoever came first) they felt quite distinctive. But everyone’s doing the same thing. And so an industry reaches a level of maturity when it’s very difficult to differentiate further.

8. Why should brands stop trying to talk to everyone?

Ben:                 Afia is a mission business. Which is why I’ve called the Language Manifesto ‘language manifesto’. It’s about the revolting language that organisations, academics, businesses use that pushes customers and their audiences away. And the revolution that looking at language inspires within culture. I’m looking to attract people who are excited about that. People who go, ‘I have a problem and I can see this might be a solution to it. This guy has got some energy for it. I’ve read some of his writing and I think he’s onto something. It’s new, but I’ve got to trust that he knows what he’s doing’.

If they don’t like that sense of mission, then they’re not going to choose me. And that’s the definition of brand isn’t it? You attract the people that are your ideal customers and you push away those who aren’t. Absolutely. And this is the problem of differentiation because if there isn’t enough difference, then it’s just vanilla and it’s down to price. There’s nothing more than price or convenience.

Paul:                 An indicator of differentiation is the fact that you do push some people away because it’s not for them.

Ben:                 I remember from my CIM days getting the definition of brand, it needs to attract and repel. And the problem is that for differentiation, most brands are trying to speak to everybody and that’s a fundamental problem. When you’re trying to speak to everybody, it doesn’t really work. And if you’re in a mass market, it’s hard to choose a niche and stick to that. And then it’s very hard to find a voice because you’re trying to be all things to all people.

9. What should marketing teams be doing?

Ben:                 In the best organisations marketers activate everyone towards a goal of doing something for customers. In a lot of organisations, marketers don’t have that confidence or capability. And so they become the packagers of the things that the company produces. For example ‘we make bank accounts’, marketing’s job is to sell them, to generate leads. Whereas what marketing should be doing is understanding the market so that the company makes better bank accounts or makes them in a way that the market needs. But that’s quite a challenging, political job when the powers can be legal, regulatory, finance. A lot of organisations don’t seem to understand what marketing should and could be doing for them.

My overall sense is that there isn’t as much learning as there probably needs to be, especially in a discipline like marketing. It’s changing so fast. It’s fragmenting so quickly. Digital is becoming increasingly specialised. Social media is no longer just social media. Facebook is a specialism. Linkedin is a specialism. Every channel is another specialism and they all need to be treated in a different way. Somebody who’s got some experience on Linkedin isn’t necessarily a Snapchat specialist.

How do you then build competence within the marketing team? You hire agencies, but then the problem is that agencies are populated by youngsters who don’t really know anything either. There’s a lot of shysters around. It’s hard to find truly excellent agencies and I don’t see that much discipline in terms of developing learning in a strategic way. A lot of marketing is about confidence to ask the right questions and pursue the answers. This what I mean by getting to a good brief.

Part of the problem is when you’re a junior, you have to learn the ropes and you’re trying to survive. You adopt the language and behaviour of the tribe, which is something I talk about in my manifesto, language is tribal. Behaviour’s tribal. We have to belong. You get your first job, you need that salary. It’s very difficult to make waves when you’re young and learning because you’re absorbing.

I talk about how language is tribal in terms of barriers and sense of belonging within organisations, but also how you help customers to feel like they belong or they’re wanted. It’s who’s in and who’s out. The fundamental human driver is belonging.

10. How can you take a different approach to change?

Ben:                 I think the MBA culture may be responsible for a reductionist view of business that comes down to processes, departments and items. I use an approach called Appreciative Inquiry. When I’m defining brand language, a new tone of voice, I need to get people using it, so its a change program.

I first learnt about Appreciative Inquiry about 10 years ago with a client, AirBP. I used it in the background and then I did an online course and got a better understanding of it. Then I did a one-day course and then a week’s training. After that week I was due to go out to Vodafone’s Indian call centres and go in as a classical consultant – diagnose the problem and prescribe a solution. Halfway through the training, I realised I was going about it the wrong way.

When you go to diagnose and prescribe, you put the system into threat, people feel criticised. You don’t put them into a growth mindset. What appreciative inquiry does is help people to reflect on strengths and past best experiences, to re-experience some of those emotions and then design their own future based on those strengths.

When I first started working at Whitbread beer company, I felt it was about balancing my weaknesses. My maths was terrible, but my english was brilliant and I was working on weaknesses.

It took me years to realise English was my standout skill and then I should just use that. AI has an academic heritage, from David Cooperrider, so it’s well researched and they’ve had some major successes, the US navy and large organisations have successfully adapted and changed. AI isn’t about ignoring problems. It’s about choosing to focus on what’s already working and growing from there. I don’t find people argue with it and you get a room of people who are engaged, energised, choosing projects to work on. It’s very powerful, very exciting stuff.

I’d love to know what you think about it, drop me a line at ben@benafia.com and let me know if anything connected for you (or even better you disagreed and you’d like to have a chinwag about it – always learning!).

And if you’re interested in value proposition creation you might like Value-ology, Paul, Stacey and Simon’s first book

Value-ology book cover