Danger! Jargon

A couple years ago, I advised a major credit card company on its naming strategy. It should have been a straightforward process but turned out to be a nightmarish operation. The company had established hundreds, maybe thousands, of acronyms for its products, services, and divisions over the years. It had dug itself into a linguistic hole and was buried in terms incomprehensible to anyone outside the organization.

It’s easy for insiders to become blind and deaf to company jargon. The result is a brand’s identity becomes obscured by meaningless, invented terms.

When you repeatedly use a phrase, term, or brand name, you tend to shorten it. Without real awareness of the abbreviation’s growing currency, you’ve created a second brand name. The most obvious example of this evolution is Coke. The short version of the brand name Coca-Cola was created by cola drinkers and company employees. It’s been used internally and externally for over 20 years. Result? The Coca-Cola Company fights an ongoing dual-brand challenge.

Coke has become a familiar word. It’s a special case. What about ADT, PPT, DET, ADI, and FTI? All are brand names used internally at various companies. Can you guess what they represent?

Using abbreviations internally carries the risk of communicating them externally. Internal company jargon kills the clarity of a brand’s voice. Ever visited a financial or insurance company site, scrolled down a massive list of options, and wondered what the heck terms meant? Have you ever asked yourself, “What on earth does that mean?” when you’ve come across an obscure word on a site? Found yourself wondering how to identify your needs against a set of seemingly inadequate and alien site options? I’ve certainly had these experiences. They usually frustrate me so much, I give up on the offender and proceed to another company’s site.

Your internal world is very different from the world outside. You’re 100 percent focused, 24 hours a day, every day on your branch of expertise. Your customers hardly give you any thought. It’s only natural you’re infinitely more familiar with your territory and its language than any of your customers. Problem is, lots of companies forget this obvious fact. They use “advanced internal language” on Web sites, in brochures, and even in ads.

Your job as a brand manager is to keep a watchful eye on terms and phrases used in your branding to avoid finding yourself in a situation in which your brand literally speaks to your customers in a language they can’t understand.

I’m referring to all your language, including that on your navigation panel, in offerings categories, and on forms. Forget about any internal jargon in communications. Instead, ask consumers what they would call each of your services, how they would categorize them, and how they would like you to talk about them.

Customers will feel your brand is speaking their language, not a company-invented dialect comprehensible only to insiders and experts.

Good branding is about constantly talking your consumers’ language.

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