The Power Report: Please Retail SA, stop going all pseudo on us
by Megan Power (@Power_Report) I’ve always hated made-up names for children, and for good reason. It’s similar to how I feel about brands, especially those in the beauty and food industries, that try to impress by using inane descriptors to market their products.
With children’s names, whether it’s ‘creative’ spelling or the blending of two names or just a plain thumbsuck, the Camleighs and Brandalls, the Laylanys and Questins, the Lyrics and Scotlyns can’t help but jar. It’s all so unnecessary, too. There’s certainly no shortage of existing — real — names to choose from. I recall the baby names book (yes, I’m that old) we consulted to better understand the meanings of different names and, importantly, double-check spelling. It was thicker than a thesaurus. I suspect parents of such named offspring want to break the mould, or at least they want their children to — to stand out on the playground, to be spotted in a pile of CVs on a cluttered employer’s desk. But is it really a bonus? Couldn’t it just as easily be a handicap, an embarrassment?
Pretentious add-on terms
When it comes to brands, I’m not talking about a brand or product name but rather those pretentious add-on terms used, to supposedly, differentiate a brand, and often preceded by a “with”. They’re usually a combination of words, or parts of words, with a few numbers or letters thrown in for impact. If there’s a way to fiddle the spelling, it’ll be found. If it can boast a scientific or technical ring, even better.
So, you have a shampoo with ActivProB, a moisturiser with BoostQ9, a soap with SateenZR, and an antiperspirant with DryGuard95. The toothpaste with TrixomeM, the multivitamin with SupaBioniK, the razor with MotionGen and the handwash with GermXBlast. Food-industry favourites include the fruit juice fortified with VitagonA, the oatmeal boasting a dose of FibaFul, and the chamomile tea infused with Calmathon.
These examples are particularly bad, partly because I made them up. But I can easily find similar real-life examples at my local Pick n Pay or Dis-Chem. Our supermarket shelves are full of this contrived mumbo jumbo. I fabricated these because, if I named some real ones, in fairness, I should name them all. Also, besides risking the alienation of most of retail South Africa in one go, it simply would take too long.
These quasi-terms, whether exotic- or scientific- sounding, usually reflect nothing more than an ordinary ingredient or some concoction especially selected for inclusion in a product. I once queried the technical-sounding name featured prominently on one of South Africa’s leading drinks brands. Turns out (as I had suspected) that it was something the manufacturer had made up to describe a blend of very unremarkable vitamins and minerals it had added to the ingredients.
Perhaps it’s just me and these trumped up descriptions are indeed what distinguish brands and move people to choose them? I’d be surprised, though. More and more beleaguered, yet increasingly empowered, consumers want plain talk. They want authenticity. Especially here, right now. Battered by the relentless double-speak of our politicians, the duplicity that is Eskom and the ongoing betrayal of promises by government, it’s hardly surprising consumers yearn for no-nonsense, straight-forward communication.
We’re in an age where honesty and transparency are no longer nice-to-haves. We all loved English comic and actor, Ricky Gervais, for calling a spade a spade when he hosted the recent Golden Globes awards. His scathing remarks about hypocrisy in Hollywood were a breath of fresh air. We identify with him because he’s down to earth; he bravely and unashamedly calls out posturing, and speaks in a language and tone ordinary people relate to.
“Driven by purpose”
If so many of today’s leading brands are indeed “driven by purpose”, perhaps they should start with the basics and be more sincere in their marketing. Using fake words and names that don’t even exist to suggest a superior or unique offering (it’s seldom either) hardly inspires trust. Consumers want to know what a product contains and what it does. There are more than a million words in the English language to choose from; if marketing gurus can’t sell a product without going all pseudo on us, perhaps the product itself should go back to the drawing board.
And, while we’re at it, it would be great to see less clichés this year. The best thing about the days following Christmas was an end to festive-season advertising; the hackneyed gift brochures and ads trotting out tired platitudes like “’tis the season…”, “the more the merrier”, and “all the trimmings”. As for “all wrapped up”/“it’s a wrap”, it was everywhere.
Worse, still, was that throughout it all, we were encouraged to “gift”. It’s apparently no longer good enough to “give” a present. “Gift a book”, one retailer enthused. “Reveal the beauty of the season through the art of gifting”, a large coffee brand gushed.
Not an easy year
I’m hardly alone in my dislike of lazy, misleading or pompous copywriting. A UK copywriter and branding specialist last year posted a lovely example from Europe of a luxury watch brand keen to highlight its exclusivity and unparalleled craftmanship. Next to its name it featured the payoff line: “One of not many”.
We’re now properly into 2020 and it’s not an easy year, on many fronts. I hope, for the sake of ordinary consumers, that unimaginative and formulaic marketing that does little to enrich our lives will be rarer. Or, at least, one of not many.
Megan Power (@Power_Report) has nearly 30 years’ experience working in South African media, including investigative journalism and news editing; she now runs Power LAB, a strategic communications and customer experience agency focusing on customer journey audits, crisis readiness and brand reputation. Megan’s consumer column, The Power Report, ran weekly in the Sunday Times for six years and has now found a new home on MarkLives.