It's Time for Social Purpose Organizations to Restore Corrupt Marketing-Speak to Its Noble Roots

time to restore corrupt marketing language (1)

Marketing-speak has a way of corrupting noble language.

Empathy, which should create a sense of solidarity and lessen pain, turns into the practice of pressing vulnerabilities until they hurt.

Empowerment, which should enable people to achieve their goals, becomes a certain style of marketing that creates the feeling—but not the results—of embracing a positive attitude.  

Advocacy, which should mean coming to the aid of someone who needs your help, describes the actions consumers take to promote a brand.

What if we intentionally recovered this distorted language and restored it to its proper meaning? What difference might that make to your ability to “sell” your audience on the idea, product, or service you’ve developed to make the world a better place?

When you’re motivated by a strong sense of social purpose, you don’t need to settle for persuasion strategies that have been co-opted by corporate marketers. You can dare to distinguish your organization by its ethos of genuine care and support.

A risk worth taking

If you follow celeb sociologist-turned-leadership-coach Brené Brown at all, then you know that she’s a huge proponent of vulnerability. Through decades of interview-based research, she’s determined that vulnerability is the golden key to leadership and influence.

Vulnerability is what enables us to practice true empathy rather than its insipid, damaging cousin, sympathy. It takes vulnerability to sit with a friend in the dark while their world is falling apart whereas sympathy is cheap and easy. Pity is even easier, an emotion we can pour out from a comfortable distance, mixed as it is with gratitude that we’re far removed from the suffering.

In this short video, Brown shows how hard it is to practice genuine empathy:

Click here to view video

Real empathy is humbling work because it means putting someone else’s feelings ahead of our own. It means hitting the pause button on our inner narrative of self-pity and self-interest so we can truly listen to and mirror back someone else’s story.

And yet, through study after study, Brown has discovered that the willingness to let down our guard and climb into the pit with a suffering friend, family, or colleague forms the foundation of leadership.

In her book Dare to Lead, Brown writes:

“Our ability to be daring leaders will never be greater than our capacity for vulnerability. Once we start to build vulnerability skills, we can start to develop the other skill sets.”

As someone motivated by a sense of social purpose, you must be a “daring leader,” someone who can shape opinion and equip your audience to make change. Before you lead the charge up the mountain, however, you must spend time in the valley. You must open yourself up in ways that enable you to relate to and care for the people you want to lead.

Yes, this feels risky, and it goes against the grain of much conventional marketing advice, much of which leans toward manipulation and coercion. Standard persuasion tactics tell us to approach our “target” audience as if they’re the enemy. Get them in our sights and shoot ‘em down so we can bag the sale.

But that’s not leadership—that’s war. (Interestingly, Jonah Sachs, the marketing guru who supposedly started the trend of “empowerment marketing” talks about persuasion in terms Sun Tzu, the great military strategist of ancient China, would appreciate. Sachs’s 2012 book is titled Winning the Story Wars.)

The alternative is to market your world-changing ideas or products through an ethic of compassion and care. Vulnerability, which Brown calls “the core of all emotions,” is the starting point for such an approach. But it’s not the final destination.

What care in marketing DOESN’T look like

Vulnerability starts with allowing yourself to experience your own feelings. But if you stop there, you won’t become the leader your audience needs you to be. You must take the next step and develop heartfelt empathy for the people you want to influence so you can bring about transformative change.

Unfortunately, recent trends in marketing encourage what I think of as “all gush, no glory.” Brands are encouraged to develop an “authentic “voice and presence, to emote through colloquial language that tugs at the heartstrings because it sounds so real. Or should I say Just. So. Real.

Punctuating blog posts and ad copy with a well-placed swear word offers further proof of legitimacy. Because we all know that anyone who’s authentic speaks in hyphens and asterisks.

But that’s not real vulnerability—it’s sincerity souped-up. Copywriters recreate the audience’s pain so they can amp it up. Pretending to empathize, they blast negative feelings through the loudspeakers until the audience cries out, “Enough already! Give me your pain medicine NOW!”

 Does this work? Yes—in the short term. And have you really started your crusade to change the world with a deadline of next Tuesday?

If you’re in it for the long game, if you seriously want to bring about significant social change, then such coercive tactics aren’t your best bet. Like fear-mongering, pseudo vulnerability and fake empathy eventually backfire. The audience that feels overwhelmed by negative emotions may buy today, but they will associate your brand with negative feelings, and that won’t earn their trust in the long run.

Taking a lesson from healthcare reformers

Through my work in knowledge translation, I’ve had the privilege to come into contact with some passionate healthcare reformers. From them, I’ve learned about a powerful concept that could help restore corrupt marketing-speak to its true meaning: patient-centered care.

The traditional model of care functions like a Ptolemian universe. Just as Ptolemy thought that the sun and planets rotated around the Earth, practitioners and patients assume that the healthcare system orbits professionals and technology.

I’ve encountered this skewed worldview many times as a patient. For many years, I’ve lived with hypothyroidism, a condition that requires regular monitoring via a blood test. And for many doctors, the state of my health comes down to a number. It has nothing to do with the level of fatigue I may be feeling if my medication dose is too low or the heart palpitations I may be experiencing if the dose is too high. I recall one medical appointment during which the physician didn’t even look at me; he just checked the number on his chart and wrote out a prescription.

A patient-centered model of care reorients the universe, putting the patient experience at the core. Patients are treated with respect, and the role of healthcare professionals and technology is to empower them. Their primary function is to enable the patient to make wise decisions about their own health.

I experienced this model, and its strengthening effects, when I was pregnant, more than 25 years ago. At the time, I was fortunate to live in Ontario, a province that provided midwifery services, fully funded by provincial health insurance. Like any first-time mother, I was thrilled and terrified about the journey to parenthood. The midwives listened to my fears, answered all my questions, and expected me to make my own decisions about which tests to take, which foods to eat, where to give birth, and how to give birth.

The midwives also taught me new language. They explained that doctors didn’t deliver babies—mothers did. I learned to use “birth” as a verb (as in “I birthed my son after 22 hours of labor.”) and to view physicians as supporters, not stars, of the birth process. The doctor's role, I came to understand, was simply to “catch” the baby the mother brought into the world.

The care I received from the midwives forever altered my perspective on the healthcare system. It didn’t just make me feel good about my decision to involve alternative care providers in my son’s birth; it gave me a sense of agency and the confidence to take charge of my own health. I remember getting into the car with my son for the first time after the birth. Normally a nervous driver, I felt a current of positive energy flow through me as I took hold of the steering wheel. “I’ve just given birth naturally,” I said to myself. “I can do anything!”

What if the communications you use to market your radical ideas and products could similarly empower your customers or clients? What if your messaging could transform a passive audience into active collaborators, committed to help you carry out your mission?

While there’s plenty of buzz about customer-centric marketing, I find the healthcare model of patient-centered care more compelling because it reminds us that people in pain are still in charge of their own destiny. If we can empathize with them in ways that respect their dignity and autonomy, we can give them the clarity and confidence they need to take radical action.

Five qualities of care-infused marketing

Just because coercive marketing tactics are trendy doesn’t mean you have to comply with them. The noble purpose you’re pursuing deserves—no, demands—honest, transparent communications that convey caring for your audience.

When marketing is infused with care, it restores the true meaning of terms that have been tarnished by self-interest. Here are five specific qualities I associated with caring marketing:

  1. Authenticity. “Be yourself” isn’t bad advice if you let your best, most attentive self shine. Beware the common mistake of mimicking a flippant tone or shooting one-line barbs unless you're naturally cheeky. You can be yourself without being the class clown.
  2. Empathy. An empathetic person is a great listener, so show your audience how well you’ve been listening to them. Describe their situation without judgement. Enter into their negative feelings, but remember to share in their aspirations too. Use the power of paraphrase to echo back to them the exact language they’ve used when expressing their reality through conversations or correspondence.
  3. Empowerment. Inspire your readers. Build up their confidence. Invite them into a community of change-makers. Educate them thoroughly, and galvanize them to take positive action.
  4. Advocacy. The root words of advocacy mean to call for help. Be the person your audience can call on and count on when they’re in a tough spot. Offer them more than platitudes. Give them helpful information that will enable them to make wise decisions and take positive action.
  5. Care-infused marketing shows the path to transformation, not just for the individual but also for the community. Show the greater impact of aligning with your cause, and paint a vivid picture of what the world will look like once your Great Cause, your social purpose, has been accomplished.

The Ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes supposedly said, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” Conventional marketing searches for the ultimate lever—that one strategy or tactic that will win over the target audience with as little effort as possible.

The truth, however, is that there’s no Archimedean shortcut to persuading your audience to pursue your social purpose. Caring isn’t something you can demonstrate in an instant; relationships built on caring take time to nurture and grow.

You can, though, sow the first seeds by revisiting corrupt marketing terms and refusing to comply with their definitions. As a client who had been misquoted in the media recently reminded me, “Language matters.” And the language we use to frame our approach to marketing matters a great deal.


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