Why StartUps need an old fashioned thesaurus

brand positioning a StartUp

How language can dramatically effect perception.

I’ve got a good idea how I want to position the product I’m developing for next year and it uses the word ‘brand’ but a very smart local StartUp founder asked me if maybe I should use a different word.

He’s the first to suggest this. Lots of other StartUp people gravitate to the word ‘brand’ because they immediately know the brand is important to their business and they also know they are not doing it properly.

But our founder friend’s point was this. He felt that the word ‘brand’ is both devalued and potentially a misrepresentation. Devalued because, to him, brands are too often vacuous, over priced and even dishonest, the very opposite of what I am building. A misrepresentation because too many people associate ‘brand’ only with the logo, name and maybe look. Nothing deeper. What I’m seeking to do is to get StartUps to recognize that a brand is a summary of all the experiences a person has of a business service or product. So a brand is a summary of every piece of that business they come into contact with. Using the word ‘brand’, he suggested, is too reductive. What I will offer has much greater value to the whole business and needs a better descriptor. His suggestion was to use terms like ‘company DNA’. I understand the logic but I worry that is even more open to (mis)interpretation. So I’m sitting down with my thesaurus and having a good, hard think.

Way back when, I worked on the launch of Sega Dreamcast and to begin our thinking I interviewed gamers. They told me how they played with their mates on a Friday night, drank some beer, smoked some weed, competing and trying to outsmart each other. One of them said: “it’s the only time of the week I use my brain”. Everyone nodded. Then he said: “yes, but I get told off for playing so much when my girlfriend wants me to do other stuff. People think you’re a loser.”

Then we interviewed an Oxford academic, who looked at the role of play in the animal kingdom. He told us that play was key strategy in the animal kingdom for learning and developing skills – social skills, physical skills and mental skills – and a way of making social conflict safe. So: it is a good thing.

So why was our young gamer so down on ‘play’? In reality, he was not just apologetic for playing, he was apologizing for developing his metal and social skills. Which is crazy. But that’s because the word ‘play’ has been hijacked. Good for kids, bad for adults. It had become word that was stopping the category from growing. Incidentally, in an attempt to make the word positive again, our strategy became about the power of playing together.

My current dilemma is this: has the word ‘brand’ been too devalued to be of use…or is it, perhaps even despite being devalued, the simplest and most direct way of saying what I do? If anyone can help, I’m all ears.

So I don’t have answer yet but the lesson is this: words matter. Think hard about them. What are the different ways they can be interpreted? Are there better words you can use? Or can you guide your audience to the interpretation you want? If you don’t know, get out that old paperback thesaurus you thought you’d never need again, it’s the best tool you have to win the war of words.*

(*Yes, I know the there are internet versions but paper is best. Trust me.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *