Looking for the Right Words? Be Like Mike

An image of Michael Jordan, floating through the air, en route to a slam dunk.

Advertising, building a Web site, coming up with branding standards – pretty much everything you do on-line and off is designed to convince people to buy your products, use your service, and encourage others to do the same. At the base of all those efforts is the message.

Not surprisingly, delivering that message can be one of the most stressful aspects for any company. And much of that stress is a result of one major flaw in message development and delivery:

Forgetting to focus on the message.

It's especially bad in larger corporations where messaging must flow through an approval process: a serpentine maze of reviewers who often feel that approval is not enough and that only a change represents work.

It's often a network of non-communications folk whose focus is more on their own departments and fiefdoms, who get stuck in internal jargon and internal foci.

And this focus on the internal needs tends to obfuscate the needs of the only person that truly matters: your customers.

That's how we end up with reams upon reams of jargony text on a Website, it's how simple concepts get lost in labyrinthine text filled with phrases meaningful only to internal audiences. But it can be fixed.

It's not about size, it's not about scope. It's about finding a message that resonates with your customer base. Volume of words does not always equal gravitas. You're not defending a doctoral thesis, you're trying to sell.

Consider these statements:

  • Save Money. Live Better;
  • Innovation;
  • At the heart of the image;
  • The happiest place on Earth;
  • I'm lovin' it;
  • A diamond is forever;
  • Just do it;
  • Melts in your mouth, not in your hands;
  • It's everywhere you want to be.

Chances are you're familiar with the brands attached to these messages (if not, they are as follows: WalMart, 3M, Nikon, Disney, McDonald's, De Beers, Nike, M&Ms, and Visa). These messages resonate because of – not in spite of – their simplicity. They're often aspirational, often emotional, and instantly able to provide you with a frame of reference.

One of my all-time favourites comes from Gatorade.

Back in the early 90s, the brand, which has always attached itself to athletic excellence, came up with the tag line, "Be Like Mike."

Be like Mike. Three words, 10 letters. And an unparalleled understanding of what the brand represented.

Be like Mike: excellence, dominance, athleticism, enthusiasm, fun, adoration – all of which can be obtained, in part, by twisting off the top of a kind-of-nasty orange beverage.

Sure, Gatorade could have spent their commercial time talking about electrolytes and replenishing fluid loss. They could have talked about carbohydrate-consumption rate and osmolality. They could have gone into the research and development history at the University of Florida.

But they chose to sum it all up in three words: Be Like Mike.

The other stuff, while likely more important in the long run, doesn't resonate with your customers as quickly as a simple, easily understandable message. When developing content for a Website, for advertising, or for promotions, simple is almost always better.

It can be a tough pill to swallow – especially for marketing, R&D, and management. Words carry weight, bigger words carry more. But if you're burdening your audience with cumbersome messaging – or worse, confusing them with jargon and empty buzzwords – you run the risk of them dropping the overly weighted ball.

Remember your audience and what they want. They want idiomatic language that makes sense; they want to have their problems solved or their needs met, quickly. They don't want to learn about your language; they want to interact in their own.

It's simple. Just be like Mike.

And now we turn it over to you. What messaging resonates with you? Do you respond to industry jargon or convoluted business messaging? What branding efforts have stuck with you over the years?

Questions Answered

What's the best brand messaging?

How do I write for my site?

Should I use jargon?



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