Stop ‘Branding’ and Improve English’s Reputation

Stop ‘Branding’ and Improve English’s Reputation

By Alex Marshall  Aug 2, 2013

In 16th-century England, Thomas Gresham formulated what is now known as Gresham’s law, which stipulates that bad money drives out good. Paper money tends to circulate more freely than silver, and silver more freely than gold, because people hoard whatever type of money is seen as best. It’s why we spend those torn dollar bills first. I have no problem with this. It might even be a good thing, because it expands the money supply and credit. But I do have a problem when a similar dynamic takes over language, as bad, bureaucratic, bulky and bothersome words drive out simple, short, clear and good ones.Examples would fill a dictionary. There is corporate speak such as actualize, differentiate, facilitate, repurpose and synthesize. But this is mere detritus, easily swept away. What bothers me more is when a fluffy, pretentious and bureaucratic word replaces a simpler one, often with a history.

With the advent of the personal computer, “word processing” began to replace “typing” as the preferred term. This was an unnecessary change: Fingers were still placed on letters on a keyboard, and sentences still transmitted to a page or screen.

Similarly, I noticed a few years ago that a public elementary school had renamed its library “the media center,” as if an old and distinguished word such as “library” was unable to encompass information-delivery devices such as microfilm or the Internet. Simply updating or expanding a technology doesn’t require a new word.

Continuity Helps

There is value in what came before. Apple Inc. (AAPL)’s Steve Jobs won converts to his Macintosh computers by having users “paste” and “cut,” rather than “insert” and “delete,” as in the Microsoft world. He wasn’t dumbing down. That continuity of language helped this new tool, the computer, establish itself.

The allure of most bad words is that we think they make us sound smarter. Because we associate complexity with smartness, complicated words tend to replace simpler ones. Once “shipping” was the term to move any sort of package or cargo, whether by boat, train or air. This is still true in some sectors. The U.S. Postal Service, bless its heart, still has a department of “shipping.” But many people and companies prefer the term “logistics,” which essentially means just moving things around on a schedule. I’m sure this justifies several dollars more per hour or pound.

Another offender is “infrastructure.” Once unknown in public discourse and used only by the military, it now pops up in headlines. It has replaced simpler, more descriptive terms, particularly “public works” and the even older “internal improvements.”

Another fancy term in management circles is “metrics.” We now ask about the metrics of a project, rather than its measurements, statistics or, simply, numbers.

Fellow lovers of simple language probably have their own candidates for worst words. My own is “brand.” I’d like to blast it out of the air whenever it floats across a conference room table.

It once had a specific and legitimate use: the name of a company or a product. It was McDonald’s hamburgers, Campbell’s soup, Clorox bleach and Kleenex tissues. But about two decades ago it oozed into other fields. It became a verb — always a bad sign — and eventually even an occupation.

Branding as a concept is bad because it advances a notion both seductive and appalling, which is that we can change our image or public face as easily as letters on a movie marquee. It suggests falsity, a con, sleight of hand.

Context Matters

The better, simpler and more sober term is “reputation.” It doesn’t mean exactly the same thing, but it’s better for what it is lacking. Our parents taught us that reputations are made slowly, and can be lost quickly. A reputation is not a projection. In 1982, when Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) famously recalled all its Tylenol products after several deaths from intentionally tainted products, the company wasn’t building its brand. It was building its reputation.

I may sound like a linguistic Luddite. I will concede that most disciplines have and need their own specialized language. Architects, for example, talk about “the program” of a building — meaning what it will be used for. It confuses everyone else, but it helps determine the design of the building.

But let us leave specialized language to those specialized places. We may actually understand one another better, which is usually a good thing. Although Gresham’s law may still rule in money matters, we can seek to repeal it in matters of words.

(Alex Marshall is the author of “The Surprising Design of Market Economies,” and a senior fellow at Regional Plan Association in New York City.)

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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