Brands behaving badly: the “naming and claiming” game


I was browsing Virginia Postrel’s blog today, and I clicked on a link to where I found this passage. See if you find it irritating, too.

TRENDWATCHING.COM has dubbed the latter “CUSTOMER-MADE”: the phenomenon of corporations creating goods, services and experiences in close cooperation with consumers, tapping into their intellectual capital, and in exchange giving them a direct say in what actually gets produced, manufactured, developed, designed, serviced, or processed. The CUSTOMER-MADE trend has been slowly building over the last five years, but with the current onslaught of consumer activism and the rapid rise of GENERATION C, it finally seems ready for its big moment in the limelight, where TRENDWATCHING.COM expects it to stay for many years to come. It doesn’t hurt that Management Guru C.K. Prahalad recently published ‘The Future of Competition’ an insightful and highly recommended book on co-creation, which prompted us to move CUSTOMER-MADE to the top of our emerging trends list!

Exactly. (TWC, hereafter) comes up with a new term despite the fact that one already exists. They acknowledge Prahalad’s “co-creation” but insist on a term of their own. This goes into CAPS and it is repeated three times in successive sentences.

This is the kind of thing that makes marketing an intellectual ghetto. Everyone comes up for their own language for the same phenomenon. Marketing discourse fills with noise. The client is confused. A Tower of Babel is constructed. TWC wins a little brand traction. The rest of us pay a price.

I think we can guess what’s going on here. wants to brand the idea. They wish to be seen as marketers who have special insight into the trend in question. They hope that if they can name and claim the idea, they will enjoy a certain positioning advantage downstream. They will have done for “customer-made” what Faith Popcorn did with “cocooning.”

But hang on a moment. These 3 things are indisputable. 1) TWC is late to the game. 2) There is already a good term here. 3) There is no value add here. TWC hasn’t thought anything through. They haven’t build another paradigm. This contribution to marketing thought is as cynical as a lot of marketing practice. Let’s just slap a new name on the product and push it baby back into circulation.

Clients may go for this. And this is where the strategy is especially objectionable. When a marketer invents his/her own language, it is often in the hope of creating a certain stickiness. Now the client cannot leave this marketer without having to learn a new set of terms and concepts. And this really is just about as bush league as you can get. The firm that can only keep a client by taking them captive with special language is a firm that really has no hope of survival, let along success.

But here’s why this strategy is really stupid. The moment you ask me to choose between the language of Prahalad and TWC, you are inviting disaster. TWC might have intellectual credentials, but their website is entirely unforthcoming on where their people went to school, what kinds of degrees they have, what kinds of contributions they have been to the intellectual capital of the world of marketing. And here’s my guess: chances are TWC does not survive comparison with Prahalad. This kind of brand building actually does much more harm than good.

Here’s a new rule of marketing discourse: No new language, unless you have created real intellectual capital as a foundation. If you think Prahalad’s term and concept somehow conceals or distorts the real and pressing issues, then fair enough, write the book, or at least the article, and then suggest a new term. In other words, no new language without due diligence.

I think this is more than a rant on my part. One of the reasons the marketing languishes as an intellectual activity is that there is a certain terminological confusion. Every advertising agency seems to have its own special lingo. Every trend watcher comes up with its own patented language. It’s enough away. The client is not well served. The professional is very badly served. But it is the offender who pays the biggest price. And when TWC asks me to compare them to Prahalad, I can hear myself muttering, “Baby, don’t go there.”


The trendwatching website and the passage in question here

With a hat tip to Virginia Postrel and her link on to be found

11 thoughts on “Brands behaving badly: the “naming and claiming” game

  1. Steve Portigal

    The various professions that encompass the process of creating “usable” or “well designed” software and interfaces have been thrashing over the nomeclature issue so badly that communities have split, with everyone simply trying to shout louder that UE is more important than UX and UdX is broader than IA.

    Back when I a newly-hatched grad school escapee, I was in that field (or so I thought) and remember calling myself User Interface Dude because even back then, you had to put a ridiculous stake in the ground and be one thing or another thing, and really it seemed like it was always going to close doors more than open them.

    Seems like there is a lack of confidence often underlying the jargon wars, no?

  2. Bob V

    So why do those who employ such marketers let them get away with it? Are they not able to figure out they are being conned by word games?

    Something tells me there has to be a deeper reason.

  3. Grant

    Bob V, great question, sometimes, apparently, the answer is “no.” And this is the marketers idea of keeping the client barefoot and pregnant. As long as they believe that you, the consultant invented the idea of CUSTOMER MADE, they are never going to read (or hire) Prahalad. And, no, I dont think there is a deeper reason. It’s just that the client has many other, some of them much more pressing, things to worry about. And I think they have the right to suppose that the consultant is acting in good faith…just as we suppose that doctors of medicine are not inventing diseases or remedies. Thanks, Grant

    Debbie, thanks! will check brand noise out now. Best, Grant

    Steve, thanks, I hope it is a lack of confidence and not more craven motives. If every term is indeed a meme that works as an advertiser on behalf of its inventor, the incentive to make up a name is high, and the incentive not to use, in this case, Prahalad’s term, is also high. I guess people are afraid that the client will say, what are we bothering with TWC when we could hire Prahalad. But if you are so bad at marketing that you are vulnerable to this reasoning, they probably should be going with Prahalad. Thanks. Best, Grant

  4. Virginia Postrel

    If you think this example is bad, you should see some of the other neologisms TWC has come up with. Most of them are way too cutsy-poo. At least “Customer Made” is straightforward and you might actually use it. But I bet they make more money from this stuff than I do.

  5. rita denny

    the space between practice and academic marketing is exemplified by the cwt’s; it is vast. how can this be so? why does it need to be so?

    perhaps we should be looking at how neologisms-as-fad (and countless other marketing practices-as-fad) are culturally constituted? perhaps we need to problematize marketing-as-practice… it’s not terminological confusion, it’s intellectual wasteland for ‘the new’, ‘the different’ that’s so problematic (and now i’m ranting).

  6. Charu

    Bingo, Grant! Two things here – one is that marketing /communications consultants are forever hunting for ‘cool’ terms – they think half the battle is won once the term is coined – and sometimes I have seen clients who genuinely believe that the fact that the agency / consultant coined a term which sounds just right is indicative of a deep understanding of the subject…
    I had written about some absurd marketing terms long ago here – do read it sometime –

    and digressing here – about the trend of co-creation, there is a nasty battle going in in India among newspapers with respect to readers’ say in the creation of content – and ultimately, most of it seems to be a marketing gimmick – and they are sadly failing even at that… the Times of India for instance now behaves like they invented the term ‘prosumer’ (ugh) and are going to town with it…

  7. Grant

    Virginia, thanks, and indeed, there are so many people playing the naming game that there is now a terrible shortage of snappy terms. Thanks. Grant

    Rita, yes, terminological enthusiasm is for some marketers I can of product innovation. “Maybe, I’ll come up with something and everyone will embrace it!” But in point of fact, the chances of coming up with a “cocooning” are very remote, especially when marketers are filling the heavens with new terms in the hopes that one of the “hits it big.” It’s a lottery. And if we did a cold hearted assessment of this little marketplace, I think there is probably no chance that a company like TWC can come up with a Faith Popcorn triumph. Thanks, Grant

    Charu, agreed, language is a commons, no branding allowed, and ditto, the sooner clients turn their noses up at “brand new language” for everything, the better. Which is to say, the place to start here is in business school, with lectures that warn students against this inclination. Consultants are nothing if not responsive to client wishes. All the client needs to say is, “I’m sorry, could i ask you to say that in plainer language.” So much of business discourse is governed by the “plain style” some of which is I think an outcome of the Protestant revolution. (At HBS, I was stunned to see that no one used metaphor. Ever! Plain style indeed.) So it has to begin with the client and upstream with the b-school. Thanks, Grant

  8. Piers Fawkes


    Have you asked the chaps over at TWC what they think of all this – I think that would make an interesting spin on things.

    Altho, I see your point I don’t think trend watchers just go out of their way to find new ‘cool’ terms. We get influenced by so much and sometimes we just want to create a meaningful, memorable term. I’ve been using ‘Hyper User’ a lot on PSFK in regards to co-creators, but should I be criticised for being ignorant of Prahalad’s work and creating my own terminology??? Influx – another great blog – are using a differetn term altogether: Creative Customers.

    That said, I do think the guys at Trend Watching spend too much time trying to come up with ‘cool labels’ and not enough time with their fingers on the pulse. The more TWC bashing the better 😉


  9. Grant

    Piers, I am sure that their reaction will be an undying hostility, and that’s only fair. But then I am not the one they have to worry about. The real damage will come from the competition and the rise standards of the craft (thanks to the likes of PFSK). Thanks, Grant

    Virginia, I know, I know, what is the point of new language when it actually has the effect of extinguishing meaning? Surely, one risks ridicule. Thanks, Grant

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