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Words Are Deeds: What Brands Can Learn from Wittgenstein

“We need to revitalize our brand purpose for our target audience so we can become a love brand.” Nonsense, right? If you really know what you’re doing, you should be able to explain it in simple terms. But that can be difficult.

People who use neologisms and pseudo-technical terms don’t communicate. They hide behind jargon. Advertisers have a particular tendency to do this because they always have to sell their customers something new. Their work is difficult to grasp and primarily takes place in their heads. But if you can’t express what you want to say, you don’t understand it yourself. Ludwig Wittgenstein formulates it poetically: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”

Language as a Game

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Wittgenstein is regarded as one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century. He was eccentric, depressed, and difficult to decipher. Born in 1889 into an industrial family in Vienna, he gave away his entire inheritance after the First World War. He went from mathematician to professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge, where he studied alongside the likes of Alan Turing, who is now regarded as the father of artificial intelligence. At first he believed in an “ideal” language that functioned purely logically, but he largely abandoned this idea in his late work. Instead, he sees language as a “game” and expression of a way of life. Doctors, for example, have different language games than engineers or insurance brokers. People within companies play their own language games. While these games might make sense and seem necessary within that system, they can sometimes sound absurd to people outside it.

Let’s take a look at a few current examples. “Every strategic action revolves around one thing, the customer. So also for the future, we will only be as successful as our products and services are in the market,” writes an automobile manufacturer. Well, isn’t that obvious? “Our 85+ solutions leverage advanced technology, proprietary data, and deep expertise,” states the website of a well-known management consultancy. New technologies, data, and expertise are actually the least I expect from a leading consulting firm. And a road construction vehicle manufacturer brands itself as follows: “Our brand core is based on 4 strategic pillars that highlight our uniqueness as a premium brand on the market: Innovation, Technology, Expertise, and the Focus on Operators.” This corporate jargon does not speak to people, and we’re left wondering what it is all about. Unfortunately, most companies write like this. At best, there might be a somewhat catchy slogan, followed by indecipherable gibberish. It’s no wonder consumers hate advertisers!

Back to Wittgenstein: “If a lion could speak, we would not understand him.” Because the lion speaks in a different language and in a different context. Just like the companies in our examples.

In my experience, the reason companies too often pester customers with marketing jargon all boils down to a misunderstanding: Corporate decision-makers treat branding as a science. The brand is analyzed, positioned, and communicated according to an exact process. The image is calculated. Consequently, the language used is often insider slang, both cryptic and unimaginative. It is the result of the internal “language games” played by office workers and is intended to reflect what was figured out in a supposedly scientific way.

Strong Brands Defy Rational Explanation

Strong brands, however, belong more in the realm of mysticism or religion. They defy rational explanation. Why should anyone spend a five-figure sum on a watch? Why camp out in front of a store at night for a smartphone? Why keep purchasing records from a band when music is basically available everywhere? People are looking for a kind of religious experience. They want to be individuals within a community and not have everything explained to them. Above all, they want to feel something.

The fast food giant McDonald’s® understands this. Since the 1960s, the company has used slogans that go beyond the product and evoke feelings, such as “Look for the Golden Arches!” and “Every time a good time”. And for over a decade, the company has run the slogan “I’m lovin’ it” in numerous languages: “C’est Tout Ce Que J’aime”, “Ich liebe es”, “Me encanta”, and so on. It’s brilliant. The slogan is as clear as possible, but still flexible enough to adapt to the zeitgeist and not have to be changed constantly. It always feels close and familiar in whichever language it is translated. In doing so, it opens the door to a warmhearted world. The brand promise is also very clearly formulated: “McDonald’s sets worldwide standards in guest service and restaurant experience. We reinvent ourselves every day to serve you the freshest and best products”. The McDonald’s identity does not rely on the hamburger or the Big Mac, but can change at any time and become something new. That’s how salads, wraps, and coffee specialities find their place on the menu today, and why plant-based burgers will soon join them.

Burger King does things differently. Although the restaurant repeatedly changed slogans in recent years, it has focused on its signature product since 1956: Burger King — Home of the Whopper®. The company’s German website states, “Every day, 11 million guests visit one of the 15,000 Burger King restaurants around the world and most often order the Whopper.” Testers from the German consumer organization Stiftung Warentest found that the large, flame-grilled burger tastes better than the Big Mac. But that clearly isn’t enough. And what happens when people eventually get tired of the Whopper? Here, the limits of language really are the limits of Burger King’s world. Without the Whopper, things will get tough.

Wittgenstein and the Lesson McDonald’s Tells

That’s why Burger King does not make the top 100 list of most valuable brands, while McDonald’s sits in 9th place. More than 70 million customers visit the almost 38,000 McDonald’s restaurants worldwide every day. Despite the current trends in nutrition, 2018 sales reached 3.5 billion euros in Germany alone — a new record. The positive attitude to life that McDonald’s conveys in its language plays a major role here. Of course, Burger King is a very successful company too, but it is far behind its rival in all key figures. If I were to bet on which of the two fast food chains will continue to grow in ten years’ time, I would bet on McDonald’s. The brand will survive the trends toward healthier nutrition, sustainability, and reduced meat consumption or will be able to integrate them into its story without any problems. I’m lovin’ it. Wittgenstein’s quote “Words are deeds” applies wonderfully here.

Having your own vocabulary and a distinctive, personable language can help make a difference. If you are looking for the right tone for your brand, avoid lengthy pseudo-scientific projects with your colleagues. Be aware that, in your job, you play “language games” that no one outside your circle understands. It is better to think about which world you want to transport your customers to with your language. Do not orient yourself on the language your engineers or product developers use. Remember, strong brands don’t just sell “Whoppers”, they sell a lifestyle.

Stay close to everyday language and, most importantly, speak in the language of the people you want to reach. And whatever you do, don’t force it by creating complicated new words just to make things sound interesting. If you can’t find the right terms or descriptions for everything, just think of Wittgenstein. One of his most famous quotes is: “What we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.” With this in mind, you can develop a mystical and attractive aura that strengthens your brand.

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