Marketing’s Code Talkers

First published in BW Businessworld here.

During World War I when the Germans managed to tap phonelines, intercept messages and break their codes the Allied forces were a worried lot. One day, an American Captain, walking past a trench, overheard two native American soldiers talking in an unfamiliar language. He paused to ask them and learnt that the soldiers were speaking Choctaw, a language spoken by about 7,000 speakers and the tenth most spoken Native American language in the United States. The Captain had an idea; to use this language to send secret military messages. He reasoned that the Germans could never decipher messages sent in a language they had no knowledge of or access to. Within hours a group of Choctaw speakers were dispatched to various positions and a Choctaw Telephone Squad started exchanging messages in their mother tongue. Historians acknowledge that these messages were crucial to winning some key battles in the final weeks of the war. 

Like the Code Talkers, many of us in marketing speak a language that people outside the marketing’s echo chambers have a hard time following. We use jargons, shapeshifting buzz words and like to think that using such words makes us look impressive and be seen as experts. While this may be cheered on by smug experts in marketing’s echo chambers with its self-congratulatory awards and boosted by a credulous press, the truth is a lot sobering. Our sloppy language excludes us from the rest of the organization, encourages shallow thinking and distances marketing from the CEO’s office. 

Complicated jargons are endemic to the industry today. Often, complicated language serves as a smokescreen for mediocrity. Like Hans Christian Anderson’s The Emperor’s New Clothes, a lot of baloney escapes scrutiny when dressed up baffling nothingness meets a complicit audience who simply nod along. And like the folk tale, it just needs someone to raise their hands and ask, “what does this really mean”. Raising our hands forces plain-speaking instead of being tripped up by mumbo-jumbo. But doing this needs us to give up our hesitation, acknowledge that we may not be fully informed and. It also needs us to be confident about what we know and curious about what we don’t. 

“Because the purpose of business is to create a customer; the business enterprise has two – and only two basic functions; marketing and innovation”, Peter Drucker wrote these timeless words in 1954. 

Marketers need to stop being “Code Talkers” and start speaking the language of business. That’s how we can put marketing at the heart of the business. Raising our hands and de-jargonizing also gives us the ability to understand issues at a much deeper level. In his book The CEO Factory, Sudhir Sitapati writes how the jobs-to-be-done process is the HUL way of framing and structuring problems. Consider this example from his book, ‘get rural users of Clinic Plus shampoo to use it a bit more often.’ Here a business problem has been framed simply in consumer terms without any mumbo-jumbo and holds the potential to mobilize the organization and generate a host of strategic alternatives. 

Taken in by salesmen masquerading as thought leaders, it’s easy get afflicted by FOMO and become a Code Talker. However, the ability to cut through jargon, distil what’s vital for business, to simplify and generate momentum for execution, is an increasingly important skill. And you can make a start by simply raising your hand and asking, “what does this really mean”.