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Grammar wars: Brands are judged by their words

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When it comes to grammar and punctuation most people fall into one of two camps: “Get over it!” or “Can I get a big amen?”

You know what I'm talking about, and here are two examples:

  • An analyst writing on business intelligence software stated in a white paper, “… EIM today centers around data integration….” Those of you who diagram sentences rather than play Sudoku (you know who you are) see the problem: The center by definition can never be “around” anything. This should be “centers on.”
  • Hanes is running a hilarious campaign for its Lay Flat Collar T-shirt. Did the brand team even know they were sanctioning the use of lay as an intransitive verb in the present tense? Did they care? You have to give them kudos for having a sense of humor about it. Their mea culpa is beautifully done, though Vegas odds say that 98% of the T-shirt wearing masses still are left scratching their heads.

For marketers, carping about slapdash syntax, deficient grammar and defective punctuation isn't about flaunting our education; it's about being stalwart stewards of our brands.

Don't know the difference between a traveling foul and a transitive verb? No problem. “Brand police” walk the marketing beat for a reason. Corporate lawyers, company grammarians and messaging specialists create panic when a deadline looms and they demand yet one more revision. But just as real police do more than write parking tickets, brand police do more than cite marketers for split infinitives. They are defenders of the brand.

If we in marketing don't care enough to police our brand image, then our prospects and customers may believe this inattention to detail is endemic.

Worse, our target audience may think we're too stupid to notice.

Many years back a software company unveiled a campaign that proudly proclaimed: “You > Us.” The predicate nominative is needed here, ergo “You > We.” That doesn't sound right, does it?

Turns out this was one of those instances where what is accurate doesn't sound correct, and thus the powers-that-be decided to move ahead intentionally with a grammatically flawed campaign.

A new slogan on behalf of the Honda Civic—“To Each Their Own”—is another example. At issue is that “their,” a plural possessive adjective, is in violent disagreement with “each,” a singular noun. Obviously Honda was trying to avoid the more awkward “To Each His or Her Own.”

So what to do when faced with such linguistic conundrums? As my journalism professor wisely advised, “Get me rewrite!”

Branding doesn't lie solely with marketing. We're just the most visible symptom of a widespread malaise. Contracts, emails, blogs, sales presentations, packaging. They all impact our brand. We can't let our guards down, especially in any place that touches our prospects and customers. As Eric Martin points out in the Business to Community blog, “Regardless of your job title, you're in marketing.”

Kenneth Yau summed it up succinctly on the Baddit Blog, with his post, “On bad grammar and its effect on your brand”:

“Spending money on great marketing and brand image, then not spending enough to get your day-to-day communications and interactions right, is pointless,” Yau wrote. “In the end, it's the regular contact you have with your customers, and what they say about you based on that experience, that defines your brand.”

In short, people do judge us by our words.

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