Mind your language

Issue 14 | March 2010

Mind your language

Language is a dangerous thing. Ideas are embedded in the words we use.

Outdated ideas persist because language influences us to think in ways that may not be fit for the way of the world now.

Marketing and communications are replete with just such words and phrases, which are used frequently, and often not examined. Let’s just take four in common use.

Media Channel. This conjures up an image of communications moving one or possibly two ways through a wire or cable. The digital revolution has transformed the nature of media. Think not of channels but a matrix in which all media are connected and interlinked. It is better thought of as a media ecology rather than a number of separate channels.

Old and new media. The phrase implies that some media are digital and interactive -such as websites and mobiles - and other are not, such as TV and posters. This distinction is dying out, as all media, even posters, can be made interactive or can certainly provide the entry point into interactivity.

Caption: That oldest form of media, the poster, is now digital: the poster from Lukas Lindemann Rosinski is a code created out of real Lego bricks which is decoded by your mobile phone and then links you through to an e-commerce site.

Paid and owned media are joined up. Increasingly paid-for media are a gateway point to owned media.

Target audience. One of the oldest, this phrase contains the idea that the way to influence people is to hit them with a message and do it with sufficient frequency to break through defenses. A target is inanimate and does not speak back or respond. However, digital has brought about a revolution in expectations. People now expect to be able to respond, ask questions and contribute and to do it fast and in real time. Simply  talking about ‘audiences’ or even ‘people’ may be better.

Campaign is one of several marketing words that are taken from the lexicon of war.  It suggests that that there will be a beginning, middle and an end.

(The word is still useful as it suggests success is linked to clear objectives, which is certainly the case.) Yet much behaviour-changing work does not fit such neat categorisation. ‘Campaigns’ such as as the Uk’s ‘Change for Life’ (featured in Directory Issue 11) are part of a long process with many factors nudging and triggering the decisions people make to become fitter and healthier. It is a difficult word to replace as it also gives a satisfying sense of action and objectives achieved. Perhaps ‘Behaviour Change Programme’ is more accurate, if more ponderous, in that it acknowledges that advertising is only one part of a more varied range of influences.

New language influences practice

One reason why we continue to use this vocabulary is that we have yet to find fresh language to replace it. ‘New’ media are no longer so new and the old media have gone digital, so how should we discuss the media opportunities now?

The media scene is also complex, so we need some tools and verbal signposts to help us though the many options and ways of structuring activity.

Paid owned and earned

One tool that is becoming more widely used is to divide media into PAID, OWNED and EARNED at the beginning of a planning process. (Credit where credit is due -  I first saw this presented by Stuart Sullivan-Martin at a seminar I was running for the COI. Since then it has gained some traction and I have seen it discussed by Andrew Walmsley in the UK magazine ‘Marketing’.)

These three words describe well the current media scene, not least because the opportunities for owned media and earned media have grown exponentially with both websites (owned media) and the whole panoply of platforms that come under the heading of ‘social media’. (Social media are mainly places of Earned rather than Paid-for attention). Think here of blogs and platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, which have achieved mass adoption in very short order.

This is not just about the digital effect as Innocent proved with their now famous case history of launching a brand from the inside out by using first of all the media which they owned to maximum effect - pack, promotions, point of sale, distribution and website.  Founder Richard Reed called this “reversing the circles.”

There are a number of benefits to using paid/owned/earned as a planning tool at the beginning of a planning process.


This is a much, more accurate way of describing, for example, the opportunities of the so called ‘New’ media.  You can pay for exposure via, for example banners or pay per click in search. Organisations now have many owned media channels in the form of websites and interest can increasingly be earned via blogs and forums as we become more and more open.


By mapping media this way it ensures that we maximize the value of existing assets and harness the power of word of mouth and recommendation.

This has never been more important as a recent survey showed

"Recommendations by personal acquaintances and opinions posted by consumers online are the most trusted forms of advertising globally. 90% of online consumers worldwide trust recommendations from people they know, while 70% trust consumer opinions posted online.”

(Source Nielsen survey of 25,000 online consumers from 50 countries July 2009)


In the drive for efficiency and effectiveness, increasing numbers of media are being used in combination. In the strategic development phase, Paid/Owned/Earned enables you to map a variety of ways of structuring activity with different media being used to in a complementary ways to achieve objectives.

In the execution phase it is useful in ensuring that the messaging and content of media deliver a joined up experience to people.

Innocent used owned media by ‘reversing the circles’: they started with a great pack and cheeky pack copy and built out from there with innovative point of sales and promotions. They made their delivery vans distinctive, covering them in grass. Only later did they start to use advertising.


Historically, most ‘campaign’ plans using paid-for media have started with a consideration of the budget and how it will stretch. What can you buy for the money – from a shopping list of TV, press, radio, outdoor, online and whatever?

But imagine that you have no serious budget at all and must achieve your objectives through word of mouth and by attracting people to the media that you own? How can you make money from your websites, traveling displays and packaging as Innocent did? Paid-for advertising requires a simple and potent message, but earned media require something altogether different. In place of simple messages we need ideas that excite and invite involvement.

The Obama effect

The election of Barrack Obama both heralded and encapsulated these changes in thinking. The bedrock of his campaign was owned and earned communications. His website in the form of provided resources for people to form local groups, which they did in large numbers. He was the most followed politician on Facebook and other social media sites such as Twitter and Youtube.

All elements of the campaign were joined up with links taking people from one site to another to another and online tools enabled people to pass on the message. Paid for advertising in the run up to election day was the icing on the cake.

Brand talking points

There is a lesson for brand planners here. Obama had a simple brand Idea Change you can believe in. But he also allowed space for people to participate and tell their own stories about the kinds of change they wanted.

In the past brands have tended to use a simple message that was repeated the optimum number of times in (mainly) paid-for media.

Now brands need to create talking points that are energized by the natural desire of people to talk back and participate. This is the future battle for agencies.

Who will create the best brand talking point? Is it the ad agency, the pr agency, the promotions agency, the media agency, the CSR advisers?  All are capable of creating a brand talking point, one that may never need to appear in paid-for media because it is sufficiently exciting and involving to create its own momentum.

Julian Saunders is founder of The Joined Up Company and Editor of “The Communications Challenge, A Practical Guide to Media Neutral Planning” (APG 2004)

Caption to Lego Codes illustrations:

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