Marketing & PR in the age of hyperbole

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Love him or hate him, the era of President Donald Trump has ushered in – or perhaps solidified – the age of hyperbole. His statements have made words like “huge” and “big-league” a laugh line unto themselves on late night TV and in offices around the country. This fascination with hyperbole is also seeping into our marketing and media, even when the sitting POTUS is not part of the discussion.

Just read your news feed and you will see headlines like “New Starbucks CEO wants to build a company that will last a century” and “US Government Weighs 100 Year Bonds” alongside items like “7 Takeaways from Real Madrid’s Monster Win” and “New Drink ‘As Good as Unicorn or Better.'” There is a natural push to show how big, how long, how cool, how epic our news, our stories, our products and our accomplishments are, even if there is no real substance or story behind the headline. But, as someone who helps drive strategy around the publicity and marketing efforts for financial services industry firms, the game of hyperbole is not one that is generally safe to play. Big promises of guarantees are frowned upon and claims of “biggest,” “first” and “lowest cost” have to be substantiated. The financial industry can’t play that game the same as everyone else.

It begs the question, how the heck do I make sure my story gets out there without falling prey to the hyperbole fest? One of my earliest lessons in writing a news release involved reading back the copy I’d crafted without including any of the adjectives I intentionally, or perhaps unwittingly, added into the piece to better position my story. It was a surprise to me to see that there really wasn’t much left when the extras were taken out of the mix. But it did get me to think that I needed to find stories and ideas from my clients that stood on their own facts. I also needed to make sure those facts were supported by relevant context. What I see today, 15 years after I began my career in PR, is that the hype and the abundance of adjectives still confuses the issue of sharing real stories versus dishing fake news.

Take, for example, what is going on in the world of ETFs. Everyone wants to be the first mover, the lowest cost, the lowest volatility, the smartest beta. Strip away the superlatives and what do you have? Does your product still have a good story? Recently, a pair of ETF issuers filed for new commodity ETFs that aimed to be the first commodity ETFs inside a ’40 Act wrapper – a meaningful progress point for the category – while pricing the new products at levels that made them the least expensive ETFs in the commodity space so far. Those basic facts are relevant, useful elements of storytelling. Compare that with the language used in an early April press release to hype the arrival of an ETF that was built to target “essentially an entirely new sector of stocks” – which says little about the investment efficacy and more about the focus on being first.

The hype machine has run amok in the area of fintech and robo-advisers where there are new companies entering the fray on a weekly basis, so it seems. Many of these arrivals are meeting a real need in the market while working to improve upon the deficiencies of the incumbents. However, that hasn’t stopped some communicators and marketers to drop phrases like, “Now more than ever, advisers need to take advantage of technology” in their statements and outreach. The story gets clouded and the real utility offered by the new firms gets lost in the effort to trump up the headline.

What’s the take-away for PR and marketing people? It’s simple: use your own B.S. meter to see if you would buy the story you are telling. Help your firm, or your clients, tell the story around the real difference your product or service is making. More quickly and pointedly telling that story could be the difference between going “big-league” and missing the chance to make an impact in your marketing.