The Trouble With Tautology | Bruce Turkel

Do you know what the word “tautology” means? Wikipedia says:
Tautology: using different words to say the same thing, or a series of self-reinforcing statements that cannot be disproved because they depend on the assumption that they are already correct.

Good examples of the first definition of tautology are, “the widow woman,” and “a burning fire.” Needless repetition, indeed.

Ben-FranklinThe second definition of tautology means that a statement is true simply because the way it is said suggests that it is true. Lots of legends and myths fit this category. For example, even though it’s been proven that Benjamin Franklin never flew a key laden kite in a lightening storm and George Washington never chopped down a cherry tree, because those stories are repeated as if they actually happened they become truisms even though they’re not actually true.

Motivational speakers are guilty of creating and proffering tautologies, repeating inspirational lines that sound good but have no defendable basis in fact.  Lines such as, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog” make my point. Little dogs might make a heck of a fuss but they don’t usually do well in dogfights with much larger competitors regardless of how symmetrical the sentence may sound.

Branding and marketing lore is also fraught with tautologies – proclamations that are professed to be true simply because they sound true. Here are a few of my favorites:

1. Don’t promote features. Promote benefits.

Here’s an oft-repeated tautology that starts off true but then veers into myth. No, promoting features is not the best way to sell products but that doesn’t mean that promoting benefits is the right way. Instead, sophisticated marketers know that the most productive way to sell products is not to sell features or benefits but to move to the next step in the process and sell the ways that the benefits enhance the consumers’ life.

2. Be different or be dead.

For years marketers have been talking about uniqueness. And so every marketing-aware company has their own way of describing this attribute. But whether it’s called the USP (Unique Selling Proposition), the X factor, or just “that special something,” it’s a tautology.

Most successful products are not unique. Want to know why? Because the word unique means like no other. If unique is not modified by a word like fairly it is absolute. You can’t be a little unique anymore than you can be a little perfect or a little pregnant. The insistence on uniqueness is a tautology.

Besides, when have you bought something that was unique? Truth is, we don’t really want unique things because we don’t know what they are. We want things that are like other things we see and desire.

3. Marketing is a young person’s business.Mike-Tesch

For years I assumed that creativity was the providence of the young and as people aged they became more conservative, more risk adverse, and less aware of what’s going on. Instead I’ve learned that as people age they become more creative because they have more and more life experience to draw on and make their work relevant to their potential purchasers.

One of our most prolific creative talents in our office — Art Director’s Club Hall of Famer Mike Tesch — is in his seventies yet he cranks out more new and exciting ideas than three people half his age. But when he goes home he writes, paints, solves our clients’ problems and continues to express his creativity.

4. B2B is different than B2C.

This tautology is so widespread that advertising agencies and other companies have built entire businesses and niche industries around it. Quite simply, the repeated knowledge is that a B2B business (Business-to-Business) is left-brained and metrics-based while B2C (Business-to-Consumer) is right-brained and emotions-based. The underlying belief is that consumers buy things based on emotions but business people purchase based on fact.

Needless to say, facts are important but the suggestion that business people don’t buy based on emotion is silly. No matter how hard bitten a businessperson is, they have to answer to someone. And regardless of whether that someone is a supervisor, a boss, a partner, a board of directors or stockholders, no one is immune to the emotional forces of having to please somebody else. B2B is just like B2C because they are both P2P, People-to-People.

5. It’s not what you know; it’s who you know.

This is perhaps the granddaddy of all business tautologies. It used to be a joke – you’d say, “It’s not what you know,” and then pause before adding, “It’s who you know.” But despite the potential for exquisite comedic timing, the truth is that it’s not what you know and it’s not who you know, it’s who knows you.

After all, it’s good to be able to pick up the phone and call prospects but what really matters is who calls you back. And whether they’re calling you back because they’ve met you, they know your reputation or because they believe that you can make their lives better, the result is often the same – people do business with people they know and people they like.

Taken as a group these five tautologies all fit into a few different convenient categories. Besides being terms that are bandied about without much thought to whether they’re accurate or not, they are also cleverly constructed and fit a universal need to provide easy answers to difficult questions. But that doesn’t make them true.

In the case of three of these tautologies, what’s most interesting is that not only aren’t they true (different or dead, young people’s business, and B2B/B2C) but that the opposite is true. And in the case of the other two that list two factors (features and benefits, who you know and what you know) it’s a third, unlisted point that is really the solution.

What’s the takeaway? Business as usual isn’t business as usual anymore and neither are its tautologies.

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