Making peace with that objectionable term, SYNERGY

31st January 2015

Outside of being described as a marketeer, I can live with most catchphrases in our marketing trade.

The idea of being a marketeer – akin to a musketeer, a pamphleteer or a buccaneer – leaves me feeling just a little debased. As if somehow my noble practice were the shoddy work of half-thieves.

Arf. Arf.

Well, come to think of it, there is one other buzzword that makes my skin crawl. It’s that blasted term ‘synergy’. It seems to me that this word was dreamt-up by some hippie Yale professor, and propagated in the 1970s when the world was young, and all things synthetic were having a moment.

‘Syn-er-gy’. It just seems so contrived.

It has rather annoyed me to discover that the word has Greek derivation – sun meaning work, and ergos meaning together – and is in use since the 19th Century. However, it was adopted (perhaps kidnapped) by business in the 1950s, and ‘synergy’ has had a decidedly rocky road ever since.

‘Synergy’ refers to the positive cooperative interaction among groups. I do hate the word, but the concept I am fine with and it has its uses.

What is most objectionable is SYNERGY’s iconic metaphor:

1 + 1 = 3

or its trusty-though-somewhat-humbler companion, 2 + 2 = 5

Oh how I despise that metaphor. It just seems so childish and facile an explanation. It also, in its detail, is maddeningly inaccurate.

Bear with me on this:

Synergy does not imply that cooperative interaction produces more: 50% more, in the a case of 1 + 1 =3.

No. What the concept of synergy asserts is that cooperative interaction changes the outcome in an unexpected, non-linear and positive manner.

In truth, the real idea behind synergy is that of alchemy, not efficiency. 1+1=3 just doesn’t hack it.

So, ‘synergy’ is a word that deserves no mercy. It is a synthetic ball of woolly thinking, lacking a powerful metaphor to explain its meaning.

Until now. I have just found the perfect metaphor for Synergy just now.

The subject of how human taste operates was discussed on the On Point podcast this week, in the company of a sensory expert who really knew his stuff. A listener rang in to say that she dislikes every individual ingredient of a Reuben Sandwich (corned beef, rye bread, sauerkraut, thousand island dressing) yet, when it’s all put together, darn it, she just loves those Reuben Sandwiches.

The ensuing explanation – of how the brain contrives to intermingle ingredients and make of them something new and more beautiful – is the best articulation of Synergy I have heard.

The exchange takes just one minute, and I recommend that you take a listen here.

So, let Synergy’s new metaphor be announced, with thanks to the master of all Synergies – the human brain:

Several+Mediocre+Ingredients+Combined = One Delicious Reuben Sandwich.

Marketeering has just got that little bit better.

© Brian McIntyre. 2015

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