What the f**k is Relevance?

Recently, I’ve had a lot of conversations with people who have talked about wanting to increase the “relevance” of a particular brand or product.

I have a natural aversion to words which have become so overused in the marketing vernacular that they lose all meaning. Or the opposite – words that have gained so many meanings that everyone means something different when they say it.

Words like “salient”, “social”, “engaging”. Relevance is my new hated word.

We all want our advertising to be “relevant” to our consumers. But what does that actually mean?

Let’s look at the dictionary definition of relevance.

Rel·e·vance (noun) Pertinence to the matter at hand.

Relevance (noun) The degree to which something is related or useful to what is happening or being talked about

What do the experts say?

Let’s see what Gorayska and Lindsay reckon (The Roots of Relevance. Journal of Pragmatics, 1993). “Relevance is goal dependent. An item (object, utterance, piece of information) is relevant to a goal if and only if, it can be an essential element of some plan capable of achieving the desired goal”

So relevance is defined by the goal it is in relation to. It doesn’t mean ANYTHING on its own.

If we look for synonyms for “relevance” we get significance, bearing, importance. So if we’re saying we want something to be relevant, it means we want it to be significant or important in some way. But that’s very vague!  Important for who, for what, and why?

We have no idea whether a piece of information or communication or advertising, is relevant to a person, unless we know what their GOAL is.

Lots of different pieces of information could be incredibly relevant in different situations, depending on the goal.

If I’m looking for the best deal on my car insurance, then a price message is exceptionally relevant to me.

If I’m looking for a bank where my money will be safe, then a trust message is very relevant to me.

If I’m looking to give my family the healthiest food, then advertising which communicates health credentials will catch my attention. 

Conversely, if I want a mobile phone network with superior data-download speed, telling me about your text message bundles is irrelevant to me.

So if we want to be “relevant” to our target consumers, it’s very simple. We find out what they specifically want or need – what’s their goal. Then we tailor our communication to talk about how our brand can specifically help them in that goal.  It can be a functional benefit or an emotional benefit, but either way, it’s matched to what they are looking for. 

That’s how we create relevance. But please can we now find a different word for it.

  1. ‘Influence’ or ‘Influencer’ are my bug-bear, for exactly the same reason; they are relative. Yet, like kool-aid, the ad/marketing/comms community seems fixated on them.

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