This article is based on Jason Lord’s talk at the Product Marketing Summit in Chicago. As a PMA member, you can enjoy the complete recording here. For more exclusive content, head over to your membership dashboard.

Hi there! My name is Jason Lord, and I'm the VP of Product Marketing for TransUnion. 

A couple of disclaimers up front: 

  1. This article will contain some salty language. If that's something you’d prefer not to read, feel free to skip this one.
  2. I'm speaking only as myself today, not on behalf of any organization or company. 

You’ve been warned.

Corporate America is BS

Let me start with a thesis statement, which I’ll unpack later on. Here it is:

The promise of corporate America is BS. 

The idea that you should find satisfaction in your work, and if you don't, it's a failing of your character; the belief that your company cares about you and wants to see you succeed; the way we spend two-thirds of our lives in service of a corporation, and if that doesn't make us inspired, it's because we're not working smart enough or hard enough – it's all BS. 

Sometimes it's calculated BS; sometimes it's inadvertent BS, but it is BS. 

Now, that might seem like a rather strident opening for a conversation about product marketing, but it feels important to start this way for a couple of reasons:

  1. I owe it to you, as someone who's chosen to spend your time with me today, to speak to you with honesty and respect your intelligence. 
  2. For this article to have any impact, we must discuss today's topics – and what they mean for you and your colleagues – with candor.

Rest assured that I'm going to be talking to you about product marketing. However, I’m not going to be talking to you about MQLs, demand gen, funnels, or conversion. Those are all important subjects, but there’s a wealth of content on them already. 

Instead, I want to talk about the foundation on which all of our decisions, strategies, and ways of operating sit. More specifically, this is the question that I want to answer: What makes us so very dull, and how can we break away from that oppressive dullness? 

Observations on corporate America

Let me back up a little. Back in 2004, I was a recent college dropout from the tundra of North Dakota. I also had a very unfortunate mullet haircut (please don't judge me – we've all made bad choices!). I didn’t know what to do with my life, so I packed up the few things I had in a van and headed south to Chicago with $800 in my pocket.

I'd never been to Chicago. I didn't know anything about the place. I went there because when I told my English professor that I didn’t know what to do with my life, he told me to move to Chicago. I asked him why, and he said, “Because I think you'll like it.” That was the best advice I'd heard so far, so I figured why not?

The first thing that I did when I landed in Chicago was to pick up a bunch of temp jobs – mostly data entry. One of these jobs was with a nascent online tech firm shop headquartered in Michigan Plaza – my very first exposure to downtown Chicago. 

To while away my boredom as I spent weekdays and weeknights entering SKUs and price codes, I watched the corporate citizens of the office like they were zoo animals. I wanted to figure out what their job situations, stresses, and scandals were. 

After a year of watching the corporate citizens, I’d made three major observations: 

Observation #1: Corporate speak is endemic

My first observation was that business people speak in their own dialect – a business jargon unique to them and their office environment. I now understand this to be corporate speak, full of terms that we're all familiar with, like “KPIs” and “net-net”. However, at the time, this was a completely foreign language to me. 

I noticed that this was a shared dialect that seemed to help its speakers distinguish themselves as corporate denizens, separate from non-corporate types. Sociolinguists would call this corporate speak a kind of shibboleth – a way of speaking that allows those within the group to identify and maintain an affinity with one another.

Historically, shibboleths have often been used as a kind of secret code that allows members of an oppressed group to identify each other while staying under their oppressors’ radar. However, a shibboleth can just as easily be used by those in power as a form of gatekeeping – to keep out those who are not part of the group and could represent a threat to their way of life or their resources. 

In most cases, when people in power seek to codify their language, culture, and dress to distinguish themselves as outsiders, it's because on some level, they understand that their power is not inherent, nor is it immutable.

Observation #2: Corporate citizens are deeply insecure 

That brings me to my second observation from my data entry days, which is that the vast majority of corporate citizens (especially the men) are deeply insecure about themselves and their place in the hierarchy – and their insecurity isn’t entirely baseless.

I told you before that I intended to speak candidly. In that spirit, let me tell you that I strongly believe that corporate America is a safety net for the mediocre. 

Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing; after all, the great majority of people are mediocre. Plus, our society would quickly crumble if those who came from education and affluence didn't have a place where they could safely land, a place where they could exercise their imagined authority and feel smart, powerful, and successful. 

Corporate America is that safe space for mediocre middle and upper-class people. 

You may have heard of the Dunning–Kruger effect, which is at play here. In case you haven’t, the gist is if you don’t know much about a certain field, you’ll likely overestimate your competence in tasks in that area. 

This isn't necessarily about intelligence, by the way. It's about the inability of poor performers to recognize the qualitative and quantitative differences between their own abilities and the abilities of others.

It’s a cognitive bias that nearly all of us experience. In fact, many studies have shown that most people rate themselves as above average in terms of intelligence and personality traits, even though it’s statistically impossible for most people to be above average. 

So, to recap, middle and upper-class mediocre people need a place to exist. They understand, on some level, that their power and privilege are not fully earned, but society continually reinforces the idea that their upbringing, education, and current station in life make them above average. 

All this leads to a group of individuals who feel the need to justify their success by distinguishing themselves from less successful people through their behavior, clothing, and speech. This creates a comfortable illusion (for them) that those who don't behave the same way could not have achieved the same success. 

Observation #3: Corporate America is boring

Before I talk about what all this means for product marketing hires, let me share my final observation from my mullet days. 

Because those in corporate America are often insecure and lack a full sense of self, they’re constantly peering over each other's shoulders, trying to figure out what success looks like. 

The result is a continuous and inevitable reversion to the mean, where inspired and meaningful work is slowly eroded down into something safe, comfortable, and familiar.