Why companies like Ocado produce gobbledegook
We’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest Work & Careers news every morning.
Ocado, the UK supermarket delivery company, attracted some online ridicule last week for this statement that it published with its half-year results:
“Over the last six months, the centre of gravity at Ocado Group has shifted from our heritage as an iconic and much-loved domestic pure-play online grocer to our future as a technology-driven global software and robotics platform business, providing a unique and proprietary end-to-end solution for online grocery, and an innovation factory, applying our technology expertise to adjacent markets and other verticals.”
I dimly perceive what Ocado was trying to tell us: it is moving away from being just an online grocer to selling its technology to other grocery companies, as well as applying it to related industries.
So why not just say that? It is not as if anyone talks like the Ocado statement in real life. I heard Tim Steiner, the company’s chief executive, speaking comprehensible English on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme last week.
Convoluted company announcements sometimes result from too many departments being involved in the writing, but that doesn’t look the case here. I don’t see, for example, the hand of a legal department, with its characteristic responsibility-averting passive voice.
I asked a public relations veteran and former head of communications for several of the world’s leading organisations why he thought companies produced this sort of gobbledegook. “I think I know how this happened,” he said of the Ocado statement. “Rising executives get encouraged to read cliché-ridden American business books.” Some of the books are worth reading; many are not. But their clichés find their way into corporate press releases.
Like me, the old PR hand, who is still active in business and who I agreed not to name, did not see the involvement of too many corporate departments in this one. On the contrary, he suspected that the communications department wrote the statement, and other departments looked at it and could see no reason to get involved. “Legal says: ‘It’s not actionable.’ The company secretary says: ‘It's not against stock exchange rules,’ and so it falls between the stools,” he told me.
But why doesn’t anyone suggest taking them out? Don’t chief executives object to these statements? They often don’t see them, he said. Some chief executives are obsessed with certain aspects of grammar — they don’t like split infinitives, for example — and the communications department learns to avoid those. Some of the chief executives he worked with were wordsmiths, the PR man said, and would have poured scorn on the Ocado announcement. But others do not bother and the statements go out as they are.
There appears to be another factor at work here: Ocado was overeager to sound like a credible tech company. The company, best-known for its delivery vans, has concluded deals to supply its software and warehouse robot technology to supermarket companies in Canada, Europe, the US and Australia.
It has also invested in Karakuri, a start-up that is developing robots that put together ready-to-eat meals. In addition, it is putting money into “vertical farms”, in which food is grown on shelves indoors. (The “verticals” in the Ocado statement does not refer to the vertical farms; it is jargon for “other industries”.) This is all part of the company’s desire to be seen as something more than a “pure play” grocery delivery group.
Unlike its food, Ocado’s half-yearly statement was probably not meant for public consumption. Whoever wrote it was hoping to win the favour of stock market analysts. Some have been sceptical of Ocado’s technology ambitions in the past, but the shares have risen 12 per cent in the past 12 months and one analyst recently said that, by providing robot-enabled facilities to other supermarkets, the company could become the “Microsoft of retail”.
All groups have their own way of speaking and Ocado was trying to talk, or at least write, the way it thinks analysts do. What looks like jargon to the rest of the world often seems fine to a specialised crowd. You have to find your gobbledegook gang.
Only stock market tech analysts know whether its statement hit the spot. But the problem for Ocado of trying to get in with the analysts is that by trying to get down with the kids, you risk sounding silly to everyone else.