How to explain your marketing job to your family over the holidays

It’s almost time to head home for the holidays. Time to start rehearsing how you’ll explain your job to your friends and family.

The scenario:

You’re at a crowded table of relatives who you last saw exactly a year ago. You’ve just shoved a spoonful of mashed potatoes into your mouth when your mom’s cousin, Dianne, asks the dreaded question “So, what is it that you do for a living again?”

You squirm in your seat and wish that you’d taken a bite of something chewier than mashed potatoes so you could have a moment to “chew it over” and plan your response. You try to slide by with your stock answer: “I’m in marketing.”

But Dianne probes deeper and says, “Oh! fun. I loved Mad Men. What’s a typical day like? Is it just like the show?”

Her curiosity dooms you both to a couple of confused minutes filled with jargon and brandspeak. In your panic, you spew words like “purpose”, “positioning” and, of course, “storytelling.” It all culminates with Dianne looking more confused than she did before. With a defeated sigh, she mercifully ends her line of questioning with “Oh, that sounds interesting.”

If you’re in brand strategy, PR or advertising, you’ve struggled to explain your work to friends and relatives outside of the profession. They never seem to understand what we do because we can never quite explain it in plain language.

I’ve taken some time to describe our job a bit more plainly. And I’ve learned a lot about my responsibilities in the process.

The next time someone asks you what you do for a living tell them this: “I dress invisible statues in spandex.”

Bear with me; it’s a bit less nonsensical than it sounds.

A brand is a piece of art that serves a functional purpose, sculpted by smart, creative people. But the details that make it interesting and artful are invisible and intangible. Brands are built of things like purpose and positioning statements, values and manifestos – nothing that the average person can see or confidently wrap their head around.

But the moment that person interacts with a brand – whether they see an ad, visit a store, or click through a website – the invisible pieces take shape. An image begins to form like a canvas thrown over an invisible statue. The image is still vague, but there’s now a shape visible underneath the sheet.

With each subsequent experience with the brand, the sheet draws tighter around the statue, exposing more details underneath. Eventually the image of the brand will be so clear that it’ll be like the statue is wearing the sheet like spandex. Every feature will be revealed.

But if the brand’s actions or messages aren’t aligned with its values–if a customer service rep is rude, if an ad is tone deaf, or if a product is lackluster–the sheet will be pulled in the wrong directions, distorting the image of the statue. Where that person once saw a friendly, smiling statue of a friend, now they’ll see a lumpy, scowling, disgruntled image of a stranger.

As a brand strategist, it’s my job to pull the sheet in the right directions. It’s my job to design strategies and experiences to ensure that all interactions with a brand accurately give shape to the brand’s invisible building blocks–the purpose, the position, the values and the manifestos–so that the sheet will be worn like spandex on the statue of the brand. It’s my job to make sure the public sees the brand as the artist intended it.

So there. Tell that to your friends and relatives next time they ask. They may still look at you like you’re crazy. But maybe they’ll understand our profession just a little bit better. And, worst case scenario, they won’t ask again. That’s not a bad deal either.

Evan McGee is a brand strategist at Joe Smith, the brand consultancy of Padilla.