What does "trilemma" actually mean?

Benno Maggi explains in his column "What does... actually mean?" terms from the field of marketing and communication. This time he explains the term "trilemma".

As if dilemmas weren't difficult enough, to add to all the misery in the world, trilemmas are popping up everywhere. Not only in world politics, the global economy or the world climate debate, but increasingly also in more banal realms such as advertising and marketing.

The "trilemma" is a newly launched, linguistically ancient expression used to supplement an already existing word (dilemma) - just as with "proactive", for example. So anyone who wants to proactively address a trilemma had better be distrusted. For the use of such exaggerated neologisms always has something boastful and exclusionary about them. They are perceived as apt for a certain time and spread furiously before they sink back into meaninglessness - usually rightly so.

The dilemma, on the other hand, holds its own bravely, especially in our industry. And not just since Henry Ford's attributed quota "Fifty percent in advertising is always thrown out. But you don't know which half that is." Even if this "rule" has lost much of its charm in the age of data-based marketing, it was at least reliable.

A new word at the right time

Whereas with the good old dilemma we only have to decide between two options, the situation becomes massively more complicated with the trilemma. Nevertheless, as we all know, agencies still tend to propose three routes each when presenting naming, branding or campagning solutions to clients.

In doing so, they usually overwhelm not only themselves, but also the customers. This is because choosing from three options, each of which is unacceptable, often leads to the emergence of a fourth, which is a toxic mixture of the three.

Although everyone hopes that the result will be convincing, the opposite always happens. Even in the better case, the selection from three good proposals, where in the end only one can be chosen, it remains difficult. In the end, it is often the arbitrariness of superiors or customers that decides.

Therefore: Avoid trilemmas and rather work out only one proposal. Because the "real" world is already full of true trilemmas: political, economic, ecological and psychological, there is no need to create artificial ones.


Benno Maggi is co-founder and CEO of Partner & Partner. He has been eavesdropping on the industry for over 30 years, discovering words and terms for us that can either be used for small talk, pomposity, excitement, playing Scrabble or just because.

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