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What’s in a Word?

What's in a Word

Language is powerful.

Not only is it the medium through which we express thoughts, but it can also foreshadow cultural shifts. The words people choose and the order in which they use them reflect the cultural moment, providing insight into their desires and motivators. It would be foolish to assume that successful brands don’t have a finger to the pulse of how their audience communicates. But an equally important question to ask is: Why are they communicating that way? Why are certain words used and others avoided? The “why” of language can predict future behavior and is a valuable tool for those looking to gain a greater understanding of a segment of the population.

Considering language is akin to analyzing choice. People choose to use words that are culturally and topically appropriate, and avoid those that are not. An obvious example is profanity. Since it does not adhere to the norms of most public interactions, it is common to avoid using profanity in situations where it may be considered culturally or socially unacceptable. But language is constantly evolving, so words considered appropriate today could be taboo tomorrow.

Take “anti-aging.” Once a term used to describe an entire genre of skincare products, it is now thought to perpetuate ageist thinking. Beauty brand Neutrogena proudly aligned itself with this change by declaring, “We’re not anti-aging, we’re anti-wrinkles.” Allure magazine banned the word from its pages. In its place are descriptors like “age perfect” and “renewal.” Neither the products nor the conversation have changed—just the positioning.

Like subtle changes in language, the dialogue surrounding a brand’s category or products can shift with culture. Take Kleenex’s need to rebrand their “man-sized” tissues as “extra large” due to complaints of sexism. Weight Watchers, whose very name had become problematic, changed its name to simply “WW” to better align with the cultural shift towards body positivity. Rebranding is drastic, but changing the language consumers use to refer to a brand has the power to change how they think, feel and (optimally) act.

As always, brands should proceed with authenticity when adjusting their usage of language. Trends come and go, especially in regards to how people speak, and brands should be thoughtful in their communication, not impulsive. Slang words and phrases seemingly become ubiquitous overnight, but that doesn’t mean brands should start advertising how “lit” their products are. In fact, 69% of consumers consider brand use of slang language annoying.[1]

It’s impossible to overstate the power of language. The way people speak informs how they think and act. Brands must continue to adhere to the old adage “think before you speak.” But to ensure the most culturally intelligent communications strategy, perhaps the counsel is to listen before you act.

[1] https://sproutsocial.com/insights/data/q2-2017/

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