More and more, our days are defined by marketing buzzwords.
I was reminded of this grim reality reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel, Americanah. In it, Ifemelu, the female protagonist, moves from her native community in Nigeria to Philadelphia and is immediately alarmed by the constant use of the word “excited.” Her peers are excited for everything—even new textbooks. The space between their words and emotions baffles her.
I can’t even imagine what Ifemelu would think if she sat in on one of my team meetings at work as we dive into our agenda, tackle our action items, and build our next plan from the ground up. We do no actual diving, tackling, or building. Yet these words and phrases make us feel urgency and purpose that other words can’t.
Although marketers receive a majority of the slack for the pervasion of buzzwords, these terms have become more popular over time. Emma Green writes in The Atlantic, “Corporate jargon may seem meaningless to the extent that it’s best described as bullshit, but it actually reveals a lot about how workers think about their lives.”
When used too liberally, marketing buzzwords become a crutch, filling silences and convincing ourselves that our actions are taking us in the right direction. From education to finance to food, many industries, products, and services are built on words that come with underlying consequences.
Here are five examples of buzzwords creating mishaps across different industries and why they could use more clarity:
Sometimes, buzzwords can trick us into thinking that we are walking through an endless field when we are actually stuck in a narrow hallway. This is what worries leaders as school policies and curricula evolve and take shape. Recently, the importance of measuring students’ character attributes has crowded the conversation. School and policy leaders grapple with what students need in order to handle life’s challenges—gratitude, curiosity, grit—and assess how educators can help teach these skills. However, the concept of character attributes clings to one idealized and age-old definition of what character is, and therefore it’s likely that a percentage of students will not naturally fit that mold.
The buzzwords frame the conversation before it even begins, making it difficult for a more inclusive system to take shape.
It’s not uncommon to talk about companies like they are living, breathing human beings. This trend took shape in the 1960s, with a group of researchers, including Edgar Schein, who coined the term organizational culture, or a system of shared assumptions, values, and beliefs, which governs how people behave in an organization.
As the quest for talent becomes more competitive, improving organizational culture is a high priority for business leaders. Companies recruit entire teams, led by chief culture officers, to create and maintain desirable working environments. But organizational culture, now used beyond HR circles, is a vague term. As a result, it can lead to vague efforts and vague results. Leadership needs to ask themselves what culture truly means and what the results of these efforts actually look like.
To make an impact, they need to understand and articulate all of the components of a project—or else they’ll create a game room no one wants to play in.
Finance, with all of its risk, reward, and competition, is the parent of buzzwords. The financial industry has generated numerous images of battles or treacherous climbs up mountains. Leverage, duration, momentum, headwinds, alpha, and puke point are just a few examples.
It’s no surprise that words like these crept into Wall Street vocabulary. Like most marketing buzzwords, they allow us to establish a tribal connection and provide a sense of belonging. Words can only convey so much meaning, however. If you are not truly versed in your industry, no term or phrase will be able to hide it. In addition, phrases like these ultimately cause separation, as your target customer may have a different idea of what puke point means. It’s better to listen, ask questions, and share your thoughts in way that you know your audience will understand.
When Clayton Christensen made the word disruption trendy in The Innovator’s Dilemma, everyone wanted to create their own earthquake and follow in the footsteps of Apple and Amazon. But taking a buzzword and tying it to a goal can cause companies to make decisions without considering what their audience really needs.
To set clear goals, brand leaders must think in specific terms and create solutions that will make lives better and easier, instead of ones attempting to just make a splash. By aiming to create broad value, brands are more likely to turn inward and lose sight of the industry and customers needs, and therefore, risk producing hollow solutions.
“Eating in our time has gotten complicated,” said Michael Pollan, bestselling author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. Most of the complication looms from how the food industry tells us what we should and shouldn’t be eating, with many brands claiming to fit each category. What’s scary is our tendency to let these buzzwords, from organic to natural, determine what we eat, even if we don’t know their meaning.
This risk pervades every industry, convincing us to buy shampoo with “no harsh salts” and yoga pants made of “technical fabric.” As good as they sound, these words are not memorable or informative and are not enough to motivate customers to come back. Marketers should work to create brands that provide a simple, understandable story on what they are about.
It’s easy to use buzzwords—they’re there for the taking. It’s much harder to say what matters clearly, but that’s what the most effective marketers and communicators do.
By realizing that not everything is exciting, we’ll be more honest, make better decisions, and say things that our customers actually want to hear.
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