That words matter, that they have the power to influence how we think, feel, look at and move through the world is well-trod territory. But if true for all of us, perhaps it’s incrementally so for marketers and marketing—fundamentally the art and science of communicating persuasively.
Like many communities, marketing’s has its own language. Words, phrases, acronyms from which meaning is derived and—at least theoretically—communicated. It’s not so much a code as a shorthand that, sometimes, with over-use, robs words of their true meaning and intent; becoming something akin to the words of Charlie Brown’s teacher in the Peanuts, whose are always heard as “Wah wah woh wah.” If marketing’s particular lexicon is not exactly the lyrical language dreams are made of it is most certainly the type memes are made of.
And at a time when most people would neither notice nor care if 75% of brands lived or died, perhaps a consideration of marketing’s over and under-used words matters more than ever, because they ultimately inform and shape—or don’t—the work that is the community’s output. For this reason, Forbes asked some 20 CMOs and creative thought-leaders who’d gathered recently at the Cannes Lions Festival, which words they considered to be both over and under-used inside marketing’s virtual and physical halls.
The over-used words offered by those with whom Forbes Spoke reflect some that, on balance, are either so obvious they need not be said or are said so frequently their meanings have been denuded. A consideration of the under-used words provides a snapshot of what these leaders see as missed opportunities, misaligned priorities, and/or, to some, an absence of focus on what should matter more. Collectively, and aware that 20 conversations lacks any statistical relevance, considering the words marketing over and under-uses might help us understand, or at least begin to consider, this moment in the industry, just as do other cultural artifacts and mediums tell the tales of their time.
In comparing the two-camps of words it’s worth noting that, again, on balance, the over-used tended to be more functional while the under-used, were more implicitly emotional, reflecting a want to get back to building the connections that great Story telling, marketing, and brands have always been made of.
As David Droga, CEO of Accenture Song, told Forbes “Advertising has ruined a lot of good words.” On the over-used side of the ledger, what emerges is a picture of a shared and yet quiet frustration with the status-quo, perhaps multiple status-quos, group think and group-speak.
No single word was referenced as over-used more often than “Purpose”—which has, as Marisa Thalberg, CMO at Lowe’s put it “been used and abused,” becoming a catchall for so many things that it threatens to take marketers’ eyes off the singular responsibility that is growth. This even as businesses shift from a shareholder to a stakeholder model of capitalism, where the expression and activation of “shared values” is an engine of that growth.
Cristina Diezhandino, CMO of Diageo, spoke to this same point if through a slightly different lens—that of operating model table stakes, when she said to Forbes “how could we be without purpose? We must have a purpose.”
Table Stakes Words: Authenticity and Integration
As Diezhandino points out, the unnecessary elevation of the table stakes, which is to say the obvious, was yet another theme that emerged amongst the over-used words. “Integration” was another such word offered by Tyler Turnbull, Global CEO of ad agency FCB. Other table stakes words included the oft mentioned “Authenticity” and its variants, which TikTok’s Global Head of Business marketing, Sofia Hernandez, described as “overused but under performed,” and which William White, Walmart’s CMO, shared is not just table stakes but has the more insidious fault of getting in the way of thinking about the people who are engaging with your brand. “Let’s not talk about authenticity” White said to Forbes, “but empathy and how we bring that to life.”
Words That Have Lost Meaning: Engagement and Innovation
Along with table stakes words are those words whose over-use has rendered them almost meaningless. “Engagement”—oft measured by someone liking a social post, a rather low bar—is one of these, offered by Cartier’s CMO Arnaud Carrez, as “quite difficult to define.”
But it was “Innovation” that was mentioned by several with whom we spoke, and whose (over) use drew the most antipathy. “Innovation is like a suitcase word, it could mean a million things and speaking it without executing against it is pointless” Nick Law, the Global Lead for Design and Creative Tech at Accenture Song, told Forbes. That word has so many potential meanings that it now lacks any—was echoed also by creative agency Mekanism’s founder and CEO, Jason Harris, who said “’Innovation?’ What’s that mean? It could mean anything; we need to be specific.”
Perhaps staying closer to innovation’s meaning and role was Google’s VP of Marketing, Nick Drake, who came to the innovation conversation a little differently, suggesting that among the most over-used words in marketing is “’no,’ because true innovation requires ‘yes , go try this.”’”
Words Du Jour: Metaverse, Programmatic, and Data
As there are table stakes words, those that seemingly need not be expressed, so too are there those that reflect this moment in time, even if they’ll endure over time. These words included “Metaverse,” mentioned by McDonald’s Global CMO, Morgan Flatley, and Qualcomm’s CMO, Don McGuire. “Programmatic,” and “Data” which both the NBA’s CMO, Kate Jhaveri, and Artsy’s CMO Everette Taylor, found themselves on this list, with Taylor offering the POV that “Data is one of those words people think they’re supposed to say , when what makes us marketers are the things a data can’t do—apply our instincts, insights and creativity.”
Words That Get In The Way
Amongst the over-used words drawing almost as much ire as “Innovation” was “Performance,” a word that many with whom we spoke see as having been divorced from “brand” which has always been an engine of said performance, creating a narrow orientation to the bottom of the purchase funnel, and a false binary between building equity and driving transactions.
This false binary exacerbates the crisis many brands find themselves in at a time when good-enough alternatives abound across product and service categories. Interestingly, it was Meta’s VP of the Global Business Group, Nicole Mendelson—who when they were Facebook, certainly helped give rise to the notion of “performance”— who told Forbes she thinks “marketing needs new language, and this (‘performance’) reflects the way people used to buy media.”
We’ll give the literal last word here to Karina Wilsher, Global CEO of creative agency Anomaly, who offered “But” as amongst the industry’s most over-used words. To Wilsher, the word’s over-use indicates that too often marketers are “looking to problems first and not potential opportunities;” an albatross around the neck of possibility and creativity.
What then of the under-used words? As stated above, the under-used words offered by those with whom Forbes Spoke, tended to have a more emotional context and under-pinning than did the over-used, and even a relative profundity. Considered as a whole, the vocabulary of the under-used reflects a forward-looking hope that marketing (and marketers) remember it is about art not just science, people not just data, and emotion not just fact.
Empathy and Humanity
There was less commonality (ie, frequency) of mention in specific words, with the notable exception of “Empathy,” offered by several with whom Forbes Spoke including, Walmart’s White, Qualcomm’s McGuire, and Artsy’s Taylor, who told us marketing “Is about people; you can’t figure it out with numbers. It’s about feelings. People are moved and swayed by different things.”
This truth is reflected as well in an under-used word offered by McDonald’s Flatley, “Humanity,” and equally by the chief operating officer of Microsoft’s US Business Applications practice, Ashley Haynes Gaspar, who added that marketers need to remember the “personal in personalization.” All of which seems an appropriate reflection of marketing’s context at a time rife with humanitarian crises, which forces all brands and businesses to think more actively—dare I say “authentically”—about the humans at their core.
Patronage and Accountability
This focus on people wasn’t limited to those external audiences to whom marketers’ market but included internal stakeholders—as well as prospective ones—as Google’s Drake added “Patronage and Sponsorship” to the list of the under-used because, as he said, “in order to truly drive change in the executive ranks among the under-represented.” Relatedly, both the NBA’s Jhaveri and, Wendy Clark, Global CEO of Dentsu, a multinational media and digital marketing communications company, spoke of the need for greater “Accountability” not just as relates to traditional performance metrics, but rather in the context of the words offered and commitments made by businesses to both environmental, social and governance (ESG) objectives.
But the lexicon of the under-used also speaks to the work of marketing, and what some with whom Forbes Spoke the path to better work and, thus, better marketing.
Bravery, Restraint, Simplicity, Objective, and Why
Walmart’s White called out “Bravery” in a world of uncertainty and at a time when many brands are playing it safe, a premise reinforced by Accenture Song’s Droga who put “Restraint” on the list as an under-used practice if not word, adding that it’s about “having the confidence to do what’s necessary and no more.” That firm’s Nick Law shared a similar when he put “Simplicity” on the list of the under-used and under-done, acknowledging that “it’s hard, but we’ve lost our way.”
Finally, while he was not interviewed in Cannes, it was Ludwig Wittgenstein who died in 1951, and is considered by some the 20th century’s greatest philosopher, who said “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” For Mekanism’s Harris, the ranks of the under-used include “Objective” without which, marketing’s impact and focus is, like Wittgenstein suggested, limited. Harris added “There’s never a singular objective, but that’s where the best results come from.” Similar sentiment was offered by Accenture CMO, Jill Kramer, who added to the list both “Why” and “What if,” contextualizing it by adding” Why are we doing this? Why aren’t we? What if we didn’t do it? What would happen?”
If “but” is over-used, it was FCB’s Turnbull who contributed if not its polarity than the other side of the coin, offering “And” as being among the words the industry needs use more often. “And” speaks to what the agency exec told Forbes is “the need to reframe the possible” a thought TikTok’s Hernandez shared asking “how do we get ourselves to rip up the old and open ourselves to newness” which would seem self-serving for a platform as new as TikTok were it not also true for brands far more broadly.
If the words we use most often reveal something about who and where we are and, as relates to marketing, perhaps as much about where we hope to go and be, then there is reason to be optimism. To hope that marketing’s becoming truly “human-centric,” (a phrase I for one would add to the list of the over-used and under-executed) might in fact become a reality and not a “wah wah woh wah” buzz- phrase.
Perhaps with this in mind it was Anomaly’s Wilsher who added that amongst the most under-used words in marketing are “Thank you.”
Here’s a quick look at all the words that were shared with Forbes. Let us know which resonate and which you think are missing.