Linguists will tell you that language is constantly evolving and that a number of factors drive the speed and extent of those changes. Language changes as it is passed on; it adapts to movements in society and technology; it reflects shifts in social attitudes as a result of social, economic and political pressures.
In the shorter term, words are volatile. New words are invented to describe new technologies, industries, products and experiences. Changes in the ways that individuals speak also fuel language change. And of course words themselves change meaning – but more importantly they change significance over time. Ideas that once carried weight and urgency have been lost in translation or have been diluted to the point where they no longer command the respect they once had. Equally, words that once sat in the relative back-blocks have been elevated to new levels of relevance and importance.
Because of all these factors, words shift in value through useage, through adoption and through being redefined. And these changes are critical to understanding how people will engage with them. This article in the New York Times (spotted by the ever watchful Alex) is about just how much our language has altered and why. It identifies a range of important trends through the words that matter to us now: individualism is on the rise at the expense of communal words and phrases; moral terms have declined along with words associated with the moral high ground such as courage, gratitude, humility and compassion; words associated with the ability to deliver and fairness, pointing to economic production and exchange rose; and words associated with politics and government have also become more prevalent.
That volatility is as true in the world of commerce as it is across everyday culture. Words go in and out of fashion and as they do so, they take sectors, and the associations that those sectors have relied on, with them. Examples: “conversation” is hot in the realm of marketing right now, along with “content” and “data”. So is “storytelling”. “Tribe” was once radical, now it’s mainstream. “Natural” is close to discredited. And “sustainable”, in many circles, now simply means viable. “Innovation” often amounts to improvement. “Purpose” has climbed through the ranks of awareness to emerge from fuzzy-logic status to C-level preoccupation. In 2000, having an i-anything was the epitome of cool. Now it’s an anachronism.
All of this is important if you’re a brand because it shows why your language cannot simply stay put. Words that you may use to describe yourselves, your sector, your products, your importance, even your contribution may, by now, be sending the wrong signals to consumers. That doesn’t mean they’ve necessarily lost their meaning, but, more likely, the original value of that meaning has commoditised through useage, or more likely, over-use.
Here’s a simple suggestion. Check your “tag cloud” – the collection of words that lie at the core of how your brand describes itself internally and externally. Check for meaning (and lack of it), relevance and motivation. (Tired words are a sign of a tired culture and, arguably, a tired strategy.)
Part of continuing to successfully redefine who you are as a brand lies in reviewing and refreshing the language you use for the meaning it now has – not the meaning it had 30 years ago.
Photo of “outdoor advertising space now available” by fenderfish, sourced from Flickr