We’ve long lamented the rise of trendy language in advertising and business, but while we’ve played buzzword bingo and occasionally pointed fingers at those who speak in clichés, something more serious lies beneath the jargon.
The catchphrases we use serve as a shared language—they’re how we signal our belonging to the tribe of marketers. But when highly precise terms are misappropriated in an attempt to project a false sense of authority, that’s when we lose meaning. Words should represent powerful surgical tools of our trade. But today, our industry is riddled with vagueness, engulfed by a fluffy cloud of confusion that presides over terms like native advertising and muddles the concept of digital until it’s rendered meaningless. We’ve lost precision in our language when we need it most. Here are eight examples:
Disruption It seems like every client brief of 2014 can’t be distributed until the words “disruption” or “disruptive” are liberally sprinkled throughout. What is a specific and helpful term to describe what happens when conventional boundaries are set aside has just become a pointless filler. It’s now a synonym for funky or new.
Responsive Design A superb term used to accurately explain the process of something becoming automatically adjusted to fit every context has now become vapid verbiage for the modern and a bit special—a grim example of what happens when technological terms enter the domain of marketers.
Iterate Once iterate meant a design process where various elements would progress through sequential steps, to hone in on the optimal solution; now it means nothing beyond merely describing a stage in a process.
Reimagine It should mean a specific philosophy based on breaking down the required outcomes, forgetting conventional wisdom and constructing an entirely new way of accomplishing goals. Today, reimagining has become a way to describe and sometimes assign a more positive connotation to a redesign. From a word that originally suggested unhindered transformation, it has morphed into the opposite: a formula for alluding to innovation without actually doing it.
Hacking Hacking has always been a quick, dirty and high creative fix for what time or budget didn’t allow. Now, whether it’s a “life hack,” “growth hacking” or “furniture hacking,” it just seems to refer to acting a bit techy and a bit creative.
Paradigm Shift In the past, paradigms were evolutionary funnels. We had the era of cassettes, compact discs, mini discs, then digital music, and each became a set of criteria for which design was optimized. A paradigm shift was breaking outside of that evolutionary funnel, while now it merely means trying a different approach.
Synergy A wondrous term, suggesting how the interaction between elements in a system produce an effect different from or greater than the sum of their individual effects. Now it’s most often used by marketers as filler in announcements about even the most banal changes.
The Tinder of … When headlines need to be short, business models need to be explained quickly. Now, anything involving a swipe function becomes the “Tinder of X,” anything marketing a physical space becomes the “Airbnb of” and anything that’s selling one type of item online becomes the “Warby Parker of.” These are terrible and lazy approximations. Tinder is about matching mutual interests. Warby Parker is about vertical integration. And Airbnb is about sharing perishable inventory. We’re missing vital nuance in our FOMO frenzy to grasp things quickly.
So, Marissa Mayer, when you say that “Yahoo is on a mission to reimagine users’ daily habits,” and Starbucks execs who claim they want to “disrupt” coffee by allowing people to order from an app, you are saying nothing.
These eight words are lost now, but let’s guard the next batch of important words and terms more carefully, so we can still find a way to really talk to each other.
Tom Goodwin (@tomfgoodwin) is the CEO and founder of the Tomorrow Group.