Brand Language: How Do Real People Use Your Brand’s Buzzwords?


My friend (Jenn Cusick of Luminate Wellness) and I got into one of those crazy Facebook thread conversations about the word “authenticity” the other week. She’d just read a blog post I’d written about Elon Musk and she had a question. In the post, I said Elon had real “authenticity” even though I thought that word had become “terrible.” She wanted to know what the word meant to me. So I explained that

I find it’s a buzzword that people want to associate themselves with without contemplating its meaning too deeply. Are people really that honest when they have strategic intent? Also, can ‘too much honesty’ be a professional liability or even just plain bad for your team/workplace/life? In general, I prickle a little bit when marketing lingo seems to appropriate moral concepts glibly.

Jenn, who is a mental health crusader—the first person to introduce the WRAP workshop model to British Columbia—answered in her typically thoughtful fashion:

Language and meaning is so interesting to me as far as how words can mean different things to different people.

In my trainings we use the word “authenticity” all the time. Plus I love Brene Brown’s approach to vulnerability, which I see as authenticity. I think an approach using the good aspects of vulnerability is beautiful and authentic. It can be powerful in any aspect of life—home, work, business. I have been thinking about work/life integration lately. I’m the same person at home and in business. I can also approach business in 2 ways—that I want to make money, or I have a message or a service that people want and are really benefiting from. I don’t think it’s an either/or.

So the word doesn’t mean the same to me, because of my context. I do understand what you are saying though. Some uses of certain words when make me totally cringe too.

I supposed it’s difficult to remove ego fully from anything. Maybe that’s ok though….hmmmm.

Feeling the need to clarify myself, I said

I mostly dislike the word as it applies to marketing/branding, I think. Not in terms of interpersonal conduct. Here’s an article i liked. “Here’s the rule of thumb: If you need to try to seem authentic, you aren’t.“

Jenn answered: “Ahhh, so it’s not a business actually being authentic, but the use of the word authentic to sell stuff. I get what you’re saying now. Good article!”

But I wasn’t finished yet. (I’m such a motormouth.)

Totes! Though…I still do question whether or not for EVERY business, being “authentic” (in the basic sense of the word) is the best way forward, in reality. Imagine if all call center employees were directed to be as authentic as possible. Or most customer service workers, for that matter! Ha, it’s interesting food for thought.

Jenn’s work involves people hashing out “meaning” face to face, in very intimate settings, in a spirit of utter sincerity. My work (frequently) involves deploying words in rapid-fire messaging built for mass communication. When Jenn is leading a Desire Map workshop, she and her clients are taking days at a time to work out the meanings of particular words in order to figure out why they have such resonance in terms of an individual participant’s values and identity. But when I am working, I may be playing around with a zillion different combinations of keywords that happen to have particular (and necessarily vague) associations for large subsets of the general population, ie. “target markets.” Sometimes branding and messaging work can make you feel like a crow that just flies around looking for shiny, shiny language fragments to tuck into your nest. You don’t really need to comprehend the forces that created these fragments—you just need a keen eye for what seems to be catching the most light at any given moment.

Anyway, it was an interesting conversation. It made me think about how powerful words are at the level of the individual (the level at which Jenn works her magic), and how those words percolate upwards to the level of mass communication, becoming more vague but powerful in a totally different way. In Jenn’s workshop, “authenticity” has very clear meaning. In a marketing campaign for Product X, it’s a verrrrry fuzzy—albeit currently powerful and mobilizing—concept. Right now, it’s legitimately a word with the power to sell.

Still, those fuzzy, vague, but powerful campaigns ultimately boil down to moving people at the individual level. And can a concept like “authenticity” start to rub the individual the wrong way when its deployment is simply too much at odds with the reality of a brand’s culture? I think so. In my opinion, branding and communication folks would be advised to lay the shiny, shiny objects aside once in a while and think a little more deeply about the people who are going to Jenn’s workshops, or having coffee, or talking on Twitter, or writing songs, or…what have you. Living life. You know…actual real people. People who care enough about words to create them in the first place.

[Author: Kristin van Vloten]

July 8, 2015

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