Why is it that so few business leaders are as skilled in linguistics as in numerics? While most executives know how to use language for imparting information or directing people, very few are good at using language to inspire others, tap into their dreams, or express their heartfelt beliefs and ideals.
We at A.I. Labs have a few thoughts on what differentiates the most fabulous vocabulists from their less expressive peers. It all starts with word choice!
Here are our guidelines for selecting words that work and using them to tell stories that stick.
1 | SPECIFICITY
The priority in aesthetic articulation is specificity. It is critical to conveying a brand’s purpose, imbuing meaning into its products and eliciting strong and positive emotion. Vagueness is unacceptable. For example, in describing a particular product experience, words like nice, tasty, and soft are generic and therefore meaningless, while words such as lilting, salty and gelatinous express information with precision and distinction.
2 | ACCURACY
Another criteria for selecting words is accuracy. Does the word describe your product (or service or idea) in such a way that someone else could envision the exact same thing as you do? For example, Burberry’s signature fabric is not described as simply “plaid.” Rather, its tan, black and red tartan is called, more specifically, “Haymarket check.” Likewise, KFC doesn’t describe its fried chicken as “delicious,” but as “finger lickin’ good.” The latter evokes a much more distinct (and, dare we say, down-home) style of southern cooking.
3 | OWNABILITY
Are the words “ownable”? In other words, are they immediately and uniquely associated with your particular brand or story? For example, when you hear the expression “The Happiest Place on Earth,” you think of Disneyland. When you see the tagline “Just Do It,” you think of Nike. Even more powerful than owning a tagline is the ability to own a single word. For example, Google “owns” the word search. Given that most words are already taken, some companies have come up with creative ways to coin a new word. For example, McDonald’s doesn’t just sell conventional hamburgers, but Big Macs. Ben & Jerry’s doesn’t just sell chocolate or vanilla ice cream, but “ownable” flavors like Cherry Garcia and Chunky Monkey.
4 | QUALITY OVER QUANTITY
Too often executives use lots of words to say very little. Aesthetic articulation is not only about accurate communication, but about leaving a powerful and memorable impression. As such, avoid using clichés, canned statement, and business-speak, and make sure each and every word counts!
5 | TONE
Choose words that align with your company’s values and are in keeping with the spirit of your brand and its aesthetic intent. Consider the cooler maker Yeti’s anthem: “For the restless and determined, ‘nowhere is a state of mind — a drive to find the purest form of shared time, simple pleasures and personal pursuit…” These words reinforce the idea that the Yeti brand is for people who embrace the outdoors, thrive under harsh conditions, and therefore need a cooler that not only cools, but is also grizzly-proof.
Narration goes beyond individual words to encompass a company’s history, lore (and mythology) and future vision. These days people want to know more about the companies they do business with. Strong narration establishes a company’s credibility and instills trust. The toothbrush upstart Quip’s “About” page lays out the company’s raison d’etre this way: “…to put what is best for your teeth before all else; to never stop improving our products and reduce our environmental impact; to strive to be available 24/7 and become your one stop solution for oral health.” The company’s backstory reinforces each of those promises.
We at A.I. Labs do a lot of work in the auto sector, so we’re particularly interested in exploring how different car brands use language to tell their stories. Below are examples of ones we admire and ones we don’t.
In other words, BMW is not a car; it’s a machine! Moreover, it’s the ultimate machine.
All you need to know about the Ford brand is captured in these three simple words. Clearly, they resonate well with truck drivers!
This GM brand’s slogan masterfully captures its home country’s spirit of ingenuity and freedom.
Like BMW, Mercedes pays homage to its company’s engineering prowess. But this one evokes far more emotionality and soulfulness.
Some of the all-time worst examples include:
Are they kidding? How tone deaf.
This one implies that Buick still hasn’t built a good car yet
Lazy, lazy, lazy…. and amateur.