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What’s in a word? How subtle changes can make a big impact

by Victoria Richards, Content Specialist, 21 October 2019

Read Time: 5 minutes

If nothing else in life, change is a certainty – and the way we use language is no exception. Words get created, take on new meanings, become offensive, or fall out of use altogether. Brands have a tricky task on their hands to ensure the language they use strikes the right chord with their audience, because even a simple change can be the difference between being culturally relevant or controversial.

Brands have to use language masterfully: to represent their product or service, encompass their values and resonate with their audience.

Back in 1971, L’Oreal introduced its landmark ‘Because I’m Worth It’ tagline. Delivered perfectly by smiling supermodels, the slogan doesn’t just inspire confidence in the audience, but justifies the purchase of a premium product. L’Oreal acknowledges the evocative power of the phrase:

“Almost the minute the ad hit, it became clear that the last line – those four words – had struck a chord. For the first time, the message was all about what the woman thought. It was about her self-confidence, her decision, her style.”

It’s marketing magic. It should come as no surprise that it was written by a woman at a time where second-wave feminism was on the rise – and the way brands spoke to women needed to change.

Years later, the tagline got a barely noticeable, but significant change: ‘I’m’ was swapped for ‘You’re’.

Shifting the spotlight onto the consumer invites them to be part of that empowering movement. Not sure about splurging on a beauty product that’s just for you? Go ahead, you’re worth it.

Now, I’m not suggesting L’Oreal saw a surge in sales after it made this change – but it’s the more enduring of the two slogans. Direct address is a wonderful mechanism to ensure your audience knows you’re speaking to them, not talking at them. Think Burger King’s ‘Have it your way’ or Dove’s ‘Love the skin you’re in’ – both strike a personal touch to forge closer connections with their audiences.

Getting controversial

Of course, L’Oreal’s tagline is timeless, having endured for upwards of 40 years. But changing the language your brand uses can also be risky.

Gillette caused controversy back in January of this year by playing on its tagline ‘The best a man can get’ and changing it to ‘The best men can be’ for a campaign.

Just a couple of word changes – no big deal, surely?

How wrong you are. The internet and media went wild.

The original tagline neatly toed the line between focusing on the product (the best shaving product a man can get) and the outcome for the man using it (Gillette makes the man the best version of himself).

When you look at it, Gillette could have probably kept its slogan as-is with the purposes it serves. But the campaign isn’t concerned with just a ‘man’ but ‘men’ as a collective. It shifts emphasis from what he can ‘get’ to what he can ‘be’. Gillette is calling men’s behaviour into question.

Of course, that’s all well and good but when men are your audience, you may want to tread carefully before going in on toxic masculinity. Where L’Oreal empowered its audience, Gillette appeared to chastise its own. The 1.4 million dislikes and a quick look at the YouTube comments tells you a lot about how the campaign has been received.

To be clear, I like the ad and its message. Brands are under pressure to move with the times – and Gillette’s previous advertising does seem a little stale and outdated now. Still, I appreciate I’m not Gillette’s target audience and, on this occasion, it might have over-corrected.

The opportunity is big for brands looking to portray values in their marketing, but it’s undeniably risky territory. In spite of the backlash it’s received for addressing wider issues in its advertising, Gillette doesn’t seem swayed. The brand recently featured a transgender man in its ads for the first time, recognising that inclusivity is big business now.

Gendered language

It seems almost mad that it’s taken so long to see a greater representation of skin tones, ages, cultures and gender among brands. Aside from advertising and marketing, the very name of a product can be isolating.

Gendered naming conventions and the association of products as inherently female or male can unnecessarily alienate audiences. Birchbox, the beauty subscription service, realised this and has since rebranded its ‘BirchboxMan’ service to ‘Birchbox Grooming’. The company eloquently explains why in a compelling blog post:

“From a company values perspective, it’s about building an inclusive home that welcomes all types of customers interested in grooming products. It’s also just better branding.

“Inclusivity is a company-wide priority at Birchbox, but we lose credibility if we continue to indicate a gender restriction on our grooming business with the “Man” label.”

In short, if your product could be used by either gender, consider keeping your language fairly neutral. You may be surprised when your target audience actually ends up being a lot broader than you thought.

Rebdranded Birchbox grooming products

Language has power

Brands aside for a moment, it was actually the act of The Guardian announcing changes to the way it refers to ‘climate change’ that got me thinking.

In The Guardian’s style guide, climate change is now ‘climate emergency, crisis or breakdown’, while ‘climate sceptic’ has become ‘climate science denier’. Editor-in-chief Katharine Viner explained: “The phrase ‘climate change’, for example, sounds rather passive and gentle when what scientists are talking about is a catastrophe for humanity.”

On the surface of it they’re only changing a few words, but the overall effect seriously ups the ante and perceived urgency. This shift in language has prompted other media outlets to also reconsider the terms they use.

At long last, the media seems to be attempting to accurately portray the severity of the situation – and, as our Executive Producer has already noted: businesses also need to be taking note.

I’m a firm believer in language’s power to not only reflect change, but effect change. As we’ve seen, it can be extremely influential, with even some simple changes making waves. Whether it’s changing our perception of the planet we live on, the society we operate in or how we relate to other people: the words you choose have power.

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