This is the reading assigned on Thursday 2/16 and should be read by Tuesday 2/20. It comes from a book called 'Words That Work: It's Not What You Say That Matters, It's What People Hear'. Here's a little from the author about the book (and below the assigned reading, an excerpt): This book has examined the development and application of words that work. Now it’s time to look ahead to the twenty-one words and phrases that you will be hearing often as we move through these early years of the twenty-first century. Some apply to business, others to politics, but they all define the new American lexicon. I choose these words because I believe they will withstand the test of time. Based on hundreds of thousands of telephone interviews, hundreds of dial sessions and focus groups, and literally a million research hours, I contend that the words and concepts in this chapter will be as essential and powerful tomorrow as they are today. The words that follow are not superficial, timely, or contingent on the ephemeral circumstances of the moment. These words cut to the heart of Americans’ most fundamental beliefs and right to the core values that do not change no matter how we vote or shop, or what delivery devices we use to play music, in the year 2020.
WORDS AND PHRASES FOR THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY
“Imagine” is one of the most powerful words in the English language. It evokes something different to each person that hears it. Every person has a unique definition of the American Dream that they imagine and someday hope to achieve. The point is that “imagine” leads to 300 million different, personal definitions—and that’s just in the United States alone.
No matter what your company’s product or service, the word “imagine” has the potential to create and personalize an appeal that is individualized based on the dreams and desires of the person who hears or reads it. The word “imagine” is an open, nonrestrictive command—almost an invitation. Its power is derived from the simple fact that it can conjure up anything in the mind of the one doing the imagining. What can be imagined is therefore endlessly personal and targeted in a way that no canned marketing campaign could ever hope to be. When a potential consumer imagines, she’s the one doing the most important work, investing her own mental energies to create something new where before there was nothing. You don’t have to tell people what to imagine, just encourage them to do so.
The clearest illustration of this process is reading. When you read, you translate the black-and-white symbols on the page into vivid, Technicolor pictures in your mind—but everybody’s mental pictures are different. This makes each reader a collaborator with the author in the creation of his or her own entertainment.
Film, for all its wonders, is an infinitely more passive medium for just this reason—and it undermines rather than enhances imagination. Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities is one of the most read and applauded novels about business and greed ever written because of its visionary and descriptive prose, but the movie was a bust. Even good films suffer in comparison to what we imagine from the pages of a book. The Natural is considered by many to be one of the best baseball films of all time—but those same people will assert that the book was better. Same with Lord of the Rings.
When an advertisement asks the audience to “imagine,” it’s inviting them to take ownership of the product or service being sold—to make it their own. But if the ad says too much or shows too much, it undermines the process of imagination that the advertiser is trying to stoke. Conversely, if you show too little, as Infiniti automobiles did when they launched the new brand in 1989, you don’t give people the tools they need to create their own images. By not showing the car, they didn’t create anticipation or imagination. They created annoyance.
Similarly, AT&T Wireless wanted Americans to imagine (and get) an mLife, digital-speak for mobile life, when it launched a multimillion-dollar branding campaign just before the 2002 Super Bowl. They thought teaser ads asking “What is mLife” would “intrigue” consumers and pique interest. Like Infiniti, the mLife promotion did become a hot topic of discussion—and debate—and it generated considerable Web traffic, but in this case the product reveal did not live up to the hype, and AT&T Wireless dropped the campaign. If you ask people to imagine the best, you had better deliver the best.
The boundless world of imagination has found an equally boundless partner in the Internet. Samsung, a company that makes everything from microwave ovens to MP3 players, has launched an “imagine” inspired campaign, asking its customers to “become captivated by functions and conveniences you never dreamed possible.” This challenge to consumers to push the boundaries of their own minds is accompanied by an image- and sound-laden Web site that creates an environment in which the versatility and variety of Samsung’s products are highlighted.
The concept of imagination also has great salience within companies. It’s no accident that the designers and builders of the Disney theme parks took for themselves the name “Imagineers,” a combination of “imagine” and “engineer.”1 Every worker wants to feel that he or she is more than just a generic and replaceable cog in a machine. When a company asks its employees to “imagine,” it’s asking them to forget, at least for a moment, about bureaucratic organizational charts, stodgy bosses, departmental budgets, the established way of doing things, and all the other everyday restrictions that infringe on their work. Asking your employees to “imagine” is asking them to contribute a piece of themselves to the enterprise. It can do wonders for morale, of course—but it can also lead to some incredibly innovative ideas.
As in the corporate sphere, “imagine” is one of the most powerful words in politics. A political idea is just an idea—but when someone captures your imagination, he or she goes from being a “politician” (negative, disreputable, boring) to being a “leader” (visionary, statesmanlike, inspiring). The most successful political leaders are those who find a way to inspire. They manifest their own imaginative powers, but, even more importantly, they stimulate the imaginations of their fellow citizens.
Edmund Burke, decrying the onset of the French Revolution, described its cold rationalism this way: “The age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists and calculators has succeeded.”2 Great political leaders don’t come across as human calculators. They exhibit passion, sympathy, and an unbridled belief in a better future. President Kennedy didn’t inspire thousands of young Americans to join the Peace Corps by presenting a really persuasive cost-benefit analysis. He appealed to something far greater in our hearts. Imagination, passion, even a touch of poetry—these are the qualities that speed the pulse.
The use of imagination to induce imagery is particularly helpful when talking about a complex subject to a large and diverse audience. In early 2005, when President George W. Bush was attempting the seemingly impossible task of reforming Social Security, he challenged the Congress and the American people to imagine the future for the next generation if the looming threat of Social Security bankruptcy was not properly addressed. In a speech at the University of Notre Dame, Bush explicitly asked the audience to “imagine if this government of ours does nothing at this point in Social Security, and you’ve got a five-year-old child.” By doing this the President was not simply asking the audience to think about the future. He was placing every member of the audience in the role of a parent struggling to raise kids and put away enough money for retirement. Bush understood that the combination of the “imagine” framework and the intergenerational impact of Social Security would pack a powerful punch. Yet he still failed because the imagination of seniors losing their Social Security in a stock market crash was even more powerful than the dream of their grandchildren getting control of their Social Security savings. Big dreams—or horrific nightmares—are not born from facts and figures. The real emotional impact requires a real imagination—and an appeal to use it.
The idea that we, as consumers, should not have to think about how we buy a product (quickly), use a product (immediately), or fix a product (easily) has become deeply ingrained in us. And when it comes to how we interact with products, services, and people, “hassle-free” is a top priority. In fact, Americans prefer a “hassle-free” product to a “less expensive” one by an impressive 62 percent to 38 percent. We prize ease of use and convenience to such an extent that we are genuinely willing to pay for it—and it’s worth at least another 10 percent and as much as 20 percent on top of the sticker price if the promise is delivered on.
Like “imagine,” “hassle-free” is in the eyes of the consumer, but there are specific examples that transcend all populations.
In terms of purchasing, haggling with the car dealer is the single best example of a hassle Americans want eliminated (“Imagine a hassle-free car buying experience” would be my tagline for any car dealer who asked). CarMax, which famously does not permit haggling over prices on its used cars, is succeeding exactly because they have listened to the consumer, and their tagline says it all: “The way car buying should be.”
Standing in line waiting at the grocery store after already spending time walking up and down the aisles searching for specific items is a guaranteed hassle producer (“Easy in, easy out” best communicates a hassle-free supermarket experience, along with “the five minute guarantee” if you’re willing to open up more checkout stands).
Actual product use now needs to be hassle-free as well. Start with the packaging. Too many products are encased so tightly in hard plastic that it seems we have to beat it against the wall and then drop it off a thirty-story building to pop it open or use a chain saw to cut it free from the packaging. We are tired of scraping with our fingernails trying to get the plastic off our CDs and DVDs. We are annoyed when “batteries [are] not included.” And the solid plastic packaging that encases a new pair of scissors when you buy them? You need scissors to get the scissors open. Pity the people who are buying their very first pair. Companies should stop wrapping and start prepping their products so we can actually get at them when we want to. The value to consumers is immeasurable.
When we take our new laptop out of the box, we want to turn it on and have it work immediately. (My message recommendation to the first manufacturer who produces a truly hassle-free computer: “Plug it in. Turn it on. Go.” ) We are livid when the instructions for setting up our audio system read like the disarmament codes for a North Korean nuclear bomb and are seemingly translated by someone who counted English as their third language. We don’t appreciate being switched to a call center in India when our appliance breaks down and someone named “Bob” can’t explain how to fix it.
It’s often enlightening to look at the etymologies of words and see where they came from. “Hassle” originally meant “to hack or saw at.” I’d say that sums it up nicely. We don’t want to have to hack and saw away at things—we want them to be like butter under a hot knife.
We don’t want to think about it. We want it to work—not now, but five minutes ago, dammit! We want the products we use to work as reliably and as instantly as the light does when we flip the switch. Have you tried opening a bottle of medicine lately? The caps are more secure than King Tut’s tomb. If it’s a prescription for arthritis, you’re out of luck—you’ll do more damage to your joints trying to get the damned thing open than the medicine will ever be able to alleviate.
“Lifestyle” is an example of terminology that was adopted by consumers even before the marketing community. “Lifestyle,” like “imagine” and the “American Dream,” is incredibly powerful because it is at the same time self-defined and aspirational—everyone defines and aspires to his or her own unique lifestyle.
But unlike the “American Dream,” the concept of “lifestyle” is a relatively new term. The compound word was created in 1929 by Alfred Adler, an Austrian scientist, but today’s definition of the word wasn’t applied until the 1960s.3 The word “lifestyle” both creates and exemplifies a Weltanschauung or worldview (speaking of German-derived compound words)4—one that is individualistic rather than community-oriented, personalized rather than generic, and forward-looking rather than nostalgic or tethered to tradition. The very notion of styling one’s life—and that there are many different styles of the good life from which to choose—would have seemed a foreign and bizarre concept to our great-grandparents. Yet “lifestyle” is a concept that is essential to understanding our more secular, individualist age.
“Lifestyle” implies that there is more than one model of “the good life,” and all we have to do is choose. This may be relativistic or self-centered, but we live in an era of individuality, and choosing a lifestyle is a crucial component of defining who we are.
Today, “lifestyle” has special currency among young people, who use it to describe what they like, what they believe, and what they want to do. It’s a catch-all term. Instead of talking about how they eat, what they do for exercise, or how much they work, they talk about their “lifestyle” as a whole. All the various facets, instead of being examined individually, are subsumed into the larger “lifestyle” context. It’s no longer a question of what I want for a career or where I want to live or what I do for fun—that’s just a subset of the larger question: What lifestyle do I want to make for myself?
“Accountability” is one of the qualities that Americans most want from their political leaders and governing institutions. Yet Americans also think of “accountability” as one of the qualities their elected officials and the appointed bureaucrats most lack. Just as Americans don’t trust big business and other large institutions, they also don’t trust government agencies and systems because they perceive that such large entities are out of control and answerable to no one. The federal bureaucracy has become the world’s first genuine perpetual motion machine. It’s like a runaway stagecoach in an old Western, its riderless horses racing pell-mell toward a cliff...with all of us, the average citizens, as passengers sitting trembling inside. We expect our political leaders to be the heroes on horseback, cutting off the coach before it reaches the precipice and bringing the horses under control before the whole lot of us go tumbling over the edge.
Americans will no longer consent to ride along placidly; we want to know that there’s somebody in the saddle. We want “accountability.” Consider, for instance, the Contract with America; its specific provisions were popular, but the real kicker was the pledge of “accountability” that I personally added at the very end of the document. It contained a political first, an accountability and enforcement clause: “If we break this contract, throw us out. We mean it.” Never before had a group of elected officials been so bold as to suggest to the voters that they ought to even consider not returning them to office. And there it was, in writing. That pledge of “accountability,” more than any policy detail or ideological argument, is what made possible the Republican takeover of 1994. It’s a lesson that Democrats and Republicans alike would do well to remember.
One Democrat who learned that lesson and rode it to the governor’s mansion in New Jersey is Jon Corzine. He sought to fill the void of a previous governor who had been forced to resign in disgrace because of scandal and mismanagement, and a temporary placeholder who had been roundly criticized for doing nothing to clean up the political mess. Corzine understood early in the campaign that for voters to trust another Democrat, he needed to prove that he would bring a level of integrity back to the office—and he used an explicit pledge of “accountability” to achieve it. Corzine would reiterate his commitment to “strengthen accountability” at every speech and public appearance, stressing that increased “accountability” and “transparency” were essential in restoring the people’s trust in state government. It worked. As angry as voters were, Corzine successfully inoculated himself against Republican attacks that he was just as corrupt and unethical as those who came before him.
On Election Day, people invest their trust in democratic institutions and the people who run them, and they expect and demand a return that is worthy of that investment. “Accountability” is that return.
Even though you’ll hear “accountability” talked about in a political context, it’s not primarily a political term. The American people universally want corporations held “accountable” for their actions as well as their products and how they treat their customers, their employees, and their shareholders. Accountability moved into the corporate lexicon right around the time Enron collapsed.
When it comes to how corporations sell their products, you might think that the word “accountability” represents an unambiguously good thing. Not always. A company that tells its customers that it will “hold ourselves accountable” for the products and/or services it produces is actually likely to get a horrified response from the people who hear that message. It begs the question: “Accountable for what?” It actually implies that something is going to go wrong to justify that accountability. The most subtle suggestion of a need for accountability scares us off. People may demand that companies take responsibility, but they don’t want the companies themselves talking about it. By doing so, a company has already conceded too much...and has begun to confirm the public’s worst fears.
Instead, if you want to profess your “accountability” as a company, try a simple, declarative, strong alternative such as “We deliver.” It says you provide what you promise, and it does not allude to the times when you don’t.
5. “Results” and the “Can-Do Spirit”
We Americans are a practical people. We want to understand the bottom line. Theory, abstractions, good intentions—all these are well and good, but in the final analysis, we want to know how many dollar bills we’re going to have to peel out of our wallets, whether the on/off button is going to work when we push it, and whether we got a fair shake overall. When we buy something, we want to know that it’s going to provide a tangible benefit—something that we can see, hear, feel, or otherwise quantify. We have little patience for “ifs,” “ands,” “buts,” or excuses. Forget about nuances, niceties, or shades of gray. We don’t care about the process. We care about “results.”*
In the realms of our personal, family and spiritual lives, we may believe nice ideas such as that “the journey is more important than the destination,” but don’t dream of trying to tell that to one of your customers. When we’re shelling out our hard-earned money, we become single-minded, ruthless, and uncompromising.
A perfect example of where “results” and “can-do” spirit matter is in the fitness industry. In today’s world of fad diets and high obesity rates, Americans are looking for realistic options to get in shape and see results. “Results, The Gym,” a Washington, D.C.–based fitness center, has embraced the idea of a results-oriented business so much that it named the company after the concept that guides it. It was started in 1994 as a personal training service called “Training for Results,” and its current motto, “Reach your goals, get results,” serves as both a motivator and a potential solution for consumers looking to get fit. This exemplifies the bottom line of what potential customers are looking for, and what they expect out of a gym.
As in corporate communications, political messages should emphasize bottom-line “results,” not process. Americans care where a politician ends up much more than where he or she began, and what he or she does more than what he or she says. They will support policies that produce tangible, concrete, quantifiable benefits. Like Vince Lombardi, we don’t believe winning is the most important thing—it’s the only thing. When it comes to evaluating the performance of Washington politicians, there’s no more room for excuses. We don’t want to hear about the difficulties of the markup process or the intricacies of the Rules Committee. The procedural details are irrelevant. Just “get it done” (the best articulation of “results”) or we’ll find someone who will. The “Do-Nothing Congress” of 1948 had its reasons for resisting Harry Truman’s program, but they’ve been forgotten by history; we remember only Truman’s denunciation of it. On the eve of the Civil War, President Buchanan faced staggering difficulties and mind-numbing complications—but historians remember only the “results” of his presidency and deem him a failure, pure and simple. We Americans are interested in serving no theory, advancing no agenda—we just want our leaders to do what works, we want them to get it done—and we know they can succeed if they put in the effort.
If results are the goal, the “can-do spirit” is the effort. Early in 2006 we asked 1,000 adults what phrase best described what Americans were all about. Finishing first: the “can-do spirit” (32 percent), followed by “strong and tough” (22 percent) and “self-reliant” (14 percent). It’s one reason why we root for the underdog and appreciate the human interest stories of people who have triumphed over great adversity and eventually succeed after years of failure. A “can-do” attitude is uncomplaining, stoic, no-nonsense—all powerful but sadly old-fashioned virtues most often associated with the Greatest Generation. Even though you don’t hear the words spoken too often, the term is due for a revival.
For the last seventy-five years, the cinema has been the most common source of can-do pop culture. For much of their careers, Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda played characters that were down and out but struggled and eventually succeeded against tremendous odds and tough opponents. Some of the most successful films of the past decade were specifically fashioned around the can-do culture, from the animated blockbuster Finding Nemo about a clownfish in search of his father, to Tom Hanks in the Academy Award–winning Castaway, which tells a powerful story about the will to survive.
“Innovation” immediately calls to mind pictures of the future. It’s the corporate technology version of “imagine,” evoking 300 million different, individual definitions. “Innovation” leads to products that are smaller or lighter or faster or cheaper...or bigger, more resilient, stronger, longer lasting. It’s the road that leads to a laptop battery that will last for twenty-four hours—without causing your keyboard to melt or the fan to whirr so loudly that it distracts you from your work. “Innovation” means tourist flights that escape the Earth’s orbit and nanotechnology marvels so small that they strain the ability of our comprehension.
Describing your company and products as “innovative” is far better than saying they’re “new and improved.” “Innovative,” on the other hand, is bold and forward-looking, progressive (in a nonpolitical sense), confident, and energetic. It’s a natural continuation and elaboration of the pioneer spirit that built this country. “Innovation” is also entrepreneurial and self-reliant; it suggests initiative, ingenuity, and even passion.
“Innovation” can also be used as a call to action. General Electric, citing a study that stated only 9 percent of college students felt the United States was doing enough to foster innovation among young people, launched an “Innovation Tour” in 2003. This tour visited campuses across the country, addressing “college students’ concerns, feelings, and aspirations relating to innovation and imagination.” By actively seeking youth input—often the engine of innovation—GE has been in a better position to hire the next generation of scientists, engineers, technicians, and the other occupations that will drive the twenty-first-century economy.
In our language work for the manufacturing industry, the only other word that is as valued by the American people as “innovation” is “technology.” And with everything becoming more technological, the awareness of technology itself will eventually disappear even as our acceptance and appreciation for what it does in our lives increases—including, among many other outcomes, fostering innovation itself.
7. “Renew, Revitalize, Rejuvenate, Restore, Rekindle, Reinvent”
These are the so-called “re” words, and they are incredibly powerful because they take the best elements or ideas from the past and apply them to the present and the future. “Nostalgia” alone has a limited appeal. “Retro” may fascinate, but it doesn’t necessarily move stuff off the shelves. Younger customers want to buy from companies that are new and fresh and hip. Chances are, a company launching a retro ad campaign is a company whose well of new ideas has run dry.
Instead, take the old and make it new again by putting a fresh spin on it with one or multiple “re” words. To “renew” is to take an important product or corporate commitment and reassert it. To “revitalize” is to take something that is deteriorating and inject new life into it. To “rejuvenate” is to take something old and bring it up-to-date with a more youthful feel. To “restore” is to take something old and return it to its original luster. To “rekindle” is to inject emotion or passion into something tired and staid.
Olay Products, a cosmetics company, is in the business of breathing new life and a sense of restoration into the self-image of its customers. As part of their “Age Defying Series,” Olay offers “renewal creams and lotions” and “revitalizing eye gels.” While not directly guaranteeing it, Olay understands that its consumers are looking for the fountain of youth. Words such as “restore” and “rejuvenate” offer customers a chance to reach back in time to when they had smoother skin and younger-looking eyes.
So mix and match the words and definitions. Apply them liberally. The “re” words imply action, movement, progress, and improvement—all essential attributes in the twenty-first-century economy. “You can’t stay who you are,” says Steve Wynn, who revitalized Vegas with his Mirage Resort in 1989, rejuvenated Vegas with his youth-themed Treasure Island in 1993, reinvented Vegas with his world-renowned luxurious Bellagio resort in 1998, and renewed his position as the great creator of lavish resorts with Wynn Las Vegas in 2005. “If you don’t reinvent, you die.”
As in corporate communications, the “re-” words should be applied to politics as well. Better to have programs and policies grounded in tradition, or experience, than launch something that’s brand-new. The new Medicare prescription drug program is a case in point. Seniors have been reluctant to enroll in it, unsure about the new rules, resistant to change—this despite the fact that they’re unsatisfied with the status quo. The most effective way of saying “new and improved” from a political standpoint is to employ one of the “re-” words.
THE “RE” WORDS THAT DEFINE RESPONSIBILITY
RENEW our commitment to hardworking American taxpayers;
REDESIGN and REFORM government programs and services;
REVITALIZE the economy;
REBUILD confidence in local solutions;
RESTORE American faith in the values and principles of accountability, responsibility, and common sense.
8. “Efficient” and “Efficiency”
To Americans, the word “efficiency” simply means getting more for less—and in the bargain-hungry environment we live in, efficiency is a significant product advantage. “Efficient” and “efficiency” also have a positive intellectual tone, suggesting the wise use of energy, resources, and so on.
By comparison, “conserve” and “conservation,” the terminology used until now to describe automobile emissions, gas usage, and the interaction between products and the environment, sound austere. To Americans, “conservation” implies paying more to get less, and hints that it may require some sort of onerous effort as well. It also has a backward connotation. But “efficiency” is more about innovation and technology—a twenty-first-century approach to twenty-first-century challenges.
One major challenge facing Americans in the twenty-first century is that of rising oil prices. For car companies, being able to tout your product as “fuel-efficient” means consumers save money in the long run, a point that is easy to communicate and useful in motivating customers. By the time you read this book, Toyota will be selling more cars than any other manufacturer in the world, and they are surging in popularity because of their Prius hybrid model and its efficient use of gas. Honda has taken advantage of the current oil climate and offers a number of hybrid vehicles that make it the “overall fuel efficiency leader in America.” While the fact that Honda’s hybrid vehicles conserve fuel is important, the use of the word efficiency indicates the innovative way in which this new technology is conserving fuel. This language also appeals to an audience looking to be at the forefront of a technological revolution, seeking to be a part of a movement, as well as part of a solution to a serious political (and ecological) problem.
9. “The Right to...”
Going all the way back to the nation’s founding, Americans have always been committed to the concept of “rights.” Limiting the powers of the federal government wasn’t enough; the Founding Fathers demanded that our rights be enumerated formally in the Bill of Rights. And the proliferation of supposed new rights has only accelerated in recent decades. People now argue that there is a right to a job, to a “livable” minimum wage, to health care, to privacy, to abortion, to choice in education, and on and on. Most of those “rights” are promulgated by the political left, though those on the right have their “rights” as well. Presenting a political position within the context of “rights” is therefore a difficult but winning approach. “Rights,” as opposed to mere policy preferences, are thought to be inalienable. They don’t come from us, and no one is allowed to take them away—for any reason. They cannot be abridged, no matter what. And that’s what makes the language so powerful.
When an elected official tells you that you have the “right” to health care, rather than just that you should have it, he or she is adding intensity to the message. When something is a “right,” it’s not just nice or reasonable or beneficial—it becomes essential.
There’s another nuance to the concept of “rights” that is equally important. The principle gives people a choice whether or not they’ll actually exercise the “right.” A parent may not choose to pull his or her child out of the local public school in favor of a better one across town, but having the “right”—and therefore the control and the power—to choose the school is important in and of itself. Wanting the “right” to choose your doctor, hospital, and health care plan and actually taking the time and making the effort to do so are two different propositions. It’s why Americans love the language and the concept of the “Patient’s Bill of Rights” health care legislation, even though they don’t like the cost and the bureaucracy. But with the “right to” lexicon, that decision is in the hands of the voters, not the government.
Let me begin this discussion with the single dumbest linguistic creation of the last half century: the phrase “managed care.” Think about it. When you’re sick or in pain, do you really want your care “managed”? When an operation, procedure, or medication is required to save your life, do you really want some accountant applying a financial equation to your personal situation? The originator of the term “managed care” should be thrown in jail for linguistic malpractice—and that word needs to be dropped from the health care lexicon forever.
Here’s the replacement. The term “patient-centered” obviously has a limited application, but it is included here because that application is so essential to an industry that is expanding on a daily basis. “Patient-centered” describes what most people want out of their health care. “Quality,” “affordability,” and “choice” are all important aspects of “patient-centered”-ness, but it is the most effective umbrella term for anything related to medicine involving human beings.
The reason why the phrase “patient-centered” resonates so strongly is that it draws an unspoken contrast with “dollar”-centered and “insurance”-centered medicine. When we’re sick, or when a family member is hurting, the last thing we want the health care provider to be concerned with is dollars and cents. All we want is to alleviate the pain and suffering and make us or our loved ones better. We want the focus to be squarely on us and on the substance of our care, not on procedural matters such as insurance copayments and plan parameters.
However, when talking about one of the biggest names in health care, Kaiser Permanente, some might not think of a company with a truly personal touch that cares about each customer. Yet one glance at their Web site would lead you to think differently. Under the banner welcoming the visitor to the site, simple text asking consumers to “please tell us who you are” is displayed. Upon digging deeper into the site, one is asked questions about the kind of coverage one is looking for, resulting in a listing of plans that best suit the customer. The language is always personal, human, and reassuring, including their recent tagline, “Live Long and Thrive.”
In a field often considered impersonal and distant as health care, Kaiser Permanente’s Web site approach evokes memories of the personal touch of stethoscope-wielding doctors making house calls and the familiarity of the neighborhood pharmacy.
President Clinton came up with one of the most important linguistic innovations of the 1990s when he began to use the term “investment” instead of “spending.” “Spending” suggests waste. “Investment” suggests the responsible handling of resources. A dollar “spent” is a dollar you’ll never see again. A dollar “invested” is a dollar that comes back to you many times over. “Spending” is morally neutral—it could be good or bad, responsible or wasteful. “Investment” is by definition reasonable and responsible. “Investment” is also by definition forward-looking, whereas “spending” implies instant gratification.
Americans understand how important saving and investing are to their own personal finances—even if they don’t always (or ever) act on that understanding—and they react favorably toward the application of these principles to politics. You can get an extra 10 percent bump in support for a project or program if you talk about “investing” rather than “spending.”
Just as President Clinton used the word “investment” over “spending” to defuse the perception of being a “big-spending liberal,” President Bush attempted to use different labels to defuse another hot-button issue—Social Security—by changing the definition of his reform from “privatized accounts” to “personal investment.”
A CBS/New York Times poll taken in June of 2005 illustrated the power of simple word choice. One question, “Do you approve or disapprove of the way George W. Bush is handling Social Security?” yielded only a 25 percent approval rating. But when the same sample in the same questionnaire was asked, “Do you think allowing individuals to invest a portion of their Social Security taxes on their own is a good idea or a bad idea?” almost double (45 percent) thought it was a good idea. The president’s public approval efforts still fell far short, but he set a more favorable context for the next reform attempt.
“Investment” is more than just a political word, however. Companies that invest in technology, invest in their community, invest in job training, or invest in the future will earn a higher level of appreciation. Whether in brand-name pharmaceutical medications or consumer electronics, emerging technologies or online retailers, products and services that promote the significant investments of time or money in their creation can command a price premium. Even on a personal level, “investing in your future” is one of the strongest motivations for making long-term purchases. Buying is for now. Investing is forever.
12. “Casual Elegance”
Like “patient-centered,” “casual elegance” is another term with an industry-specific application. It’s the expression that best defines what Americans want when they travel, more than any other attribute. The United States in the twenty-first century is a casual country—in how we address one another by our first names, in our attitudes, our clothing, and in our “lifestyle.” There was a time when no man would dream of getting on an airplane without wearing a coat and tie. That country no longer exists. Today you’re lucky if the guy next to you in seat 21B showered this week. And it’s “elegance” we want, rather than “sophistication.” We like our pleasures simple. “Casual elegance” is aspirational; it appeals to our imaginations, our idealized best selves.
This applies to all components of the hospitality industry. “Clean and comfortable,” which is what some hotel chains sell, is good, but “casual elegance” is even better. A relaxed dining environment is what some restaurants promote, but what people want even more is a sense of “casual elegance.”
One brand often associated with casual elegance is Ralph Lauren. Using descriptive words like “timeless” and “classic,” every Ralph Lauren ad for all of its brands say “relaxation.” This pleasant imagery is meant to transport the consumer to a simpler place in time, where he or she can escape the drudgeries of the daily grind and relax undisturbed; all because the consumer chose the right fabric.
Being “independent” is more of a corporate communication effort than a product pitch. It means having no constricting ties, no conflicts of interest, nothing to hide. A company that presents itself as “independent” is seen as honest, candid, and responsive to the people it serves. That’s one reason why “independent insurance agents” tests better than any individual insurance company—the lack of even a hint of bias.
Americans want unique experiences. They want their lives to be tailored to them (once again we see the relevance of “imagination” and “lifestyle”). Because we identify so closely with the products we use, because they are often such a crucial element of our own self-images, we don’t want them to be the same as everybody else’s. Everybody’s iPod has its own, individual playlist. Everybody’s TiVo has a personalized schedule of TV shows. Everyone’s cell phone now has its own ring—a must for those under twenty-five. This “independence” and individuality greatly affects how we think about brands and corporations of all kinds. Demonstrate a level of “independence” in what you say, what you sell, and what you do, and consumers will “independently” reward you. An example of “independence” is the successful ad campaign for Tommy Hilfiger’s fragrance, Tommy Girl. The slogan, “A Declaration of Independence,” suggests that when a woman wears this perfume, she makes it her own. Although anyone can wear the perfume, once she puts it on, it is hers and hers alone.
Politically, our country wasn’t born with a Declaration of Rights. We didn’t start out with a Declaration of Virtue. It wasn’t a Declaration of Justice that fired up the imagination of the “new world” in Philadelphia. Nor was it a Declaration of Equality. America’s founding fathers certainly believed in all of these principles and hoped to see them embodied in the nascent nation. But they began this great experiment of ours by declaring “independence”—and that anti-authoritarian assertion remains the cardinal American impulse.
“Independence” expresses an attitude as much as it does an idea—“Don’t tread on me”(also the motto of the United States Marine Corps) ...“Live and let live”...“Smile when you say that, pilgrim”...“Independence” includes individuality and self-sufficiency. It means we don’t want to be tied down like Gulliver by the Lilliputians. It tells the world (often to the world’s chagrin) that we Americans will stand on our own two feet and make our own way whether they like it or not.
In contemporary political terms, “independence” suggests no ties, no obligations, no conflicts of interest. “Independent” politicians are no politicians at all—they are transformed into leaders, statesmen. They are candid, fearless, bound only by honor, principle, and the strictures of their own conscience. The independent man or woman is free of all institutional or political encumbrances. The opposite of “independence” is “partisanship”—and today it is truly one of the dirtiest words in American politics. We may have divided ourselves into red states and blue states, but partisan identification is down across the country, and the old days of pulling a single lever and voting the party line are long past. Given the option, almost as many Americans self-identify as independents than as either as Democrats or Republicans. More voters are registering their party as “Decline to State” than ever before in American history. Bickering politicians give everyone a splitting headache—and the solution is right there before us: the “independent,” maverick politician.
We respect independent politicians because they say what they mean and mean what they say. They buck the party’s establishment and its conventional wisdom (to the applause of the media who follows) and go their own way, preferring the road less traveled. We all know the most prominent examples of the “independent” leader: Senator John McCain...Mayor Rudy Giuliani...Senator Joseph Lieberman...Mayor Mike Bloomberg...the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan...Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger...and Ross Perot, just to name a few. It’s probably no coincidence that most of these mavericks are political centrists rather than inhabitants of the ideological wings of their parties; nevertheless, their independent reputations have as much to do with style and attributes as they do with philosophy. Anyone who appears to put principles, common sense, and results over party loyalty and a rigid agenda can develop a reputation of “independence.” If you want to truly connect with the American public, it’s time to make your own, personal declaration of “independence.”
14. “Peace of Mind”
“Peace of mind” will eventually supplant “security” as a primary political value. It’s a kinder, gentler, softer expression of “security” that is less politicized, more embracing and all-encompassing.
“Security” has a somewhat limited, very specific meaning that is often scary and militant. It is what employees want most in their jobs, but peace of mind wins every other comparison. “Peace of mind,” described by Franklin Roosevelt as “freedom from fear,” implies the same result, but the tone is far different—and more appealing, especially to women, because it is the positive side of a very negative concern. “Security” suggests fences, barbed wire, electronic surveillance, burglar alarms, neighborhood watch programs, and long lines at airport screening. “Security” demands from us vigilance in order to prevent something bad. “Peace of mind,” by contrast, accentuates the positive. It dwells on a favorable result rather than the disturbing struggle to get there. “Peace of mind” is a destination, like the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown; “security” is the six-hour car ride you have to endure to get there.
Americans have enough drama in their daily lives—we don’t need our politicians to exacerbate it. Most of us just want to be left alone and live a quiet life. “Peace of mind” perfectly encapsulates that disposition.
The reason “certified” has begun to enter the lexicon is because trust and confidence in people and promises has evaded. It’s not just used-car salesmen that we don’t believe anymore. We want and need ironclad agreements that what we buy won’t fail us months or even days after our purchase. A warranty only addresses the future of the product. “Certification” is an official (usually written) guarantee that what you see is in fact what you get, and that it upholds a higher level of quality and/or reliability. “Certification” also implies a specific process of review was followed by a trained professional. Any Tom, Dick, or Harry can offer a guarantee. “Certification” suggests something more thorough and serious.
The most common use of “certified” or “certification” is in the used-car industry, or, as some brands like to call themselves, “certified pre-owned vehicles.” If you still don’t think word choice matters, ask yourself which would you rather own, a used car or a certified pre-owned vehicle? The language of certification is also being used in grocery stores to emphasize the quality of meat, milk, and other perishable items. Within the next half decade, expect dozens of products and industries to apply the “certified” label.
Corporations are also finding a value to certification. If you examine the annual reports of the Fortune 500 companies, you’ll find a number of them emphasize the “certification” of their year-end financial report in an effort to convince shareholders that they can trust what they read. We also know from recent market research that corporate officers themselves expect “certification” from their accounting firms because of legal ramifications.
The term “all-American” and the overt appeal to American pride (rather than patriotism) is not universally appreciated, but those who share the sentiment are absolutely affected by it. It certainly works with older consumers who still see America through red-white-and-blue-colored glasses, particularly when the appeal is forward-looking and values-oriented, such as a reference to the “American Dream.”
Yet America is more than a flag flying over a courthouse, or an apple pie cooling near an open window. America is all about progress and innovation, two ways in which All American, the third largest distributor of semiconductors and a top-ten supplier of electronic components, has used its patriotic image to outgrow the competition and become an industry leader. While most consumers won’t equate capacitors and inducing cables with the “American Dream,” the company’s name transcends the complexity of the products and instead sells an image that is easy to convey and understand.
However, younger consumers are less affected by an overt American appeal, both because they are more skeptical about their country and because they are more likely to be ethnically diverse. My research for a number of Fortune 500 companies has revealed a greater disapproval toward America among African-Americans and some Latinos, and that mind-set will certainly influence their buying habits.
It’s long past time to return the word “prosperity” to our political lexicon. It was once a prominent part of public debate, in the 1920s and 1930s, but it slipped into obscurity when prosperity fell out of existence for millions of Americans after the Great Depression began in 1929. It does still mean something to people today, and it’s overdue for a revival (yet another “re” word).
In just ten letters, “prosperity” encompasses the idea of more jobs, better careers, employment security, more take-home pay, a stronger economy, and expanded opportunity. In fact, “prosperity” is most often described by Americans as the economic component of “opportunity.” But “prosperity” doesn’t connote only wealth; it suggests a sense of overall financial well-being and success (with a hint of “peace of mind”). You probably wouldn’t describe a total loser who wins the lottery as “prosperous.” You’d reserve it for the neighbor who built up his own small business from scratch, the accountant down the block who just made partner, or your lawyer brother-in-law who just won a large financial settlement for his client. “Prosperity,” in other words, has a real-life aspect to it. It’s earned. An elected official who says he’s seeking to promote prosperity is also, by implication, promoting the good life earned the old-fashioned way—through hard work.
The United States remains one of the most religious nations on Earth. Unlike post-Christian Europe, unlike the mostly secular remainder of the Western world, religious faith still has relevance to an overwhelming majority of Americans. If you’re an American politician, being religious is not something to run away from or apologize for.
Nevertheless, when appealing to a broad audience (as opposed to a particular niche), evocations of “spirituality” are more inclusive and therefore more politically effective than are generic references to “religion,” specific denominations, or even “faith.” Americans reward politicians who talk respectfully but candidly about their core beliefs and who seem grounded and morally centered; we are perfectly comfortable with leaders whose ethics and worldview come from a religious tradition. But the best way to explain our moral compass is by using the broadest, most generally applicable terms possible. Talking about your “spirituality” implies an inherent morality and seriousness. Going into detail about your particular denomination, on the other hand, will turn off at least some segment of the population.
19. “Financial Security”
“Financial freedom” used to be one of Americans’ top values and the number one definition of the American Dream. But that was before the dot-com bubble burst, the stock market plummeted, and the September 11 attacks occurred.
Alas, in our new century, “financial freedom” has dropped to the middle of the priority list. In the terrifying, unstable world we live in today, “financial security” is now the higher priority. Eventually there will come a time when Americans’ confidence returns, when we not only want “financial security” but also aspire to “financial freedom.” Until then, however, people will continue to be cautious about radical changes—such as Social Security reform, for example—and jealously protective of what they already have. Better, then, to sell tax reform or other policy changes as “enhancements of financial security” than as pathways to financial freedom. Sadly, financial freedom is more than most of us are hoping for at the moment. Financial security is still attainable, we hope.
20. A “Balanced Approach”
Just as professing your independence from partisanship and ideology will win you credibility points with the public (as long as you also appear to practice this philosophy), so too will arguing for a “balanced approach” to our nation’s problems. People understand that America is faced with multiple, competing priorities. They know it’s a juggling act to address numerous issues at the same time. All they ask is that you balance these conflicting needs in a responsible and thoughtful manner.
A “balanced approach” refers not only to where you come down on the ideological spectrum for a given political question, but also to the overall pace of political change you endorse. For us, one revolution and one civil war was enough. Temperamentally at least, most of us are quite conservative. Unlike the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and the Chinese Revolution, the American Revolution was fundamentally conservative in character. We went to war reluctantly, and only in the interests of preserving the ancient British liberties and rights we felt had been wrongly taken from us.
Americans still take this incremental, cautious approach to political change, and most of us still have an inherent, instinctive dislike of radicalism of all stripes. When Republicans took over the Congress in 1995, they made an immediate and colossal mistake by calling it a “revolution.” Newt Gingrich spoke in near-messianic terms about saving American civilization—and regardless of any valid substantive points he made, his demeanor and grandiosity made a lot of people jittery. He seemed to want to move too quickly, to do too much. He and others like him would have had more success had they emphasized a “balanced approach,” about their desire to enact necessary reforms while still respecting the other side’s point of view, about doing things in a new way without throwing overboard all the vestiges of a system that had been developed over 200 years.
21. “A Culture of...”
I hate ending the twenty-one words of the future with this term but it is rapidly increasing in use and has the unfortunate potential to be the most divisive and do the most damage to the civility of politics in these early years of the twenty-first century. Whenever you hear a politician begin a phrase with “a culture of...” rest assured it is meant as a slam.
The word culture used to apply to entire societies, even empires. More and more, however, it has come to be used in a micro sense, to describe every imaginable subculture (and lend to it the dignity of culture as a whole). So today we have the “culture of” hate alongside the “culture of” fear, a “culture of” paintball, the “culture of”corruption, the “culture of” destruction, the “culture of” East Los Angeles, and the “culture of” the Upper East Side. When the U.S. envoy to the United Nations, Ambassador John Bolton, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on May 25, 2006, that the U.N. was hopelessly tied to a “culture of inaction,” it was only the most recent addition to this growing litany. There are ethnic cultures and religious cultures, political cultures and athletic cultures. The fundamental insight to take from this proliferation of identity groups is that there is no longer any single American culture that unites us all, rich and poor, young and old, white and black (and Latino and Asian), Republicans and Democrats. Regardless of whether you think this balkanization of America is a good thing or whether you deplore it, it is the new reality.
By defining an issue or a cluster of issues as part of a metaphorical “culture,” you can lend it new weight and seriousness. If you are a Democrat, it’s not a question of a few ethical lapses on the part of a few individual GOP congressmen—they personify a “culture of corruption.” The problem is bigger than any one individual or any single incident. If you’re a conservative Republican, you’re not just pro-life on abortion or opposed to euthanasia—you support a “culture of life.” “Social” issues have been supplanted by “cultural” issues, which sound less threatening and judgmental.
In the end, how these words are used and delivered is almost as important as the words themselves. This may pain academics, journalists, and some readers, but the fact is, style is almost as important as substance. John McCain is a classic case of language personifying the man and the man personifying the language. In his presidential campaigns, McCain called his bus and his campaign the “Straight Talk Express”—and he would use the phrase early in his speeches as a way to set himself and his rhetoric apart from those of his opponents. He was onto something big. “Straight talk” is a powerful concept. It’s exactly what Americans want from their political leaders—and what they believe is sorely lacking in most of them. By christening his bus the “Straight Talk Express” and then, incredibly, getting the media to refer to it by that name repeatedly and uncritically, McCain scored a major communications coup.
But John McCain was not the first person to use the phrase “Straight Talk.” When I was a student at the University of Pennsylvania back in 1983, I wrote a newspaper column for the Daily Pennsylvanian called “Straight Talk.” As an undergraduate, I was already fascinated by words, and I thought “straight talk” was the most explicit way to communicate the notion of matter-of-fact language. A decade later, in several presentations to Senate Republicans just before and just after the 1996 presidential elections, I explicitly advocated that senators pick up on the concept of “straight talk.” I was somewhat amused to see Senator McCain start using the phrase a year later. I can’t be sure whether he got the idea from me—maybe we’re just wired the same way. But whatever its origins, “straight talk” is a political winner.
To be successful with the words of the twenty-first century, you will have to become comfortable with it. You have to live the words; they have to become you. In the immortal words of Chevy Chase’s character in the movie Caddyshack: “Be the ball, Danny.” It’s just that sort of a Zen approach that’s required. As Roger Ailes, the greatest media guru of the twentieth century, so accurately put it: “You are the message.”*There is a subculture in America that does in fact care about process. They are the people who pay extra for organic groceries from Whole Foods and pay more for their Prius because they care about the environment. But they are still a very small minority.
VERIZON BUSINESS: THE PERFECT AD COPY FOR THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY
“What if you attached an innovative wing structure to some bicycle machinery and launched it from a sand dune? (Black-and-white visuals of early airplane flights)
What if you created a thin piece of plastic that could easily be used just like money—anywhere in the world? (Artistically colorized visuals of money morphing into credit cards)
Suppose we created an IP network so far-reaching and expansive, it can make doing business more efficient around the globe. (Visuals of postmodern buildings interspersed with people working at computers)
Suppose we put your global business network in the hands of world-class professionals. People who know it end-to-end. (Visuals of multi-ethnic business professionals with confident appearances)
Verizon has joined with MCI to form Verizon Business, where global capability meets personal accountability—to make your business more successful—and your life a little easier. (A father showing his young daughter pictures of herself on his computer)
Introducing Verizon Business.
In a single sixty-second spot, Verizon Business managed to incorporate three of the words in this chapter: innovative, efficient, and accountability. These are the words that will sell products and win votes. They will redefine perceptions that need changing and confirm existing ideas that need reinforcing. I have used these words to help more than two dozen Fortune 500 companies grow and thrive, and to aid more than two hundred elected officials in winning or keeping their jobs. These are words that work and that will continue to work. They are the language of America.
Labels: Words That Work