February 24 marked the one-year anniversary of the start of the land war in Ukraine.
Each passing day feels personal to me, as my dad is Ukrainian and I’m a refugee from Belarus. Yet as the situation deteriorates, public interest from the USA is starting to wane. Ongoing support is vital to hope: in 2022, public and private sector campaigns were waged for support and many brands donated to the cause, from Gucci to Netflix.
Moving through 2023, American brands can do more to deglamorize and deplore war in general. Without spending a dime, in our work environments, we can start with the very words we use.
My work co-leading a consumer insights company, designed to make research more human makes me something of a language expert. Consider how these two sentences make you feel:
Would you like to work for me?
Would you like to work with me?
The difference of one word can impact how you think and feel in a situation. In marketing, language is everything – it’s the critical tool for negotiations, alignment, direction and delivery of impact. But have you ever paused to think about the etymology of some of our most commonly used nomenclature in adland?
Consider words such as: strategy, target, tactics, blitz-scale and guerilla marketing. Military language proliferates in marketing culture and inadvertently impacts how we think about the people we exist to serve by framing them as enemies. The nature of these words carries impact. They allow aggression to supersede empathy. An “us versus them” mentality is created when we strive for campaigns that “kill it.”
Now is the time to reflect on the culture we want and cease the rhetoric of war in marketing culture. When we remove harsh, rage-filled words from our lexicon, only then can we begin to become truly human-centric brands – with creative ideas that shape a more empathetic society.
Identify the language
Tradition makes us blind to see when it’s time to effect change. But I invite you to question accepted words that carry savage connotations.
“Target” is often used to describe the group of people at which marketing efforts are made for. The military applies the same term to denote an entity to be attacked or destroyed. “War rooms” are omnipresent inside agencies, as wars are being waged outside in our world.
Repeat after me: your audience is not your enemy.
In short, make an active choice to tune into the language you use. Then…
Shift business traditions
It might seem daunting to change accepted nomenclature, but as a society, we’ve done it many times in the past.
It was only in the last decade that it was acceptable to describe some countries as “third world,” connoting less civilized or more primitive societies. Instead, we rallied to change the terminology to “developing world.” Importantly, this is about intent and accuracy versus political correctness or increased sensitivity. It’s an understanding of how powerful language can be to shape our perspectives and ideas.
Connective, alternative words can help to bring to light how much your organization cares about your audience. But it starts with you. Catch yourself. Make the edits. Suggest changes to briefs and policies. Rename the War Room. You don’t need to call out every single instance, but there’s much you can control.
Build a human-centric work culture
A common theme of modern branding and CSR – propagated in press briefs, job postings and executive speeches – is the desire to be “human-centered.” The problem is that human-centricity is often relegated to external communications and branding.
To be a truly human-centric brand, evaluate your workflow from A to Z – including the language that you use internally in your organization. This seemingly small shift can to take you from a war mentality to a peaceful outlook. If we can use more collaborative language internally, we can be more empathetic, creative and strategic. If we halt a combat mentality, we can build more partnerships. And brand experiences will bear more authenticity if they’re not a mask for a combative internal culture.
Zoom out. See that internal actions can de-glamorize war in external ways – and make a difference in our global community. All the peaceful language can add up, the way the language of war has in the past.
At some point in history, it was a common belief that marketing was the civilized version of war, and companies were bitter rivals. Today, in the face of growing global issues such as pollution and climate change, we see we must work together – companies, customers and communities – as a united front. There can be competition, but it’s too dangerous to humanity for us to tolerate the destruction of war, in real-life or our professional lives.
Change your words; change your brand; change your world.
Maria Vorovich is chief strategy officer at GoodQues.