In a recent piece about content marketing trends for 2017, Joe Pulizzi – the self-styled poster-boy of the content marketing movement – makes the point that ‘writing still counts, perhaps more than ever.'
He adds: ‘More than not, marketers are abuzz about social media and video without comprehending that most of our communication is still text and story-based. And frankly, most marketers are really bad at writing.’
Writing well is often about vigilance. As marketers, one easy way to improve our writing is to try to weed out some of the boilerplated guff and clichéd collateralese that can sneak its way back into our copy when our backs are turned. (I’m sure you’ll find some here.)
So, here’s a dirty near-score of marketing phrases that refuse to die - with some extra ammunition to help you banish them once and for all…
'We understand that x'
As in, ‘we understand that getting a mortgage for the first time can be a daunting experience’. Or ‘we understand that your pet is important to you’. Or ‘we understand that your time is valuable’.
When you think about it, is there anything good you can say about this time-honoured marketing construction? It comes over as redundant, patronising, questionable (how would you know how much I care for my pet?) or bland – often all of these at once.
The fix: You can often remove this phrase completely and immediately improve the sentence. But if you really want to make a point about empathy, find a way to show or prove that you understand x, not just tell it. For instance, through proof points (how many first time-mortgage applicants you've helped), testimonial quotes, or other credible content that showcases your experience.
‘Tailored to your specific/individual requirements/your unique circumstances...’
...And the usual messages about bespoke/customised solutions. These time-battered phrases promise much but deliver little, and tend to fall apart on closer inspection.
There’s the tautology – why would you tailor things to my non-specific requirements? There’s the lazy promise – is your ‘solution’ really as unique as my circumstances? How do you know my circumstances are unique, come to that? (They aren’t always.) Above all, there is the weary sense that this is just what you say to everyone... which delivers exactly the cookie-cutter effect you were trying to avoid.
The fix: Try to find something fresh to say. Be specific. Demonstrate that you really do ‘bespoke’ your ‘solutions’ (without using either of these words). Or, if you don’t really, maybe you don’t need to pretend that you do?
‘X will soon be upon us’ (and other tired seasonal hooks)
As in, ‘winter will soon be upon us and car safety is essential to avoid emergency situations’ (so you need our executive winter car kit). Or ‘the picnic season will soon be upon us so why not stock up on some al fresco essentials?’ (which we sell, by the way). Or ‘the festive season will soon be upon us, but don’t worry, we’ve got Christmas all wrapped up’.
That last one manages to combine two seasonal clichés in one, of course: ‘all wrapped up’ is for my money right up there with ‘new year, new you’ and the assumption that people (especially men) do nothing but DIY on bank holidays.
Does it matter? Aren’t these messages just conventions that we expect at certain times of the year? Well, they often feel very tired, and that can’t be good for our brand or our sales prospects. Plus, endless repetition of the same phrases tends to make readers blind/deaf to their meaning (a phenomenon that can affect the writers of such marketing copy too).
The fix: Say something else. Address the season in an unexpected way, or don't make reference to it at all. If you have a special offer, a new range, or a specific piece of advice to talk about, cut straight to it.
On the other hand, if you have an unexpected event coming up, the use of the mundane cliché actually adds to the impact:
‘Looking for/to do x?’ ‘Need x for your y?’
As in: ‘Looking to review your postage franking solution in 2017?’ Or ‘Looking for a new flooring solution for your home?’ Or ‘Looking to drive business growth?’ Or ‘Need a new UK hospitality purchase decision-maker database provider?’
You get this sort of approach in coldish emails a lot. What they tend to have in common is an absence of sizzle, or benefit, or USP. This phrase simply states what’s on offer and asks you if you want it - the odds are you don't. Or else it states the bleeding obvious - what business isn’t interested in growth?
Sometimes this may be a sensible way of qualifying people out. If I have no earthly need of a new UK hospitality purchase decision-maker database, no amount of fancy copy can probably change this. But then again, if there is a chance I might be interested, why would I go for the provider who can’t be bothered to do more than list what they do?
What this approach also overlooks is that people often don’t know what they want or need, and it’s the job of the marketing copy to get them feeling otherwise.
The fix: Be creative. Think about why someone might care about what you have to offer. Think about scenarios and use cases they might relate to. Tell us stories of other people who’ve benefited from your product or service. Anything but this really.
‘Today’s fast-moving world’
As in, ‘In today's fast-moving world, any business that fails to keep up with the latest technological trends and developments will be swiftly left behind.’ Or ‘In today’s fast-moving world, the ability to constantly pivot and see oneself in relation to the larger ecosystem is essential in order to remain relevant.’
A Google search for ‘today’s fast-moving world’ yields 61,100 results. It’s the sort of phrase that’s especially favoured by consultancies, software providers and personal development outfits. It's a sort of glib shorthand for new gadgets, social media, those disruptive brands, that Donald Trump, drones, AI, uncertain futures, widespread anxiety...
Because everyone uses the same phrase, by joining in you show no sign of having any special insight to bring to bear on this complexity - so we'll just assume that you can’t really get your head round it either. Or maybe you can’t be bothered to say anything more meaningful because the world will probably change again, making your comments obsolete before you’ve even published them. That’s today’s fast-moving world for you.
The fix: Avoid. Be specific instead. Choose a specific topic or issue that your users and prospects might relate to, and that you have something interesting to say about.
'Today, more than ever…'
As in, ‘Today more than ever, you need an effective way to help support a healthy balance of microbes in your gut’ (from a provider of probiotic supplements). Or ‘Today, more than ever, we continue to be an industry leader in innovation’ (tool maker). Or ‘Today more than ever before, our pets have become part of the family […] without asking for anything in return’ (pet urns supplier).
Copywriters often invoke this breathless phrase to signal that the next thought is really important. It has to be, because it’s usually the reason they want you to invest in their product or service. They often don’t have anything of sufficient weight to insert here, and so it all rings a bit hollow. ‘Today, more than ever, I need you to buy my product.’
The fix: Go for a proof point that’s provable and specific, rather than a general statement that’s as sweeping as it is unconvincing. Think of a topical reference, or a story people will be familiar with, to illustrate your point.
‘State of the art’
As in, ‘state-of-the-art conference facilities’, ‘state-of-the-art accounting software’, or (even) ‘state-of-the-art pooper scooper’. I’m sure I’ve used this one in my time, but now that I look at in the 'cold light of day', I’m not sure I want to any more.
Pretty much everyone claims that what they do or sell is ‘state of the art’. This makes the claim meaningless. Another problem is that the phrase is basically a fancy synonym for ‘up to the minute’ or ‘latest’. So you’re just claiming that your offering isn’t out of date (duh).
The fix: Back to specifics, to showing not telling. Focus on one or a few aspects that genuinely illustrate your state-of-the-artness.
‘Solutions’, ‘global solutions’, ‘global solutions provider’
As in ‘UK cloud solutions provider’, ‘hotel bookings solutions provider’ or ‘business event solutions provider’. The word ‘solutions’ has been derided so often that satirical magazine Private Eye even ran a regular column in which readers sent in their worst examples of the phrase in action. Someone found a description of cardboard boxes as ‘Christmas Ornament Storage Solutions’. Then there was ‘Lockwoods Mushy Pea Fritters: the frozen versatile meal solution.’
But though civilians laughed at the phrase and moved on, in marketing – and especially in B2B and IT – it has refused to die. Google searches show it’s still everywhere. Yet it adds little in terms of meaning or impact.
The fix: Try saying the same thing without using the words ‘solution’ and ‘provider’. It’ll probably read better.
Here for your consideration are a few more pet hates from my colleagues, with their comments...
‘We’ve teamed up with…’
You’re not a superhero!
‘Meeting the needs of today’s [businesses/global traveller/etc]…’
Bland and meaningless.
‘It’s up to you…’ As in, ‘Choose x widget, or choose y widget – it’s up to you’
Who else would it be up to??
‘Whatever you’re looking for/planning etc, we can help/we’ve got you covered’
Really? Anything? I bet you I can think of something…
‘As a [insert audience], you need to [insert product benefit] and that’s why we now offer [insert product feature]’
Formulaic and unimaginative. This is just the brief served up as the execution.
‘Created by experts’, ‘We're experts in…’ ‘We have the expertise’ etc.
We hate the ‘expert’ tag. If you’re really experts, do you have to say it?
‘[Our event] is fast approaching and it’s going to be the best [thing of its kind] ever'
Don’t believe you.
This is always inaccurate.
‘Something for everyone’
Don't do it. You’ll be ‘ticking every box’ next...
Unless you really do have a price promise.
‘Your dream x (eg your dream kitchen)’
I don’t think I’ve ever dreamt about my ideal kitchen!