Four overused words that kill good marketing and PR copy

“If Stephen jumped off a cliff, would you jump too?”

When I was at school, that’s how my Mum used to point out that just because everyone else is doing something, it doesn’t make it a good idea.

I hated to hear it, of course… but all these *cough* years later, at least some of Mum’s wisdom must have stuck. Following the crowd feels like the lazy option, and I look around me sometimes and just think… “really?”

Lately, it’s a bit like that with marketing and PR copy.

Everywhere I look, I see the same words, repeated over and over and over… almost without thinking… until they’re virtually meaningless.

And of course, being a contrary old curmudgeon, that’s reason enough for me to swear off them forever (well, there are exceptions, but you get the idea).

If you’re a copywriter, I challenge you. Join me in consigning these four tired, pointless relics to the copy graveyard, where knackered old words go to die (naturally, I’m picturing something a bit like this).

Likewise, if you’re a marketing or PR client, look out for these words. They might mean your agency is getting lazy. There are lots of words available. Are these really the best ones to entice and convince your customers?

(And if you’re a journalist, and someone uses one of these in an interview, just smirk at them. I dare you.)

Four words you’ll see everywhere… except in my copy:

1. Product

Is there a blander, less descriptive word available? Whatever you’re trying to sell me is just a thing you made. It’s a thing in a box. It could be anything. How many better options are there to actually tell the reader something about your product?

Worse, “product” is a word from the seller’s perspective, not the buyer’s… it describes an output, not an acquisition. When was the last time you went out to buy some products?

Last year I had to use “products” in a strapline – there really was no better word available in that context. I know, because I spent every waking moment, desperately trying to find something – anything – else.

Because, as a customer, the only thing the word “product” actually tells me is that you don’t really care.

(NB: exceptions include haircare, where the word has a specific, jargon usage)

2. Solution

To me, solution is a perfectly nice, well-meaning word, with a respectable upbringing, that just fell in with a bad crowd.

One day, some bright spark thought: “We don’t just sell stuff… we actually find out what the customer needs, and adapt our offer to that. We find a solution to their problem. We sell solutions.”

And what’s wrong with that? Nothing whatsoever… at least, until everybody else started saying the same thing. Suddenly “solutions” didn’t mean anything any more.

I mean, seriously, have you seen the Vicks slogan?

“We start with solutions, not problems.”

Hello?! Vicks? You sell MEDICINE! If ever there was a company that should start with problems, it’s you.

(And, while I have your attention, I think an apostrophe would be a great look. Just saying.)

Just like “product”… when was the last time you decided to buy a solution?

Funnily enough, I do have a client that sells bottles of chemicals. Now that would be a great use of the word “solution”. But I just can’t bring myself to do it.

3. Specialist

It’s not the word that’s the problem here. It’s just the usage. Everyone seems to have completely forgotten what it means:

“We are specialists in all aspects of…”

Right, stop there. No, you’re not. By definition, you’re a generalist.

A specialist isn’t someone who does everything. It’s someone who does one thing – ideally, really, really well.

And if we’ve forgotten what the word means, then how can it convey anything? It serves no purpose, except to sound vaguely impressive if you don’t think about it too much.

Plus, I’ve heard a rumour some spam filters don’t like it (for the same reason that people in Scunthorpe have email issues). That might be outdated or inaccurate information, but if it helps to stop copywriters ruining a perfectly good word…

(NB: you could, of course, say “We employ specialists in all aspects of…”)

4. Passionate

I’ve saved the best for last. Nothing turns me off faster than an organisation that talks about how passionate it is.

Passion isn’t something you talk about. It’s something you express. It shows in what you do.

Suddenly, everybody under the sun says they’re passionate about something. A quick scan of Google shows companies who claim to be passionate about flowers… passionate about fish… even passionate about refuse collection.

And the funny thing is this: the people and companies who talk about passion the most are usually the ones who demonstrate it least… until it has the empty ring that “we are committed to…” took on a few years ago. They’re not words that mean anything – just a meaningless verbal tick.

Don’t tell me about your passion. Impress me with it.

I could go on – but this blog’s much too long already. And, besides: I’m sure you probably have a few pet hates of your own. Pop them on the comments: we’ll compile a list and fire it into the heart of the sun.

The moral of the story is this: stop once in a while, and think about what you’re reading, saying… or, more importantly, writing. Are you going through the motions, churning out the same old, just because it’s what you always say… or what everyone else does?

Clients need to raise their expectations – and copywriters need to raise their game.


14 thoughts on “Four overused words that kill good marketing and PR copy

  1. I hate seeing those words on company mission statements. It’s true that they have become meaningless and bland; all the companies (and their products) sound exactly the same.

  2. “We’re passionate about our specialist solutions which help our customers sell more products.”

    The only thing which could make that worse would be if the word ‘brand’ was in there. Remember your audience and talk to them, not your boss.

  3. Surely Vicks “starting with solutions” is a pun on the very bottles of chemicals thing that you praise at the end of that paragraph? Medicinal solutions? Maybe I’m giving them too much credit…

  4. “integrated”, especially in business services. What it frequently means is “it looks like it works interactively with other modules and you’ll actually never know until you rely on it that the two modules have never even heard oc each other, which is why we’ll be spinning them off in a leveraged management buyout just as soon as we’ve found someone gullible enough to stump up the cash”.

  5. I’ve spent the weekend with a group of people who are employed by a company who provide ‘I.T. Solutions’. None of them could summarise what their company actually DID; as I pointed out, a solution is just a solute dissolved in a solvent. Urine is an example of a solution.

    Don’t get me started on claiming to be “the leading…” whatever it is, or the lazy and irritating ubiquity of the “think [category], think [product]” slogan.

    • As every copywriter knows, “the leading…” is when you’re pretty sure you’re the biggest or best, but can’t actually prove it.

  6. My list of ‘hates’ is too long to list here. I ‘try’ to live by the matra ‘ AIDA’ (Attention, Interest, Desire, Action). when drafting copy for approval. This requires thought and empathy with my target audience.

  7. ‘Professional’, really? That’s about as helpful as ‘hard working’ and ‘works well individually or with others’ on a CV.

    No company would ever say they weren’t professional, any more than someone would put ‘lazy, does nothing on their own merit and can’t get on with anyone’ on their CV.

    There are three other words that I encounter (and have to admit to having used once or twice) are ‘Global’ and ‘Universal’ and ‘Worldwide’ – Okay so you can post your items to another country, or supply them online using the internet. Well Done!

    You can also throw in, interactive, ‘multi..(anything)’, and undertakes.

    Oh, I could carry on all day, but my comment would be longer than your post.

    • Ooh, “professional” is a smashing example, Chris. I hadn’t noticed before but it really is a vague filler word, isn’t it?

      I’d be tempted to defend “global” and “worldwide”, though, in certain contexts. Some companies do fear international business, and something that goes beyond doing a bit of business in Germany and is genuinely intercontinental (careful how I type that one…) still can have a certain appeal.

      Plus, you can only say “international” so many times in one piece.

      If you want to come back and hit us with some more rants of that kind of quality, feel free any time.

      • I used to work for AXA and our mantra there was ‘Think Global, Act Local’. As the fourth largest company in the world at the time measured by funds under managment, we had a true claim on the term ‘Global’ with operations on every continent except one, and most countries in each continent.

  8. Great diatribe. Go on, go on for as long as you like. And as for the chemicals company ….that sells er, solution solutions… (I know, not while you draw breath) hilarious. The link to the Vicks (solutions?) slogan returned an error – what was it out of interest?

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