I’ve been using the phrase “keeping your head above water” when asking how people are doing during the pandemic — until I almost used it with an acquaintance who had someone dear to them drown. I was really glad I caught myself, then I realized how easy it is to take language for granted and use it inappropriately.
Language is changing — fast — so laziness and complacency can be damaging, especially when considering the words that come out of your brand’s mouth.
Between new habits and norms fostered through texts and tweets, and new levels of scrutiny brought on by our current cultural shifts, it’s worth taking the time to make some smart decisions about how your brand speaks — online, in formal materials, and in-person.
Here are some tips to keep your brand language in check:
1. Moving toward gender neutrality.
husband, wife —> spouse
daughter, son —> child
landlord —> property owner
maiden name —> family name
Keep an eye out for “man” words like spokesman, chairman, businessman, freshman, etc. It’s worth auditing your brand’s language to move away from any words here that can be replaced with a non-gendered alternative.
Heads up! Gender neutral language is different than gender inclusive language! For example, F-O-L-K-S is a nice replacement for “guys” as it’s a casual term for people. F-O-L-X signals an even broader meaning and acknowledgement of marginalized people. It’s worth doing a little digging in this category to see what is right for your brand.
2. Pronouns. Pronouns. Pronouns.
If you haven’t already, consider adding pronouns to your email signature, your virtual meeting profiles, and social media profiles. Consider whether this should be a company-wide policy for your organization. Not only is this inclusive, but it’s just plain helpful.
3. Reconsider what’s acceptable casual language.
Be wary of:
– words with racist or sexist origins.
– the commonly used, but not commonly understood as downright racist terms like “peanut gallery.”
– cultural appropriation and insensitivities, like “spirit animal.”
– seemingly benign phrases, like “keeping your head above water.”
On the flip side of causal language, we’re living through a shift where it’s acceptable to drop syllables and shorten words — spurred by 280-character limits, I suppose. So take the time to look at cultural norms, but don’t forget to look at origins to ensure you’re not backsliding into the appropriation game.
4. Go on an acronym diet.
Excessive acronym use is either difficult and confusing, or a sign that you’re trying too hard to impress. They’re great for internal teams and added efficiency, but as soon as you add a new team member or begin to talk to external audiences, take the time to say the whole word before you pile on acronyms. It’s just polite.
5. Lock up that elevator pitch.
Of course this one is simple, but can you explain what your brand’s about to someone who has never heard of you in three sentences or less? Do all co-workers use the same language? Have you reviewed that language recently and does that language reflect you correctly?
Personally, my hardest habit to break is “guys.” Hey guys! In my head this feels gender-neutral, and while it’s become a generic term in my environment — a house with a husband and three boys — that’s not how others perceive it. So I’m working to break that habit through intentionality and practice.
Keeping brand language healthy is an ongoing process. It’s not one-and-done, so make it a regular brand management task — maybe once a quarter. Make sure to explain your language efforts to everyone in your organization, and why. There’s no such thing as too many eyes to proofread, so empower everyone — chief marketing officer, intern, warehouse manager, product developer — to audit the language coming out of your organization and suggest improvements to keep your messaging smart, intentional, and inclusive.