Why wriggle room is bad for your brand

Watch out for weasel words.
Matt Brady
by Matt Brady

A full stomach. A fast(er) bike. The holiday of a lifetime.

Brands make all sorts of promises. And consumers judge brands on how well they live up to their words.

For brands, that fuels the understandable fear: “What if what we’re doing isn’t good enough?” And for some, that fear starts to gnaw away at their confidence.

You can see it in the language they use. Little extra words – weasels – sneak in to cast doubt. Or words start to go missing, undermining meaning. In the worst cases, promises bend over backwards to double up as get-out clauses.

Writing like this is only going to lead to disappointment – and damage your brand.

It's time to whack some weasel words.

Three common culprits

These aren’t the only weasels out there, but they’re commonly sighted. In grammar nerd terms, they’re known as:

  • Qualifiers
  • Caveats
  • The subjunctive mood

Qualifiers mutate other words

Words like ‘further’ or ‘more’ suck the power out of words they live beside.

See the Johnson & Johnson example below. I know what ‘sustainable’ means, but the word ‘more’ is helping it wriggle free of its own meaning. Are we talking 10% more sustainable? 50%? 1%? (And what does that look like, anyway?)

J and J Extract

And does ‘more’ mean “we are making more of our products sustainable”? Or does it mean “we are making things closer to being sustainable”?

‍One weasel, so many questions.

‍And in the paragraph below, “working to improve our environmental footprint” doesn’t quite translate as “we’re improving our environmental footprint.” What does “working to” mean, in practice? It begs another bunch of questions – and undercuts clarity.

Caveats are layers of deflection

You ask: “Does this thing do what you told me it was going to do?” The answer is: maybe, under certain circumstances, possibly – but only on Tuesdays.

Yeah. Thanks.

When you’re not sure what’s on offer, it’s hard to know what to expect. That leaves any narrative more open to interpretation – and to disappointment.‍

Here’s a caveat-y bit from Optifast, a diet shake maker:

Optifast

Look at all the complications:

  • “Are designed” – but does design result in success?
  • “To help people who want to be successful” – firmly passing the buck
  • “Achieving the health benefits of weight loss” – er, but not weight loss itself?

In all fairness, no diet shake can guarantee weight loss. Customers need to do more than gulp down shakes. But you can be more direct:

Slimfast

The language feels so much more sure of itself. “Help keep you on track” is much clearer and more positive than OptiFast’s caveats. And the memorable alliteration of “Deliciously Doable” makes the big idea seem more achievable.

Dream on, with the subjunctive mood

If you’re expressing a wish, or a possibility, you’re using the subjunctive mood. Like: “I wish brands didn’t use the subjunctive mood.”

It’s perfect for weasel wording, as you can avoid talking about reality altogether. Here’s an example of Galaxy Chocolate using it:

Galaxy

“We want to…” is a sliver of hesitation that sheds doubt on the whole idea. And that’s a shame, because the rest of the page explains all the work Galaxy is actually doing – a fair bit. But despite not being just a wish – it sure sounds like one.

Tony’s Chocolonely, on the other hand, has no qualms with setting clear goals. Not just for itself, but the whole sector:

Chocolonely

“We make 100% slave free the norm in chocolate.” See how much more confident that sounds?

Not dreaming of it, or aspiring to it. Making it happen.

Say it loud, say it clear

If you’re not convinced by what your own brand says, who will be? Use promises to build trust, not to leave the back door open.

Because when Mr Smith, hands wrapped in bandages, complains? “We only said we aspire to make more heat-proof oven gloves” won’t cut it.

Stomp the weasels. Or they’ll come back and bite you.

P.S. The reality check – before I’m jumped on.

There are a few sectors where it’s hard to make outright promises. Like in the legal profession, where every case turns on specific facts.

And, yes, there are times to be careful for any company in any sector. But everyone needs to keep their eyes peeled for watch-outs that feel like get-outs.


This article was originally published in The Subtext.

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