Words Matter

April 9, 2009

This morning on my way to may favorite local coffee shop, I found myself practicing my order. Let me back up … I was practicing because more often than not I get coffee from my favorite non-local shop, the Starbucks drive-thru a few blocks from my home. Because of the linguistic feats of Howard Schultz and co. Starbucks now controls how I talk about coffee. You see I am, like most human animals, a creature of habit and I almost always order the same thing at Starbucks — grande brewed coffee black. In generic, non-branded terms this translates to a dark roasted coffee in a medium-sized to-go cup with sleeve. So this brings me back to my initial observation — I have to rehearse my order when going elsewhere because Starbucks controls how I talk about coffee.

This is an awesome semantic power Starbucks has over me and — I am just guessing , here— a few others. This power is second only to those select few marketers who have managed to elevate their brand names to encompass their entire category — think Xerox, Kleenex, and now Google and the iPod. Words matter. One of my favorite lines ever from The West Wing (a word-lover’s delight!) is the proclamation from communications director Toby Ziegler that “the world can move, or not, by changing some words.”

Great brands are made of great words.

Aaron Sorkin gets it. Howard Schultz and the marketers at Starbucks get it. Do you get it? Do you exert as much control as you can over how your brand is talked about and the very words that are used? Better still — have you created a special set of words that will help them do so?

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is a strategist, speaker, educator, and author of Brand Now: How to Stand Out in a Crowded, Distracted World and Get Scrappy: Smarter Digital Marketing for Businesses Big and Small. He is the Chief Brand Strategist at Brand Driven Digital, an educator at the University of Iowa, and host of the On Brand podcast. More about Nick.