Greetings and welcome to another edition of Buzz Kill, where we chronicle the decline of the English language through marketing phrases from press releases. This month, we throw shade on “disruptive innovation,” “omni-channel,” and “at the intersection of.”
Remember, to be included on this list, each phrase must have four characteristics:
- It must be pernicious. Like a guinea worm, these words reside beneath the skin of the industry, invisibly growing until they burst forth, spraying their foul fluids all over the English language.
- It must be pervasive. Like Kudzu, these are words that are quickly creeping across the landscape, slowly strangling meaning in their wake.
- It must be marketing-specific. Well, kind of. I’ll make an exception for words that are correct in one’s usage but are frequently misused in marketing.
- Most importantly, it must be dander-raising. These words inspire eye-rolling and exasperated sighs. In excess, they are the verbal equivalent of nails on a chalkboard and result in hair pulling, clothes rending and uncontrollable madness.
Now, on with the show!
The Word: “Disruptive” or “Disruptive Innovation”
How It’s Used: “Our automatic kitty litter cleaning machine is a disruptive innovation in pet waste clean-up!”
Why It’s Horrible: Disruptive used as an adjective (or “disruptive innovation” if it’s a noun) is a real thing, but it’s both overused and frequently used incorrectly in contemporary marketing messages. For something to truly be a disruptive innovation, it must create a new market that eventually upsets old markets.
The phrase was originally authored by Harvard Business School Professor Clayton M. Christensen. In his book The Innovator’s Dilemma, Christensen showcases the evolution of computer storage as an example of disruptive innovation. Graduating from 8-inch hard drives to 5.25-inch floppies to 3.5-inch floppies to CD-ROMs and USBs, the data storage market underwent seismic market shifts over time. In practice, these shifts happen not necessarily because a technology is superior to an old technology and, in fact, sometimes the newer technology is less feature-rich or powerful than the original. Instead, disruptive innovation usually reaches a previously unserved audience or one that that doesn’t need the full capability of the superior product.
“Disruptive innovation,” however, does not describe innovation that simply adds better value to existing markets. To give you an easy example, incremental changes in software products are a type of sustaining innovation because they do not wipe out entire markets. Even revolutionary innovations, like a self-cleaning kitty litter box, isn’t disruptive because it doesn’t destroy the old cat waste cleaning market. Heck, even Tesla’s electric cars aren’t a disruptive innovation because they’re simply too expensive to acquire a significant portion of market share. Conversely, if someone could mass-produce cheap electric vehicles, that could be a disruptive innovation (particularly to the gas station industry).
Better Alternatives: I’d recommend just say “innovative” but [SPOILER ALERT!] “innovation” and “innovative” are on the chopping block for next month. So, instead, feel free to use “groundbreaking,” “game-changing,” “visionary” or “revolutionary.” If you really want to go over the top, “radical” (but not “cowabunga”, dude).
The Word: “Omni-channel” or “Omnichannel”
How It’s Used: “It’s not a real marketing campaign unless it’s an omni-channel marketing campaign.”
Why It’s Horrible: “Omni-channel” is essentially the marketing and advertising industry’s own special version of the horrible “ubiquitous” (think I’m joking about this? Check out Forbes’s hilariously buzzword-heavy “The Omni-Channel Experience: Marketing Meets Ubiquity.”)
Part of the issue lies in the disparity between what the name seems to imply and the definition provided by some of those who unironically use the word.
The name itself suggests that something which is “omni-channel” would appear on all channels. The prefix “omni-” derives from the Latin “omnis,” which translates as “all” (for example, “ut Roma cadit, sic omnis terra,” or “As Rome falls, so falls the whole world.” Years of learning a dead language finally pays off!). Most people give an added requirement that “omni-channel” also implies some type of seamless experience.
This usage is somewhat understandable when something is talking about omni-channel retailing, for example. Any retailer has a finite amount of ways that items can be purchased from them and, so, attempting to create a seamless experience between all of them is possible.
When using it in the context of marketing or advertising, however, “omni-channel” is often just a fancy new hyperbolic way of saying “cross-channel” or “multi-channel.” This is simply because it’s next to impossible to hit every channel (and even more ludicrous to suggest you could create seamless experiences between all of them, even if you could).
“Hold on there, Jeff,” says you. “How could you possibly know something like that?” Easy. Because you very rarely see advertisements on LCD screens placed on the sides of camels, and I have only tattooed one brand upon my body. Clearly, unless your campaigns are taking advantage of both the increasingly popular digital out-of-home camel-mounted experiences as well as the disruptive innovation of Jeff Berg body art marketing, your campaigns are not omni-channel. And I defy anyone to do campaigns across both in a seamless manner.
It’s not that the ideal of a truly omni-channel campaign is bad (seamless experiences across a multitude of media channels is truly a good thing), but it’s an impossibility. In the event that you’re not using it to describe an ideal, you’re being hyperbolic.
Better Alternatives: Unless you’re talking about something that has a limited set of channels to begin with (like retailers or network television), say what you mean: “cross-channel” or “multi-channel.” If you’re feeling inventive, feel free to create a new word by abbreviating the first letters of the specific channels you’re talking about (“CaJeSo Marketing” = CAmel-JEff-SOcial marketing). You’ll be doing me a favor by providing me with some new words to critique.
“At the intersection of”
The Word: “At the intersection of”
How It’s Used: “We are a Hampsterdam, an online site located at the intersection of Internet dating, small rodent owners and drug legalization proponents.”
Why It’s Horrible: Simply put, it’s overused. There are businesses at the intersection of marketing and technology. There are researchers at the intersection of science and education. There’s innovation at the intersection of medicine and engineering. There are veterinarians at the intersection of human and animal health. Arguably, this paragraph itself is at the intersection of things that are at intersections and everybody and their mother.
Look, I’ll admit upfront that I’m guilty of using this. Nearly a decade ago now, I wrote those very words to describe the groundbreaking, emerging media department of a major advertising conglomerate that I had the good fortune to be employed by. Apparently, they loved the phrase so much that, if you google the name of the company and “at the intersection of,” you’ll find that they’re at the intersection of at least seven different variations of it.
The phrase itself is kind of suspect if you’re using it to mean “intersection” in the sense of a street or two lines. If you use it in that manner, you’re probably being imprecise (it implies that both subjects are at odds with each other and rarely meet). If you’re using it in a mathematical sense, such as how it’s used when describing a Venn diagram, it makes more sense, but it still requires that the two items mentioned rarely overlap each other.
For example, one usage that I frequently see are things “at the intersection of entertainment and technology.” This seems to imply that entertainment and technology are things that don’t frequently interact with each other, and that is simply not true. Entertainment and technology dovetail and feed off each other. Heck, most of what we think of as entertainment in popular culture is tied intrinsically with technology. Books can now be read on e-readers, movies can be watched on your phone, video games… well, trying to divorce video games from technology is simply impossible. Similarly, saying that a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is at the intersection of bread, peanut butter and jelly also doesn’t make sense, both because these things commonly occur with each other and because it’s redundant and silly.
Better Alternatives: “combining” or, if you’re feeling a little snappier, “a fusion of…” If you want to be playful, “A mad scientist’s concoction of…” If you’re feeling really out there, “A Frankenstein-esque amalgamation of…”
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