Language matters

Richard Huntington
Richard Huntington

Remember the Community Charge? Of course you don't.

In 1994, the Conservative government abandoned one of Margaret Thatcher's flagship policies, the Community Charge.

The charge was intended to replace domestic rates in funding local services. Its defining character was that every adult over 18 paid the same amount regardless of income – this made it deeply unpopular. 

You might not have heard of the Community Charge, because no-one but the government used that name. Everyone else called it the poll tax. A tax on the right to vote, because it applied to everyone over 18.

While there was much that killed the poll tax, winning the battle to rename it in the popular imagination was critical. It suggested that the government was taxing voting and it echoed historic poll taxes that had always attracted popular opposition.

Because language matters.

Indeed, those who win the language battle often win the battle. 

George Osborne was forced to U-turn over his plans to introduce VAT on hot snacks after the policy was named the pasty tax. Climate deniers slowed progress on what used to be called "global warming" after they successfully popularised the far-less-alarming term "climate change". And Remainers have had some success in christening a second referendum on membership of the European Union a "people’s vote".

And you can see the battle of language right now over the Benn Act, the legislation that will stop the government from seeking a car-crash Brexit. Backed into a corner, the prime minister is trying to land the idea that this is a "surrender bill". And with no clear opposing idea like "the no-deal handbrake", he may well be successful.

Because language matters.

However, away from the heat of political battle in the far more genteel word of marketing, we seem to have walked away from the power of language – something that used to be second nature to us. 

I don’t mean copywriting, a different and equally important craft. I mean using language as a tool to win – positioning your brand, attacking your competitors and simplifying a decision in your favour. 

Much has to do with a discipline that has lost focus on how to win and how to make the competition lose. Often, marketers seem more interested in corporate wishful thinking and brand introspection rather than understanding how to beat the competition.

But you could also point the finger at the culture of optimisation. If efficiency is your sole concern, you focus all your efforts on beating yourself, not the enemy. Language doesn’t feature much when optimisation, not persuasion, is your priority.

But it was not always this way.

For a properly competitive bit of language, cast your mind way back to the AA’s "fourth emergency service". Not only does it smartly position the brand in a new and compelling category, but asks why you’d want the fifth, sixth or seventh emergency service. For a period of time, the AA won the language battle in its category – alas no more.

In the air, Virgin Atlantic has a long tradition of using language to win. How about "Your airline’s either got it or it hasn’t", "BA don’t give a shiatsu" or, when BA dropped the Union Jack from its planes, "Britain’s flag carrier"?

And you can see the power of competitive – even combative – language in Toyota’s "The car in front is a Toyota", Sony’s "Colour. Like. No. Other", Aldi’s "Like brands. Only cheaper", Direct Line’s "Can your insurance do that?" and EE’s "Who says you can’t". Every one built like a political slogan and as powerful as one.

But, by and large, our industry is more content in being introspective – nice, even – than doing what it takes to win. Like it or loathe it, over in the palace of Westminster, they know that this isn’t good enough; politics is binary – it’s about winning and making someone lose. It's about unleashing the full power of language to frame an issue, promote a cause and simplify a decision.

Because language matters.

Richard Huntington is chairman and chief strategy officer at Saatchi & Saatchi

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