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Cocktail parties and deserts: ‘Words that work’ matter for brands, too.

Tony Donaldson 26 February 2021

A tree in a desert

‘Words that work’ began as an analysis of FTSE 250 sustainability language. It was designed to look into the state of how the world’s largest companies communicated on the world’s most pressing problem, and a subject inarguably vital to all of us, everywhere.


Although originally focused on sustainability, the more digging we did, the more how our world overlaps and merges became apparent. ‘Words that work’ – aren’t just a problem in sustainability, they’re a problem universally.


For someone working in brand, ‘Words that work’ shone a light on validated a lot of the doubts we hold about brands communicating today. The case for ‘Words that work’ in sustainability is vital to our very relationship with our planet. The case for ‘Words that work’ in brand is still important - but decidedly more commercial.


Let’s start with a small social experiment.


Think of the brands you encounter every day and think about the words they use. Your email inbox, online display ads, the sides of lorries, letters received, websites visited are all good places to look. As are adverts, articles, corporate statements, speeches, presentations, labels and – almost everything else.


Remind yourself of the time, money and effort spent on those very brands. Uncountable hours, billions of pounds - tears, sweat and blood. Now honestly, can you think of a brand that particularly stands out?


If the answers yes, I’d bet you work in marketing. If it’s a no, we feel the same.


We’re awash in a vast sea of words and nothing stands out. Why?


It’s a question that we (as marketers, but also people) have a responsibility to answer, and we have a theory. That theory relates specifically to the sensory gating function of your thalamus, and its pulvinar nuclei within the dorsal part of your diencephalon division of the forebrain. Or, in less lab-coated Latin terms – something called the ‘cocktail party effect’.


The cocktail party effect is an example of your brain's ability to focus attention on a particular stimulus while filtering out a range of others. Think about how a cocktail partygoer can focus on a single conversation in a noisy room, but can still pick out when someone mentions their name fifteen feet away. Your brain (to make life easier for you), filters out that ‘background noise’, so that you can focus on what’s in front of you. If it didn’t - you’d be immediately overwhelmed by the vast bandwidth of stimuli hitting your subconscious every single second of every day.


The cocktail party effect doesn’t just apply to auditory stimuli, or even just to cocktail parties. It applies to all stimuli, everywhere. Including – brands. The cocktail party effect is a robust argument that your brain considers so much marketing, advertising and brand communication as meaningless background noise - it actively diverts your conscious attention away from it.


That is a sad, sad state of affairs for brands. And in fact, it’s likely getting worse.


Back in the 70s, the average person saw between 500 to 1,600 ads per day. By 2007 that figure had risen to over 5,000 ads per day. Fast forward to 2021, and although there are no official figures (yet), the average person is now estimated to encounter between 6,000 to 10,000 ads every single day.


I’m sure you’ll agree that 10,000 ads per day makes for a very, very noisy cocktail party.


This is a big problem for brands. So how do they cut through the noise? How can they convince our brains to pull them out of the background, into the light? How can they – matter to us?


To us, one simple and relatively easy answer – is words.


‘Words that work’ showed us about the sustainability sector is defined by empty platitudes, foggy statements and completely overused (and now therefore meaningless) words. It also showed us it’s not just sustainability. 


The past two decades or more of marketing have created a deafening, bustling cocktail party for the mind, in which all there’s too much noise to focus on anything. A huge, flat, featureless desert of a brand marketing landscape, in which nothing stands out to us.


Our brains are overwhelmed by stimuli – and adjust accordingly. But there is hope.


Confucius is often misquoted as saying; “In every crisis, lies opportunity.” And the opportunity here - is golden.


Although decades of poor brand communication have landed brands in a problem of their own making, this very problem is what’s created that golden opportunity. More than ever before, good writing, the right words, honest statements, and actual human language have become a shining differentiator for brands. They make a stark difference in the minds of real people in the world, and alongside the bottom line of your marketing investment.


Communication as a competitive advantage – in the purest sense. Words that work.


Think of the last time a brand stood out to you because of the words it used, it’s voice. Can you think of one? The list in most people’s heads would be conspicuously short. But at a loud cocktail party, even someone murmuring your name pricks up your ears. In a vast, flat desert, even the smallest tree catches the eye.


Today more than ever - words that work, work. We can help make sure yours do, too.


Discover how you can improve your messaging by downloading Words that work: effective language in sustainability communications.