The top ten product clichés to avoid in 2020
If you’re involved in the product-marketing side of science, the New Year often means a new set of targets, and a reappraisal of the performance of your literature. But have you given any thought to the words you’re using to describe your organisation and its products or services? Run your eye down this list of phrases to avoid, and get some inspiration for alternatives that speak more clearly to your audiences.
Cut back on business jargon
Whatever field of business you’re in, every now and again it’s worth re-assessing the words you’re using to describe your company and your products. Descriptions that sounded fresh and exciting in 2010 will mostly likely be sounding tired and tedious in 2020.
The phrases I’m talking about are primarily those used to ascribe significance to something, to grab the attention – like ‘cutting-edge products’, ‘mission-critical processes’ and ‘paradigm shifts’. These particular examples have thankfully all now fallen out of favour, but there have been plenty to take their place, especially in the scientific and technical fields.
In some cases, these words and phrases are not inherently bad, but have been over-used, to the point that they no longer convey any useful information. And if your words don’t say anything useful, your readers will struggle to understand what you’re offering.
Some words considered to be jargon are not inherently bad, but have been over-used, to the point that they no longer convey any useful information
Scientific cliché countdown
So, in reverse priority order, here are my top 10 clichés to try and cut back on – or eliminate entirely – in 2020. I’ve tailored this list to scientific businesses, but many of these would equally apply elsewhere.
In each case I’ve made-up some examples of bad usage (dark grey), and what I would replace them with (→). I hope you find them useful!
Some of the words in this list (and many others) are ‘filler’ adjectives. They’re in your writing merely because:
- You wanted to include an adjective to make your subject matter sound great.
- You needed something no-one was going to argue with.
- You were in a hurry when you wrote it (yes, I’ve been there).
‘Advanced’ is a great example of this sort of adjectival padding, and one that is ubiquitous in the scientific field. To be fair, it’s not doing any harm, but you need to be sure you’re not missing an opportunity to talk about the real value of your products or services – saving time, saving money, improving confidence, achieving regulatory compliance, acquiring prestige or competitive advantage, increasing throughput, and the like.
- “We manufacture advanced rotary evaporators.”
→ “We manufacture rotary evaporators that comply with the latest EU safety regulations.”
→ “We manufacture rotary evaporators that allow total control over rotation time and speed.”
#9: Centre of excellence
If you’ve ever used this phrase to describe your company headquarters, chances are that you have a strong staff team, with a diverse range of skills, and experience built up over many years.
If so, then that’s fantastic, but don’t hide this success behind the vacuous term ‘centre of excellence’. I’d recommend trying more meaningful phrases like ‘office’, ‘laboratory’ or ‘service centre’… but more important than that is to explain what you really mean, by talking about:
- Your facilities. Do you have a research/applications lab? Service department? Round-the-clock hotline? Demonstration facilities? Meeting rooms?
- Your staff. Who are they? What experience do they have? How do they help your customers?
- Your successes. Why are your products successful? What awards have you won? What do your facilities enable you to do that your competitors can only dream of?
- Your customers. What do you enable them to do? What are their stories? Why do they love your company?
- “Our next open day will take place on 30 January at our Centre of Excellence in Berlin.”
→ “Our next open day will take place on 30 January at our laboratories in Berlin.” [followed up with a brief mention of your latest research, your team of technical specialists, etc.]
Don’t hide your success with vacuous phrasing – use
down-to-earth words that describe what you really mean.
Next up is an innocuous little term, but one that speaks volumes about how you view your customers. Who is the ‘end-user’? To me, it sounds like someone remote, with whom you only have a passing interest, so avoid using it in your customer-facing literature.
Fortunately, tackling this one is easy – simply replace ‘end-user’ with ‘you’ or ‘your’. Or if you’re not selling directly, then give them a name – ‘analysts’, ‘medical practitioners’, ‘materials scientists’, ‘lab technicians’, etc.
- “Our mission is to supply software that makes life easier for the end-user.”
→ “Our mission is to supply software that makes your life easier.”
→ “Our mission is to supply software that makes analysts’ lives easier.”
I have to be honest, I’ve sometimes used this word myself… but only to mean that the equipment can deal with whatever’s thrown at it. I then follow it up quickly with more details.
If you mean that your equipment can cope with a range of field conditions or rough handling, then I’d suggest ‘rugged’ as an alternative. And if you’re just saying ‘robust’ because it sounds nice, then it needs to go.
- “Our system has unparalleled robustness for field applications.”
→ “Our system is robust enough to handle samples containing particulate loadings up to 50 µg/m3.”
→ “Our system is rugged enough to withstand dust-storms and temperatures up to 50°C.”
B2B marketing abounds with these sorts of self-congratulatory adjectives, with ‘market-leading’ being another common example. Sometimes they can be OK, for example when you have to say something good about your product, you’ve got 15 words, and a better description simply won’t fit.
However, ‘best-in-class’ in particular sets my teeth on edge, mostly because it sounds a little smarmy, but also because it’s so obviously devoid of meaning. Exactly what ‘class’ are you talking about… and who’s judging?
So take it out if you can, and remember to say something about your company or products that is of benefit to the reader.
- “XYZ Corporation is a supplier of best-in-class scientific instruments for the medical sector.”
→ “XYZ Corporation is a supplier of rigorously field-tested scientific instruments for the medical sector.”
I’m sorry to say that, in my opinion, disruption is what happens to train services to make me late for a meeting. In the context of a boardroom presentation, I’m just about OK with phrases like ‘disruptive technology’ (to mean a market-transforming product). But elsewhere it has unavoidably negative connotations, and shouldn’t be used in marketing literature to describe your company, products, or services.
True, you may have come up with a technology that’s going to change the way things are done in your business sector. But do your customers care about that? No – they care about their time, their money, their ability to get the job done. So focus on the difference your technology is going to make to those things instead.
- “ABC Ltd is a manufacturer of disruptive technology platforms for environmental remediation.”
→ “ABC Ltd is a manufacturer of environmental remediation equipment that overcomes existing limitations of speed and scalability.”
OK, this is a tough one. We’ve all used it to describe our products and services, and as a word it hasn’t yet lost its shine as a description of all that is new, exciting, and fresh-from-product-development.
The trouble is, in the scientific equipment field we tend to use it for pretty much anything with a power switch that’s had a software update in the last five years. And once everyone uses it for everything, it loses its distinctiveness and becomes a cliché.
So I’d urge you to deploy ‘innovative’ with good reason, and when you do, take the time to explain why the thing you’re talking about is innovative.
- “We produce innovative equipment for the polymer processing industry.”
→ “We produce equipment for the polymer processing industry that enhances precision through the use of our patented cutting technology.”
You should always have a good reason to describe something as ‘innovative’ – and take the time to explain why.
This one commonly raises its head in press releases, mission statements and descriptions of company strategy. To speak for a moment in its favour, it does have a clear meaning… but to the majority of people it comes across as impersonal and ‘corporate’.
So if you’re talking to CEOs and investors, no problem, but for everyone else, then try more straightforward language. Often simply ‘using’ will do, but if you want get across the notion of using something as a springboard to achieve greater heights, then try ‘taking advantage of’, ‘capitalise on’, ‘drawing on our knowledge of’, or ‘thanks to our expertise in…’.
- “The instrumental advances we’ve pioneered have enabled us to leverage our knowledge about semiconductors to develop new types of PCBs.”
→ “The instrumental advances we’ve pioneered have enabled us to capitalise on our knowledge about semiconductors, and so develop new types of PCBs.”
I have a little story to tell about this word. As a Ph.D. student in an organic synthesis lab, I wanted to know the method used to make a commercial reagent, in order to understand a side-reaction that I suspected resulted from an impurity. I was therefore disappointed to be told by the manufacturer that the method was simply ‘proprietary’.
Ever since then, I’ve been against this word when used outside legal documents, and particularly when it appears in sales literature. I’d agree that you don’t want your customers (and especially your competitors) to know the method you use to make your new reagent, or the electrical settings you use in a key component… but appearing to be so defensive about it is not going to help your brand image.
More than that though, it doesn’t say anything that conveys the value or status of your product. To resolve that, come to it from the customer’s perspective – why should they be interested in this proprietary thing you’re talking about? You could, for example, invoke scarcity – phrases like ‘exclusive to us’, ‘not obtainable elsewhere’ or ‘only available from us’ may be useful. If it’s patented, then that’s a possible alternative too – so long as the true benefits are spelled out elsewhere.
- “Perfect calibration is ensured every time by our proprietary widget.”
→ “Perfect calibration is ensured every time by the in-built widget – a technological advance only available from XYZ Corporation.”
- “Using a proprietary procedure allowed us to achieve transition temperatures of 41°C.”
→ “Using a procedure developed following many years’ research, we were able to achieve transition temperatures of 41°C.”
So, we come to the great-grandparent of all product-description clichés. Despite much criticism of ‘solutions’, it still persists on company websites in uncountable numbers.
Long ago, it was a useful word – indicating a situation in which you provided not just the hardware, but software, expertise, and ongoing support. Quite often it also meant something tailored to that particular customer (rather than off-the-shelf).
Sadly, overuse has all but eliminated this meaning, with the result that the only thing it now conveys is that you’re trying to sell something, whether that be a £100k scientific instrument, healthcare insurance, or a bag of compost.
The problem with the word ‘solution’ is that it fails to explain what is actually being offered.
Like other clichés, it’s used because it’s short, non-specific and requires minimal effort to deploy. On their own, these are not bad things, but unfortunately, the problem is often compounded by a failure to explain what it actually is that is being offered – leaving the reader to work it out in their own time (if they can be bothered, of course).
So why is ‘solution’ still so popular? I think it’s because using it makes you sound ‘on-trend’, and because it’s rather difficult to come up with good alternatives. However, there are three basic scenarios, and in each case I’ve explained my approach:
Keep it: Sometimes, ‘solutions’ is used in the sense of addressing a challenge, and in that sense it can be fine. Just beware of implying to the customer that you think they have a problem!
- “We help our customers find solutions to a wide range of automotive manufacturing challenges.”
Delete it: Quite often you’ll find that it’s simply possible to delete ‘solutions’, when it’s being used unnecessarily to describe something that has already has a perfectly good name:
- “We provide quality-control software solutions for the food industry.”
→ “We provide quality-control software for the food industry.”
Change it: But most of the time ‘solutions’ is used alongside other words, which together fail to explain the true meaning. In these cases an alternative needs to be found.
- “Our commitment to designing high-performance vapour containment solutions for medical research is unrivalled.”
→ “Our commitment to designing high-performance fumehoods for medical research is unrivalled.”
- “We focus on delivering complete measurement solutions.”
→ “We focus on delivering customised packages of equipment that serve all your measurement needs.”
- “Our customers have depended on our instrument solutions for over 15 years.”
→ “Our customers have depended on our outstanding instruments and software for over 15 years.”
You might not be able to make such replacements everywhere – for example, if the word is baked-into the URLs and headers of your website, or even your company name – but at least aim to avoid repeated use in a block of text. Make it easy for your readers to uncover what it is you’re actually offering.
Don’t worry about replacing jargon with longer descriptions – it’s better to use five words that mean something, rather than one word that means nothing.
Clichéd business jargon will always be around – as fast as old words fall out of favour, new ones will arise, making it difficult to avoid. But in scientific businesses, where these terms are used so liberally, there’s an opportunity to distinguish yourself from the competition by eliminating at least some of the language that fails to explain clearly what you’re offering your customers.
When everyone else is providing ‘advanced software solutions’ or ‘leveraging disruptive technologies’, then you can make an impact with fresh, clear language that means exactly what it says, and doesn’t leave the reader wondering what you’re on about.
And don’t worry if you find yourself using more words than before. Ask yourself: is it better to use one word that means nothing, or five words that mean something?