Photo Matthew Spaulding |


When Labels Matter

How the subtle use of specific words to define your target audience makes a significant difference in the performance of your brand

Reading Time: About 3 minutes

Each and every day, we use labels in our communications. Half the time, we’re completely unaware of how frequently we’re using labels as a shorthand, or how much meaning may be packed and inferred by a simple word or two.

I was struck by this reality while reading an excellent op-ed piece by Gloria Steinem in The New York Times a week ago. She challenged our use of the phrase chick flick. Most people use “chick flick” to refer to a genre of movies that supposedly appeal to women more than men—usually romantic comedies and love stories. Though I much prefer Steinem’s definition:

A “chick flick” is one that has more dialogue than car chases, more relationships than special effects, and whose suspense comes more from how people live than from how they get killed.

Without spoiling the piece (which you should read if you haven’t already), Steinem proposes that we adopt the phrase “prick flick” as a fair and equal, male-biased counterpart. And that’s what got me thinking about labels and the way they are used and how those of us in business need to be more purposeful about the use of labels in and around our brands.

A few weeks ago I sat for a day with a startup team that needed branding advice. They shared some very impressive work they had been doing to build their business and develop their product line, but I winced several times throughout their presentations because they kept referring to their primary audience as “consumers.” This team sought my help because they wanted to develop strong attachment to their brand, yet the best they could do to describe the target of their affection was to rely upon a bland macroeconomic term.

This is a common occurrence. It’s a shortcut. Everybody knows what a consumer is, right? Except, we really don’t. Is your consumer more male or female? Old or young? Active or passive? Upper or middle class? “Consumer” is about as revealing as the word “widget.” It’s a placeholder but it is empty.

Nearly as bad is the “customer” label, though at least it is slightly more defined. Consumers are everywhere, but only customers transact with your brand. Yet customers as a label still lacks a lot of brand definition. A customer can belong to a fast food restaurant or an investment bank.

Great brands define their audience more narrowly. I learned this lesson in the early days of my career while working at The Walt Disney Company. Disney parks don’t have customers. They have guests. The culture within the park system is dogmatic about this nomenclature, and the word guest connotes a whole set of expectations about what employees should do to bring the brand to life. A guest is treated with a higher degree of respect and hospitality than a mere customer.

American Express and Equinox are two brands that don’t have customers. They have members. Think about the meaning and symbolism that accompanies the idea of membership. You belong. You have privileges. At Equinox, you’re literally joining a “club.”

Years ago, while working for the NFL I noticed how often its leadership referred to their primary audience as fans. They weren’t attendees or viewers. They were people with a massive attachment to the sport of professional football. A fan evokes a passionate mindset—a mindset that must be engaged and rewarded if you hope to sustain their loyalty.

Many financial institutions, law firms and professional service firms prefer the label clients to customers. The word client derives from a Latin verb that means “to hear or obey.” This etymological nuance is quite significant when we consider what we value from these proxies for our activities.

Restaurant brands serve diners. Healthcare companies care for patients. Airlines transport fliers or, in the case of JetBlue, the jet-set. My beloved SoulCycle leads riders in a pack. Specific definitions like these do more than create a creative and consistent brand. They help people on the inside and the outside know what to expect. They make the connection between the brand and its promised experience far more concrete.

Like anything, we can take labels too far. An apparel brand once told me they served fashion engineers. I never quite wrapped my head around that one. We should never be too precious with our labels. Their purpose is to help us connect with the audience, not prove how clever we can be with our thesaurus.

We also have to be careful not to extend the brand too far by adapting it to our audience labels. If your company name is Acme, it’s probably not a good idea to refer to your primary audience as Acme-ites. It becomes so recursive that we don’t really define anything at all. But there is one notable exception to this rule. Sometimes, using the brand to define your internal culture is quite effective. This is especially true when your culture is grounded in a specific way of doing things.

Google doesn’t have employees. They have Googlers. And that means something so specific in their industry that other brands are proud to repeat the label when they steal an employee away from the Mountain View tech titan.

Once your attention is drawn to these labels, you begin to see them everywhere, and to realize how much they become ingrained in our speech. That process of conditioning is the secret power of getting the label right. In the same way that “chick flick” should be abolished because of the gender-biased stereotypes it infers to otherwise worthwhile films, the labels that you choose for your business should bias our thinking towards your brand in a way that the word consumer never could.


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