Grammar isn’t cool anymore – why companies dress down language

Corporate language was once armour plated – a solid, hard line exterior artfully devised to deflect and obscure. The cogs were invisible, the employees nameless and CEOs barricaded themselves behind closed doors and ‘corporate speak’ – a set of no-calorie statements and buzz words to placate probing enquiries.  

Those failing to surrender these fortifications have slowly fallen from the radar, unable to strike a chord with markets and customers. The stigma of corporations as faceless giants necessitated change. Businesses don’t sound like businesses anymore, and it’s so they can be your family and friends.  

Hierarchies, titles, talk of synergy, unscrupulous practices and team building seminars are the stale crusts of the 20th century. Corporations now masquerade under a new image; offices are bathed in colourful furniture and edifying wall slogans and the spin and squeak of chairs is no longer the only fun to be had. It’s less austere, more playful, or at least disguised to be.  

Take a look at Waterstones. Waterstones has begun unbranding its high-street stores, opting for names such as Southwold Books to hark back to a time of quaint independence. Waterstones isn’t exactly a tall office block – but it’s still somehow distinctly corporate, like a movie set unsuccessfully recapturing the endearing atmosphere of the source. Something as simple as language – a name change – can help us forget we’re dealing with a large, high street devouring corporation.

It makes sense that companies are dressing down, throwing off the cold and aesthetic image in favour of something that’s warm and relatable. This started with stores; it started with Waterstones selling a coddled and cherished idea and Starbucks selling a huggable coffee shop experience. And now, through the likes of content marketing and modern branding ideals, it’s extended to language too.

Corporate language, whether through social media, content or copy, has been stripped down to the essential components that consumers and customers appreciate, rather than business managers and stakeholders.

In the 50s and 60s, the golden age of American advertising, colloquialisms and puns were common. A marketer’s job was (and is) to capture the language of the consumer and speak in their native tongue, to sell a desire. But now the puns don’t sell. A B2C marketer has to genuinely know the audience, rather than only seem to know the audience. Consumers are by magnitudes more savvy, able to detect artifice a mile off.

It’s come so far that grammar isn’t cool anymore. Not that every customer is illiterate and in need of truncated verbiage to acquire a message – it’s more that marketers’ reins have been removed, and they’re able to dispense with formality. They’re free to go to any level necessary – including the denunciation of basic grammar – to make connections and create rapport. Managers are far less interested in retaining a corporate brand, or avoiding communications that seem improper or unruly to investors.

The brand is the consumer message. This no-grammar sort of communication through social media and other channels is typical of lifestyle and fashion brands. Businesses still have an interest in sounding business-like to fellow businesses, in B2B – but consumers don’t mind colloquial language, punchy phrasing and a fair bit of text speak when communicated or pitched to.

It’s doubtful that there’s a crossable line in this dressing down of corporate images – especially whilst social media remains the predominant communication channel. Not all corporate artifices are tolerated – but dressed down language certainly is, and continues to be a mainstay of marketing strategies and tone of voice development.