Thumb-stopping, humaning, B4H: The strange language of modern marketing

Tiffany Hsu and Sapna Maheshwari, The New York Times

Posted at Nov 26 2020 09:47 AM

Are you "humaning?"

It’s hard to know. “Humaning” is not a word meant to be used by real people in real conversations. It’s just the latest of many ungainly terms from the world of marketing, where language is often twisted into new shapes with a certain goal in mind: persuading you to buy things.

“Humaning” was coined by Mondelez International, the company that makes Oreo cookies, Ritz crackers and Philadelphia cream cheese, with the help of the Ogilvy advertising agency. It set off a social-media backlash when it entered the lexicon this month, shortly after Mondelez declared that the word captured its approach to marketing snack foods around the world.

“Humaning is a unique, consumer-centric approach to marketing that creates real, human connections with purpose, moving Mondelez beyond cautious, data-driven tactics, and uncovering what unites us all,” the company announced in a news release. “We are no longer marketing to consumers, but creating connections with humans.”

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Almost immediately, the coinage elicited a particularly human reaction: ridicule. Critics said “humaning” was yet another example of marketing lingo run amok, creative wordplay disintegrating into gibberish.

Robert Sutton, a Stanford University professor, described it as “corporate jargon monoxide.”

Bob Hoffman, an advertising industry veteran behind the Ad Contrarian newsletter, was also less than pleased by the linguistic innovation.

“In any sober industry,” he wrote, “the perpetrators of this nonsense would be taken out back by grown-ups and beaten to a pulp. Then they’d beat up on the pulp.”

Gareth Cartman, a novelist and client services director at the British ad firm CLD, wrote on Twitter: “Humaning. Someone must pay for this crime.”

Every industry has its argot, but people who work in the advertising “space” seem to love insider language more than most. In news releases, ad copy and earnings statements, they have tortured plain talk in service of the sell, with Frankensteinian combinations and avalanches of acronyms.

“Every tribe has their way of communicating a message, their shorthand,” said Michael Kassan, chief executive of MediaLink, a consulting firm that works with ad agencies. “Our industry is probably guiltier than most.”

In that spirit, here is a glossary of selected marketing lingo, new and old, that has proved baffling, or just annoying, even for some who work in the industry.

Adlob: Usually a component of an ad agency’s presentation that captures the essence of a proposed marketing campaign. Example: They seemed to like the concept, but we lost them with the adlob. Short for “ad-like object.”

B4H: This abbreviation has arrived in the wake of “B2B” (shorthand for “business-to-business”) and “B2C” (“business-to-consumer”). Bob Liodice, chief executive of the Association of National Advertisers, invoked “B4H” in a recent speech that seemed to echo Mondelez’s use of “humaning”: “It’s not about B2B or B2C,” he told his audience. “It’s humanity for growth — B4H, brands for humans.”

Brand heat: When “buzz” lost its buzz, brand heat came to the rescue. For years Puma, Burberry and other companies have used the term to convey strong interest in a given brand. Nike has invoked the phrase more than a dozen times during earnings calls in recent years.

Customer journey: People don’t simply buy things anymore. Like epic heroes, they go on a customer journey that begins when they become aware of a certain product, continues through the time when they weigh whether or not they would like to have it, and reaches a conclusion when they buy it.

Hypertelling: Advertising copywriters excel in storytelling (see entry below) for their clients. And when they allow customers in on the marketing process by, say, using their brand-specific memes? That’s “hypertelling,” as defined by Mike Yapp, director of Google’s “creative think tank” the Zoo.

Occasion: In the real world, an occasion is often a special event. In the land of marketing, it’s a lot more prevalent. A common phrase is “snacking occasion,” which is a growing part of America’s “eating occasions.” We are now heading into the season of “gifting occasions.”

Phygital: A mix of the physical and digital elements in a customer’s experience of a brand. A furniture retailer could try to bridge its online and real-world sales strategies with an app that allows a potential buyer to see how a couch on display in a showroom might look in their living room.

Purpose-driven lifestyle brand: Blue Apron, Chipotle, Goop and Godiva have described themselves with this phrase. It’s meant to suggest that customers don’t just want the products sold by a particular company, but seek a deeper connection with it and wear it “as a badge,” as Christopher Brandt, chief marketing officer of Chipotle, put it.

Snackable content: Short promotional videos made for smartphones and other devices.

Solutioning: Marketers love making one part of speech into another. A slogan from Hyundai — “However you family” — turns a noun into a verb. Toyota turned an adjective into a noun with “Start your impossible.” So it should come as no surprise that many marketers have taken a perfectly good noun, solution, and made it into a verb to describe the process of solving a knotty problem.

Storytelling: Companies once hired ad agencies for a simple job: conveying the appeal of their products, usually in a punchy manner. Now they want creative teams to immerse potential customers in narratives that practically mythologize their brands, and storytelling is perhaps the industry’s No. 1 buzzword. AdWeak, an advertising studio that also runs a parody Twitter account, has sold a tongue-in-cheek coffee mug emblazoned with the line: “For the last time, I’m not a copywriter, I’m a (expletive) brand storyteller.” (And even storytelling may not be enough, it seems. Mondelez says that “humaning” happens when “storytelling becomes storydoing.”)

Thumb-stopping: A descriptor for online content, made especially for mobile devices, that captures someone’s attention enough to stop them from scrolling. Pinterest, Shutterstock and Samsung have all promoted themselves as services that help users to create “thumb-stopping” material.

TLA: The ad industry loves acronyms. OTT stands for “over-the-top” streaming content delivered over the internet. PDOOH is short for “programmatic digital out-of-home” (that is, ads placed through an automated bidding process on digital billboards and others signs). And TLA? It’s an acronym for a type of acronym. Specifically, “three-letter acronyms.”

Top-of-funnel: Remember the customer’s journey (see entry above)? Top-of-funnel (also known as TOFU) describes a special part of it, the moment when a potential buyer becomes aware of a product or service.


© 2020 The New York Times Company


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