Small Business

Five Words to Never Use in an Ad


Forget the meaningless cliches and empty promises. What really matters is what customers take away about a business

Google the term "magic advertising words" and you'll instantly get over 8 million results. But caveat emptor -- don't buy into everything you read, because your prospective buyer certainly won't.

From the time marketing began, there has never been a shortage of self-appointed experts who claim to have identified the words that will unlock your customers' wallets. In the Internet age their advice is even easier to come by. They promise that words such as "you," "guarantee," "easy," "limited-time," and the old standby, "free," will generate surefire results. If only it were that simple.

As a smart business person, you probably know that there are no such things as magic words, particularly in a culture that has been saturated with advertising. But there's something else you should know: Not only do magic advertising words not exist, several of them actually work against you. And chances are, you're using at least one of them in your advertising now.

Brace yourself. Here are five of the advertising words you should never use:

Quality

This may be the most overused word in advertising, which is the primary reason why you should stay away from it. What exactly does "quality" mean? In a Lexus, it may mean hand-crafted finishes, supple seats, or a smooth ride. In a Hyundai, it's more about the extended warranty than anything.

The point is this: every product worth buying is a quality product. It may be high-priced quality or it may be low-priced quality, but it's quality either way. That means every company believes it can use the word "quality" in its advertising. Too many have, and as a result, now it has become just seven empty letters.

Value

Like quality, value has been ruined by overuse. Go back to the Lexus and the Hyundai examples -- which car is the better value? It depends -- on the buyer, on the purchase occasion, and on what features and benefits value is being judged. Both vehicles are good values depending on the purchase context.

Or take another industry, retail: Wal-Mart provides good value, but so does Tiffany. Value, like quality, is in the eye of the beholder, and every product or service has its own value equation. Saying "we provide the best value" is, therefore, virtually meaningless.

Service

Have you ever heard an ad promising lousy service? Of course not, which is the reason why claiming good service just falls on deaf ears. It's funny, but the companies that make the claim of good service the most tend to be those that deliver it the least.

Of course, most organizations do have sincere intentions to provide outstanding service and commonly cite Nordstrom as the example to which they aspire. But Nordstrom is Nordstrom for a reason -- the company's entire culture and identity is built around the service concept. Nordstrom is the exception, most companies can't get there from here, and simply promising great service won't make it happen.

Caring

Do you really believe your company cares more about your customers than your competition does? It may feel good to say so, but the claim flies in the face of common sense. If your competitors didn't care about their customers, they couldn't stay in business.

It's particularly easy for service companies to get caught up in the "caring" self-deceit because they don't sell a tangible product. But to say "we care more" in an ad presumes that your competitors care less, which is ascribing motivations to them that can't be proven. Consumers know this and are not only hesitant to believe your claim, they are likely to consider it bad form.

The above four words all fail for essentially the same reasons. Not only are they overused, they're based on variables that will be different for everyone. There's a quality/value/service/caring continuum in each person's mind for every purchase occasion, and it is a continually moving target.

But the fifth word is different. The fifth word doesn't work precisely because it's not variable. The fifth word is binary.

Integrity

A company either has integrity or it doesn't. It's either honest or it isn't. And most people give companies the benefit of the doubt in believing that they operate with integrity. When a company talks about integrity in its advertising it's for one of two reasons, neither one of them good: They're either trying to cover up some lack of integrity (which never works) or they're implying they live by a higher standard than their competition. That's impolite, to say the least. Every company needs to have integrity. No company needs to advertise it.

Do you want your customers and prospects to view your products and services as being high quality and of good value? Of course. Do you want them to appreciate your caring service and strong integrity? Absolutely. But every company wants those things. Those that win the hearts and minds of consumers don't talk the talk, they walk the walk.

What you think about your company doesn't matter. All that matters is what your customers and prospects think. The next time you're tempted to use one of these five words in an ad, stop and ask if there's a better way to get the message across. Using common words that have become empty cliches is a shortcut to nowhere. Just because you sell it doesn't mean people will buy it.

Steve McKee is president of McKee Wallwork Cleveland Advertising, an ad agency specializing in working with fast-growth companies and businesses whose ad budgets are under $10 million.

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