Recently, I posted a rather facetious and puerile piece on my own blog that poked fun at all the now-familiar B2B copywriting cliches. A commenter remarked, not unreasonably, that those who write commercially for a living should be doing more to avoid, or at least resist, such lazy usage.
Actually, I don’t think it’s that simple. There are reasons why cliches get used, and avoiding them is more than just a matter of will. In this post, I’d like to look a little deeper into how cliches emerge, become popular and embed themselves so firmly into the language of business.
Downsized and dis-integrated
It’s instructive to recount the story of our old friend ‘solution’. It’s probably the most mercilessly pummelled of all the B2B buzzwords (apart, possibly, from ‘passion’), yet its resilience is remarkable. Where did it come from, and why is it still with us?
‘Solution’ first started gaining traction in the 1990s: the era of aggressive corporate restructuring – or ‘transformation’ to its architects – in the West. Inspired by Japanese business, firms in the US and Europe enthusiastically pursued strategies of vertical dis-integration, ‘lean thinking’ and Kaizen. Usually, that involved ‘downsizing’ inventory, assets and workforce while outsourcing as many non-critical functions as possible to reduce fixed costs.
In this new world, suppliers were suddenly important. Whereas your IT supplier had previously been the guy who sold you some beige boxes, now he was in charge of infrastructure that ran key business functions. Quickly, suppliers realised that they would become more important to their clients, and be able to charge them more, if they were seen as something more than reactive order-takers.
That was the idea. But ideas only work with the right words. Enter ‘solution’.
Le mot juste
‘Solution’ was perfect in so many ways. It encapsulated what suppliers aspired to provide: the answer to the client’s problem. It had highly desirable connotations of competence and comprehensiveness. With its echoes of ‘resolution’, it promised a final, conclusive answer: the end of a frustrating search, or the final piece of a fiendishly difficult jigsaw puzzle.
It was trisyllabic, so it looked important and grown-up, but it wasn’t spiky or unwieldy. It felt liquid and rounded on the tongue, and sounded smooth and voluptuous when spoken out loud. In short, it was the perfect word for its time.
Along with stable-mates like ‘partnership’, ‘proactive’ and ‘flexible’, ‘solution’ irresistibly rose to a position of utter dominance. There was almost no situation where it couldn’t be deployed: every type of provider, from IT down to cleaning, could give their service an instant shine by positioning it as a solution.
‘Solution’ was a powerful weapon in the fight against globalisation and commoditisation too. If overseas providers were eating your breakfast with eye-wateringly low prices, offering ‘solutions’ put some distance between your flexible, proactive services and their, yes, ‘off the shelf’ offering. You might have been able to get something printed in China for 10p, but would they be offering a true end-to-end solution, from help with choosing formats to flexible deliveries?
As years went by, makers of machines and equipment got in on the act, bigging up their after-sales support so that they too could become ‘solution providers’. Firms embraced the word not only in their marketing content, but often in their actual names too – staking their entire brand and reputation on this one wonderful word.
The problem is, of course, that ‘solution’ has become, erm, saturated. It’s lost its power to differentiate, because everyone uses it. It doesn’t make big firms look big, or Western firms look superior, because their smaller and cheaper rivals have started using it too. When it comes to writing copy, ‘solution’ is no longer the solution.
And yet the word itself is as apposite as it has ever been. No word has been coined or discovered that conveys exactly the same meaning, with just the same overtones. And firms still need to describe the things they do in a way that gives them appeal to customers; they still want to be the answer to a problem.
What’s more, outside self-satisfied milieux like the PCN, ‘solution’ still rocks a lot of bells. Young and aspiring entrepreneurs still enthusiastically embrace it, anxious to appear as serious as their elders. In the non-native English speaking world, which is ‘behind’ places like the UK in terms of linguistic evolution, ‘solution’ still sounds pretty fresh and exciting. And, truth be told, there are plenty of executives who just don’t care about using slightly outmoded terms as long as they sound good – to their own ears, at least.
What’s happened is that ‘solution’ has become part of the received idiom for a particular field. It’s simply what readers expect to read, and what writers expect to write; an immovable object of business communication. Like the sword in the stone, it’s been driven into the heart of commercial language with supernatural force, and no mere mortal can drag it out again.
Of course, you can take it out or replace it, and gain the element of surprise. But in a medium where information is key, do you really want to? Is it really worth disorientating the reader just because a word is a touch over-familiar? When you’re writing for B2B buyers whose emotional involvement is nominal-to-zero, there’s an argument for just saying it in the beigest, most transparent way possible.
The other problem is that, more often than not, the client will be more than happy to have ‘solution’ – and the other usual suspects – in their text. In their eyes, that sort of expression is not tired and limp, but thrusting and optimal. If you propose something different, therefore, you will not seem diligent and forward-thinking, but wrong-headed, obstructive and unprofessional.
Will ‘solution’ ever die? If it does, I think it will take decades. It’s become indispensable, like the words ‘great’ or ‘delicious’ in B2C copywriting. We’ll have to wait for the word to age so badly that it starts to look like a refugee from another time, like the word ‘terrific’ might look in a consumer ad.
Until then, as the gatekeepers of commercial language, we have to decide how to handle it. And I think it’s probably easiest to follow Confucius’ sage advice: ‘You turn the handle the way it goes, not the way it ought to go.’