There have been many parallels drawn between the Coronavirus pandemic and WWII. With VE day so recently commemorated, the media has been full of war-time messaging reminders of years gone by: common enemy, mobilization of resources and Winston Churchill’s “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

During wartime, central government messaging focused on getting large populations of people to make personal sacrifices for the common good. And getting the wording right, it was realised, could be a matter of life and death.

In this digital era, persuasive messaging is hitting us on a variety of platforms in 24-hour cycles and the power of semantics – whether you agree or disagree with the message – has been profound.

 ‘Value’ is changing – again

We have debated the concept of value for a while now. It is useful as a common currency for any type of organization. What constitutes ‘value’ depends on the nature of the enterprise but remains useful as a concept to define, plan and deploy what people will invest in and pay for.1

Over recent years, there has been a further shaping of what ‘value’ means, by regulation. Regulation, such as GDPR, disrupted organization processes at a time of big data and privacy protection. Is the shift now from data security to bio security, and possibly from customer satisfaction to customer safety, again externally driven by regulation?

Some are seeing the humour in the disruption, asking “Who led the digital transformation of your company: CTO? CIO? Covid19?”

In 2017, behavioural economist Richard Thaler won the Nobel Prize for Economics.2 This acknowledged the science of behaviour influence through semantics – the crafting of communication – rather than regulation.3

Conscious of the importance of talent retention on the other side of this crisis, I have been asking HR leaders: is the in-company messaging ‘fit for purpose’ to keep people engaged, and the answer has been NO. It is yet another reminder that marketing is a key leadership skill. There are at least four key audiences leaders need to positively influence:

  • Customers
  • Investors
  • Employees
  • Suppliers

Messages need careful crafting to get the outcome you need. (Too often, the crafter of the message writes for him/herself, not the audience.)

Semantics that influence in the right direction

The semantics (what we call narrative devices in the ‘biz’) have been fascinating. I have understood for the first time what is meant by ‘alternative facts’. E.g. masks or no masks? (More harm than good, or lifesaving?) Gov. Cuomo says not wearing masks is disrespectful. “It’s disrespectful. It’s disrespectful to the nurses, the doctors, the people who have been front line workers, the transit workers. You wear the mask not for yourself. You wear the mask for me. It’s a sign of respect to other people. You make me sick. That’s disrespectful.”4

Agree or disagree, you have to admit that the words have power. (He also has parenting advice, if you are interested, about “NDS” – natural defiance syndrome5)

Another example is Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s phrase: We cannot allow our fear of going backwards to stop us from going forwards. (His government’s efforts to persuade, cajole and convince a large enough number of freedom-loving aussies to download a tracing app could be seen as entertaining if it weren’t so serious.)

Everyone has become an armchair epidemiologist, but this is no simple matter. Complex matters can’t be reduced to binary decisions as the sound bites imply. Warnings about non-Covid19 deaths related to the lockdown are getting louder. Yet, some decisions remain simple.

Words matter

When word choice is critical, some choices are simple. As Charles Araujo pointed out early in the lockdown, social distancing is not an accurate term. You want people to be remain socially connected but be physically distant. I have noticed that people have become standoffish; they avert eyes and seem ready for a fight. I wonder if the constant media bombardment of the term social distancing hasn’t had a profound effect on how people behave – in the wrong direction. That’s a simple matter of getting the word choice right.

Another Covid19 example: consider the difference between these two signs outside retail outlets:

  • Forced shutdown
  • Temporarily closed

The phrase ‘customer centric’ has been used for decades but remains an ideal. In a digital age when organisations have better customer-connection tools than ever, the language remains stubbornly supplier-centric.

Here’s what I mean:

  • Banks: “Lending” (customers borrow)
  • Product supplier sales rep is an “Account manager” (As a customer, I don’t want to be thought of as an ‘account’ and don’t want to be ‘managed’.)
  • A Government department email I saw was sent by someone with the title “Customer segment lead” (what?!)
  • “We apologise for the inconvenience………”
  • “Do not hesitate to contact us………”
  • “Please be advised that……….” (Who speaks like that?)
  • “Email us: sales@……….” (I don’t want to be ‘sold’ to. Better would be “help@……”)

What would be similar in your organisation? What terminology alienates the people you actually want to attract? Where can your word choice become more customer-centric so that the people you want to attract and retain feel you are inside their heads – seeing the world from their perspective?

While you are disrupting your business to make it Covid19-resistant, why not use this opportunity to make your business more customer-attractive? This is a chance to hit the reset button while every aspect of the business is under scrutiny for safety. Safety is one thing but human connection is another. To survive during tough economic times, you may consider some simple choices to connect with customers on a human level, using words that make sense from their perspective.


1 “Beating the odds at the Digital Casino.” John Thorpe, February 14, 2020

2“Nobel prize is awarded to Richard Thaler” by Binyamin Appelbaum Oct. 9, 2017

3 Thaler, Prof Richard H. and Cass R. Sunstein. (2008) Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT.

4. Andrew Cuomo, Governor. “ Cuomo says not wearing masks is ‘disrespectful’” May 3, 2020.

5. Andrew Cuomo, Governor. Cuomo Gives Parenting Advice: ‘You Can Never Say You Don’t Like The Boyfriend’  NBC News.