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Calling yourself ‘innovative’ used to be, well, innovative. As long as you explained how you were groundbreaking or original, or why you led the way.

But over time, people started using this abstract word lazily – as a catch-all and without explaining exactly what they meant. In fact, there’s a whole raft of similarly vacuous and meaningless words that organisations use to describe themselves, what they do, or how they do what they do. Words like ‘integrity’, ‘quality’, ‘excellence’, and ‘engagement’.

George Orwell wrote: “Most educated people don’t realise how little impression abstract words make on the average man.” We agree. So it’s always been a mystery to us why businesses seem to want to pepper their communications with them.

Some are vital business concepts, but they’re all pretty worthless when used in isolation. They don’t tell us anything, really – who decides what represents quality, for instance, or what constitutes innovation in any given business?

Maybe the easiest way to demonstrate our point is to create an example? Let’s assume you’d like to donate to a charity, but you’re torn between two promoting the same cause.

One says: “We’re always looking for new and different ideas for raising money. Then we identify the projects you’d like us to support, and find ways to make your money go further in helping the interests we share.”

The other says: “As a charity our values are innovation, customer focus and quality.”

They’re actually both saying the same thing, but in different ways. Which one tells you more? Which would you be more likely to support? We know our answer. So why, oh why, does almost every company want to use copy like the second option?

Another example? OK, we’re writing something for a rail company – a newsletter, web page or flyer maybe. They’ll want us to say they’re innovative, because every company wants us to say they’re innovative. (How innovative is that, incidentally?).

But do they mean they’re always updating timetables, or offering new ticketing packages, or they’ve got some new rolling stock, fixed the air conditioning, refreshed the menu items? Who knows, and even if it was all of the above, would the innovation be to our liking? We’re still totally in the dark.

As George Orwell pointed out, this most fashionable of words really doesn’t leave much impression. Unfortunately, pointing this out is a battle we have almost every day, and one we rarely win. Don’t ask me why.


  1. Loved reading this, and cannot agree more. Especially regarding innovation, you can get a more concrete response by asking “why are you innovating, and how will you achieve that?”

    • matt says:

      Thanks for your comment, Abdulmohsen. You’ve hit the nail on the head. Explain how you’ve ‘innovated’, and you probably won’t even need to use the word.

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