In a recent piece about content marketing trends for 2017, Joe Pulizzi – the self-styled poster-boy of the content marketing movement – makes the point that ‘writing still counts, perhaps more than ever.’

‘More than not, marketers are abuzz about social media and video without comprehending that most of our communication is still text- and story-based. And frankly, most marketers are really bad at writing.’

Good writing is about vigilance, among other things. And as marketers, one easy way to improve our writing is to try and weed out some of those bits of boilerplated guff and clichéd collateralese that are always hanging about ready to sneak their way back into our copy the moment we turn our backs. (I’m sure you’ll find some in my copy; but one can but try.)

So here’s a dirty near-score of marketing phrases that refuse to die – together with some extra ammunition as to why it’s time to let them go for good…

‘We understand that x’

As in ‘we understand that getting a mortgage for the first time can be a daunting experience’. Or ‘we understand that your pet is important to you’. Or ‘we understand that your time is valuable.’

When you think about it, is there anything good one can say about this time-honoured marketing construction, which comes over as redundant (why would you tell me things you don’t understand?), patronising, questionable (what do you, a bank, really know or remember about the experience of getting a first-time mortgage?) or bland – and often all at once.

The fix: Often you can just remove the wording and immediately improve the sentence. But if you really want to make this point about empathy, find a way to show or prove that you understand x, not just state or tell it, for instance through proof points, testimonial quotes or other credible content that showcases your expertise in the area.

‘Tailored to your specific/individual requirements/your unique circumstances’

…And the whole bundle of messages about bespoke/customised solutions. These time-battered phrases promise much but deliver little, and tend to fall apart on closer inspection.

There’s the tautology – why would you tailor things to my non-specific requirements? There’s the lazy promise – is your ‘solution’ really as unique as my circumstances? How do you know my circumstances are unique, come to that? (They aren’t always.) Above all, there is the weary sense that this is just what you say to everyone… which delivers exactly the opposite cookie-cutter effect to what you were apparently shooting for.

The fix: Try and find something fresh to say. Be specific. Demonstrate that you really do ‘bespoke’ your ‘solutions’ (without using either of these words). Or if you don’t really, maybe you don’t need to pretend that you do?

‘X will soon be upon us’ (and other tired seasonal hooks)

As in ‘winter will soon be upon us and car safety is essential to avoid emergency situations’ (so you need our executive driving winter kit). Or ‘the picnic season will soon be upon us so why not stock up on some al fresco essentials?’ (which we sell, by the way). Or ‘the festive season will soon be upon us, but don’t worry, we’ve got Christmas all wrapped up’.

That last one manages to combine two seasonal clichés in one, of course: ‘all wrapped up’ is for my money right up there with ‘new year, new you’ and the assumption that people (especially men) do nothing but DIY on bank holidays.

Does it matter? Aren’t these messages just conventions that we expect at certain times of the year? Well, they often feel very tired, and that can’t be good for our sales prospects. Plus, endless repetition of the same phrases tends to make readers blind/deaf to their meaning (a phenomenon that can affect the writers of such marketing copy too). 

The fix: Say something else. Address the season in an unexpected way. What about single people and divorcees at Valentine’s? What about making a resolution at the start of the Chinese New Year or the tax year?

On the other hand, if you have an unexpected event coming up, the use of the mundane cliché actually adds to the impact:  

‘Looking for/to do x?’ ‘Need x for your y?’

As in: ‘Looking to review your postage franking solution in 2017?’ Or: ‘Looking for a new flooring solution for your home?’ Or: ‘Looking to drive business growth?’ Or: ‘Need a new UK hospitality purchase decision-maker database provider?’

You get this sort of approach in coldish emails a lot. What they tend to have in common is an absence of sizzle, or benefit, or USP. Such marketing simply states what’s on offer, in the most internally focused and unvarnished way possible, and asks you if you want it. Or else it states the bleeding obvious: What business isn’t interested in growth? (And when are you going to get round to telling me what you do?)

Sometimes this may be a sensible way of qualifying out people. If I really have no possible need of a new UK hospitality purchase decision-maker database, no amount of fancy copy can change this. But then again, if there is a chance I might be interested, why would I go for the provider who can’t be bothered to do more than list what they do?

What this approach also overlooks is that people often don’t know what they want or need, and it’s the job of the marketing copy to get people feeling otherwise. We get engaged with marketing messages because they chime with something we didn’t know we were already thinking, because they show how something might fit into our world, because they work hard to create a little feelgood sensation at the thought of having them in our lives. ‘Looking for a new flooring solution?’ doesn’t quite do it for me.

The fix: Be creative. Think about why someone might care about what you have to offer. Think about scenarios and use cases they might relate to. Tell us stories of other people who’ve benefited from your product or service. Anything but this really.

‘Today’s fast-moving world’

As in: ‘In today’s fast-moving world, any business that fails to keep up with the latest technological trends and developments will be swiftly left behind.’ Or: ‘In today’s fast moving world with its rapid technological advancement, the ability to constantly pivot and see oneself in relation to the larger ecosystem is essential in order to remain relevant.’

On Google, a search for ‘today’s fast-moving world’ yields 61,100 results. It’s the sort of phrase that’s especially favoured by consultancies, software providers and personal development outfits. It seems to be a sort of shorthand for our contemporary sense that the world keeps changing in complex ways, what with all the new gadgets and the social media stuff and those disruptive brands and that Donald Trump and drones and AI and loads of the jobs of tomorrow haven’t even been invented yet and digital transformation and oh God, I don’t know, everything’s just really complicated, it won’t stay still and now I’ve got a headache.

Something like that. But because everyone uses the same phrase and you show no signs of having any special insights to bring to bear on this complexity, we sort of just assume that you can’t really get your head round it either. Or maybe you can’t be bothered to say anything more meaningful because the world will probably change again, making your comments obsolete before you’ve even published them. But that’s today’s fast-moving world for you all over, alas.

The fix: Avoid. Be specific instead. Choose a specific topic or issue that your users and prospects might relate to, and that you have something interesting to say about.

‘Today, more than ever…’

As in: ‘Today more than ever, you need an effective way to help support a healthy balance of microbes in your gut’ (provider of probiotic supplements). Or: ‘Today, more than ever, we continue to be an industry leader in innovation’ (tool maker). Or: ‘Today more than ever before, our pets have become part of the family […] without asking for anything in return’ (pet urns supplier).

Copywriters often invoke this breathless phrase to signal that the thought that comes next is really important. It has to be, because it’s usually the reason they want you to invest in their product or service. Unfortunately, they often don’t have anything of sufficient weight to insert here, and so it all rings a bit hollow. ‘Today, more than ever, I need you to buy my product.’

The fix: Go for a proof point that’s provable and specific, rather than a general statement that’s as sweeping as it is unconvincing. Or think of a topical reference or a story people will be familiar with, to illustrate your point.

‘State of the art’

As in ‘state-of-the-art conference facilities’, ‘state-of-the-art accounting software’, or (even) ‘state-of-the-art pooper scooper’. I’m sure I’ve used this one in my time, but now that I look at in the cold light of day (cliché), I’m not sure I want to any more.

Pretty much everyone claims that what they do or sell is ‘state of the art’. This makes the claim meaningless. Another problem is that the phrase is really just a fancy synonym for ‘up to the minute’ or ‘latest’. So you’re basically claiming that your offering isn’t out of date (duh), or else it looks like you’re trying too hard to pretend that you’re still with it.

The fix: Back to specifics, to showing not telling. Focus on one or a few aspects that genuinely illustrate your state-of-the-artness.

‘Solutions’, ‘global solutions’, ‘global solutions provider’

As in: ‘UK cloud solutions provider’, ‘hotel bookings solutions provider’ or ‘business event solutions provider’. The word ‘solutions’ has been derided so often that satirical magazine Private Eye even ran a regular column in which readers sent in their worst examples of the phrase in action. Someone found a description of cardboard boxes as ‘Christmas Ornament Storage Solutions’. Then there was ‘Lockwoods Mushy Pea Fritters: the frozen versatile meal solution.’

But though civilians laughed at the phrase and moved on, in marketing – and especially in B2B and IT – it has refused to die. Google searches show it’s still everywhere. Yet it adds little in terms of meaning or impact, and is often totally redundant.

The fix: Try saying the same thing without mentioning the word ‘solution’ or ‘provider’. It’ll probably read better.

Quick-fire round

Here for your consideration are a few more pet hates from my colleagues, with their comments…

‘We’ve teamed up with…’ You’re not a superhero!

‘Meeting the needs of today’s [businesses/global traveller/etc]…’ Bland and meaningless.

‘It’s up to you…’ As in, ‘Choose x widget, or choose y widget – it’s up to you’. Who else would it be up to??

‘Whatever you’re looking for/planning etc, we can help/we’ve got you covered’ Really? Anything? Now you’ve just got me thinking of exceptions.

‘As a [insert audience], you need to [insert product benefit] and that’s why we now offer [insert product feature]’ Formulaic and unimaginative. This is just the brief served up as the execution.

‘Created by experts’, ‘We’re experts in…’ ‘We have the expertise’ etc I hate the ‘expert’ tag. If you’re really experts, do you have to say it?

‘[Our event] is fast approaching and it’s going to be the best [thing of its kind] ever’ Don’t believe you.

‘110%!’ This is simply, mathematically inaccurate.

‘Something for everyone’ Don’t do it. You’ll be ‘ticking every box’ next…

Unbeatable prices Unless you really do have a price promise.

‘Your dream x (e.g. your dream kitchen)’ I don’t think I’ve ever dreamt about my ideal kitchen!

For more on this topic, book yourself onto one of Econsultancy’s copywriting courses, or check out these other posts: