Is our marketing terminology fit for purpose?

/ 24 May 2022

Consumer attitudes on data privacy are intensifying. Sensing this convergence, tech companies are implementing policies to limit covert tracking and governments across the globe are introducing new restrictions to regulate the handling of data. It’s now critical for businesses to rethink their data privacy policies.

Unfortunately, many brands still see data privacy as a box-ticking exercise. They are loath to wean themselves off third-party data and maintain the perception that marketing is a one-way broadcast. Something that happens TO consumers, not WITH them.

However, forward-thinking brands are treating the brand-customer relationship as a two-way dialogue. This leads to a higher quality of data that can be used to gain actionable insight and create a more relevant, personalized experience for the customer.

The move from a one-way broadcast to a two-way dialogue is a significant shift in the marketer’s mindset, but it’s happening very slowly. Is it possible that the transition is being hindered by the very language and terminology that marketers use?

The subtle power of language still applies internally

Marketers are, of course, very aware of the power of language and tone of voice when it comes to customer-facing communications. But what if we turned this back on the language and terminology that marketers use internally?

Take the term ‘consumer’, for example. Once a word used solely in the food and drink industry, this is now commonly substituted for ‘person’ or ‘individual’ in the marketing world. If people are solely defined by their ability to consume products, marketers are assuming a one-way relationship. It promotes the viewpoint that brands have sole control over the brand-to-customer relationship. If they do, they are missing a huge opportunity.

“The language by which we define things should be the language by which we change things.”

This can feel like splitting hairs here, but as management consultant and academic, Dave Snowden notes above, our definitions can change our perspectives.

Continuing with the term ‘consumer,’ a 2012 study noted the word’s negative effect. During the study, different groups of people were given the same hypothetical scenario – there’s a water shortage, and you have to share a well with three other people. The only difference was whether the participants in each group were labeled as ‘consumers’ or ‘individuals.’

The “consumers” rated themselves as less trusting of others to conserve water, less personally responsible, and less in partnership with the others in dealing with the crisis. The consumer status, the authors concluded, “did not unite; it divided.”

The subtle distinction in language had a noticeable impact on the behavior of the participants – triggering different psychological concerns. However, it didn’t create a collaborative environment. And this could be read as a collaboration between marketer and customer, or between marketing colleagues themselves.

Three words to remove from your marketing lingo

Brands are very aware of their language in front of their customers. But to enact the mindset shift needed to implement genuinely two-way relationships with new individuals, it may be time for marketers to look at their internal language.


A consumer is ultimately a human with needs, motivations, and values. Give them the ability to become active members in the brand-customer relationship, and they will be able to share their interests and intent directly.

People that are given the tools to control their data privacy settings will be able to tell brands what they are interested in and what platform they want to be targeted on. In this way, when marketers do communicate, the creepy surprise element will be lost, and the customers will pay more attention to the message.

Data capture

Customer loyalty is built on trust-based relationships. Tricking customers into sharing more information than they are willing to give is a quick way to lose trust. ‘Capturing’ data implies marketers are wrangling information out of customers unwilling to share. It connotes brands are doing something manipulative.

Instead, brands should earn the data by building a trust-based relationship based on honest and transparent value exchanges. Brands that are clear about the data they want and how they will use it to benefit the customer will reap the most significant rewards.


Historically, the term campaign has military or political connotations. This military mindset suggests that marketers’ messages are an unwanted assault on unwitting consumers. It implies that marketers should force their way into people’s lives to influence their decisions covertly.

Instead, consider marketing as a form of customer service. Look for opportunities that provide genuine interactions. Allow space for a two-way dialogue where customers can give feedback and communicate how the brand can provide the most relevant experience possible.

Our website uses cookies to help us to understand how you use it. By continuing to use our website you consent to our use of such cookies. For more information please read our privacy policy.