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Brand Language: A 2020 Vision

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One has only to scan news reports from the beginning and the end of the past decade to see how much our language has changed in the interim.

The usual suspects—technology, consumer culture, politics,—were joined by new agents of lexical change: think terrorism, economic instability, and social networking.

Now, at the beginning of a new decade, it's a good time to consider which incipient trends might play out over the coming years.

The cultural distance between 2000 and 2010 proves the futility of trying to predict too precisely but also shows how the roots of change are there for those who look closely.

Here are some language trends to be looking and listening for in the decade ahead.


Speaking Scarcity: Words and Water

Scarcity is central to our economic system, underpinning how things are valued, priced, managed, and consumed. One element trending toward scarcity is water.

The World Water Council, an international forum, warns that "water to produce food for human consumption, industrial processes, and all the other uses is becoming scarce."

Just how scarce? It is not inconceivable that the price of water will rival that of oil in the near future. We may soon view as quaint a decade that had water-beverage brands such as Dasani and Aquafina joining the perennial ranks of "springs," "geysers," and classics like Evian.

Look to water and waste management service provider Suez Environnement and other private forays for what's on the horizon for water, which was once the domain of public utilities.

Expect to see new language emerge not just at the level of brand names and marketing messages, but around the ethical questions raised by private control over an essential life-sustaining substance.

Energy: An Efficiency of Language

The household thermostat (kids turn it up, dad turns it down) has already yielded to newly familiar terms such as "smart meters and grids," "home energy footprint," and "home-energy yardstick."

Global companies, such as BP, and watchdog organizations, such as the Worldwatch Institute, confirm that future energy-consumption demands will likely continue to change. As the calibration of supply, demand, and cost continues to shift, we will hear more energy terminology infiltrating everyday language.

Dinner-table conversations and industry messaging alike will track the migration of the fanciful to the fundamental—solar, wind, microhydro, tidal, etc. And don't be surprised if it's the kids who take the lead in turning down usage and turning up efficiency.

Climate: Warming-Up to New Terms

The term "global warming" looks increasingly like a lukewarm entrant for naming a complex set of interrelated yet dissimilar changes.

How do you quickly convey the paradoxes presented by warmer here but colder there, drier souths but wetter norths, a dearth of honeybees but an explosion of jellyfish?

With government agencies such as NASA predicting that "a new global temperature record will be set within the next 1-2 years," we can anticipate new language as well—born of climate and weather maps that run from the micro-local to the extra-global.

Look for morning-news reports that update, designate, and interpret ultraviolet levels, tidal surges, and solar-flare activity.

Social Media: Vocabulary Friended

In her 2010 predictions, trend guru Marian Salzman exalts that social media "will be the greatest driver of all trends worldwide."

Already, our world—and how we talk about it—is transformed by the way we connect with one another. Blogging, tweeting, and friending are now commonplace verb forms—some occupying spaces where no gerund has gone before.

Not just friendly interactions but vital connections in the wake of political and natural upheavals are now initiated via mechanisms that didn't exist a few short years ago.

As our virtual world expands, so will the neologisms with which we familiarize it, as will the brands that enable fresh forms of interaction.

As an outgrowth, we'll see more bastardized words, catchy new phrases, and patchwork abbreviations. That future may not look pretty to grammarians, but it will be welcome to consumers who are less fussy about verb forms.

Pharma/Drug Therapy: Words That Pop

While drug names continue to pop into our language, pill popping—as a method of drug administration—may become old-fashioned.

According to a 2009 survey of large pharmaceutical companies ("Drug Delivery Prospects for the Next Decade: An Informal Survey of Big Pharma" by Josef Bossart, PhD), drug delivery products will gain in importance over the next decade.

Expect an increase in branded drug-administration vehicles that use the skin, nose, fingertips, and even nanotechnology as their primary delivery modes.

Moreover, as Andrew Maynard reports in his blog, 2020 Science, the line between therapeutics and cosmetics will continue to blur as nanotechnologies and other advances act from within the body to create both health and aesthetic benefits.

As regulations and marketing shift to keep up, we can anticipate an accompanying injection of verbiage into popular discourse as branded "cosmeceutical" benefits are pitched to consumers.

Not just names, but messages at all levels, will change: The answers to "What is it?" "How do I take it?" and "Will I look as good as I feel?" will have to be developed in tandem.

Healthcare: Words and Wellness

Currently the inflection point for both evolutionary and revolutionary change, healthcare is galvanizing our public debate even as it continues to be a daily concern of nearly every family and individual.

Having had to take more control over the management of their own healthcare, consumers are now used to thinking in terms of HMOs (health maintenance organizations), PPOs (preferred provider organizations), and HSAs (health savings accounts).

The learning—and language—curve has only steepened as policy debates have forced us to get savvy about concepts such as "public option."

Going forward, patient advocacy, consumer protection, participatory medicine, and the proliferation of new therapies will continue to generate words of wellness.

Sustainability: More Familiar Terms

"Climate-related business could top $2 trillion by 2020," asserts Environmental Leader, an online energy and environmental business news resource. Once firmly embedded in the dictionaries of environmental enthusiasts, the vocabulary of sustainability is increasingly on everyone's tongue.

The motivations range from an increase in environmental awareness to old-fashioned (and now new-fashioned) economic necessity. "Think globally, act locally" has doubled over on its axis as micro-local thinking now drives thrift and sustainability as much as threats of global warming do.

From "home composting" and "homemade biofuels" to "buying local" and "working green," the languages of sustainability and consumption are merging and evolving in tandem.

Terrorism: Speaking of Our Fears

In their horror and our need to assess and articulate them, the events of 9/11 sparked a veritable explosion not just in our awareness of new and growing threats but also of the terms with which we explain, guard against, and respond to them.

Some terms migrated from parts of the world where they were already familiar (e.g., "suicide bomber"). Others emerged with almost absurd particularity (e.g., "shoe bomber").

The need to pre-empt and protect against ongoing and evolving threats will continue to drive the production of new terms. Growing to encompass contingencies beyond human-made terror, this cautionary tale will spawn increasingly precise verbal practices: Remember, don't say "swine flu," say "H1N1."

Sex: Taboos and Terminology

Even as "secret subjects" become less shunned and lose their ability to shock (as observed here), new taboos emerge to titillate us.

What can and can't be said continues to dance through our public discourse. Whether it's in a news report, a drug ad, or a talk show, the language of sex has become highly descriptive and overt. Yet its power to capture our attention continues to lie in the sense that we're shouting what should be shushed.

Since consumer culture is never slow to turn what captivates us into cash flow, we can expect to see new brand names emerge in the marketplace of the erotic.

Following a decade in which erectile dysfunction treatments seemed to bookend any TV show geared to the 40-plus demographic, we are poised to see progressively more blatant treatment of bedroom issues. Whether they're geared toward sexual health and fulfillment or new-fashioned forms of red-light entertainment, expect to see more trademarks attached to our taboos.

Language: Writ Large

Beyond their everyday impacts, the above list of language trends in combination with other catalysts will drive the need for higher-order language as well—language for describing changes in language itself. (For more on past naming and linguistic observations, see www.americandialect.org.)

Expect linguists and communications professionals to pick up on that notion and create new ways to converse about how we, well, converse!

So, whether we're simply talking, or talking about how we talk, we can anticipate the continued growth of language and the language specialties we practice.


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Mark Thomson is a principal at Thomson\\Wright Branding Specialties (www.ThomsonWrightBranding.com). He can be reached at mark@thomsonwrightbranding.com.Alton Wright is a principal at Thomson\\Wright Branding Specialties (www.ThomsonWrightBranding.com). He can be reached at alton@thomsonwrightbranding.com.

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