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To me personally, words are important, too. My background is in Cognitive Science and Cultural Anthropology, with a focus on linguistics in both fields. I’ve studied language from both the neuroscience and cultural sides. And at Johns Hopkins University, I spent a happy year reading and analyzing every word in the 2008 Financial Crisis Inquiry Report in all its 662-page glory. So in a crisis, I’m immediately curious about the words people use to make sense of their experience.
Faced with the magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic, though, it can seem impossible to find words to describe what the world is going through. What we’re facing, collectively, is something most of us have never dealt with before — the threat of contagion, the challenges of a quarantine, and the possibility (or reality) of major losses, both in human terms and economically.
Yet at the same time, especially as marketing professionals and leaders of businesses, we’re asked to communicate clearly and effectively about the pandemic — what people should do to respond, what our own companies (or clients) are doing, or even what we’re feeling on a personal level.
In many cases, we end up using the same words over and over. This can be either good or bad. The words we choose can follow patterns that customers start to recognize and that put us in line with others in our fields. Or, they can become so generic that they lose meaning — something no leader even wants to see happen to their own messaging.
Using Google Trends and other tech tools that look at words across a broad swatch of internet activity and published books, I analyzed how some COVID-19 words and phrases are being used and how those uses have changed over time. Drawing on my Anthropology background, I also looked back at a previous pandemic to see what words were used to describe it at the time, and how today’s words differ —or remain the same.
Especially in a crisis, words matter. By looking at how others are describing COVID-19, we can get a better sense of when we should use standard, familiar phrasing and when we need to communicate in a way that sets our companies and ourselves apart.
Usage has fallen off recently and is continuing to trend downwards. This suggests that the word may be seen as overused, or that the current situation in the world has persisted for long enough that customers are no longer seeing COVID-19 as “unprecedented."
The precedent for this week under quarantine may now be last week under quarantine — the world has been radically altered for long enough that our current situation is beginning to feel normal.
That assumption is borne out by the data. At the same time that “unprecedented” started to trend downwards (around March 20, when lockdowns began in earnest in the United States), the phrase “new normal” started to trend upwards, a trajectory that’s continuing.
Perhaps the world is starting to see the pandemic as something that needs to be integrated into our lives over the long term, not a sudden and short term shock.
As a marketer, if you’re planning new communications in the time of the coronavirus, you may want to emphasize the present moment, rather than comparing the present to the past with words like unprecedented. Your staff and customers are living by the day and trying to find meaning in their new, radically altered lives — your communications should acknowledge and address this.
The Phrase “COVID-19”
Let’s also take a step back and look at the general term “COVID-19.” As one would expect, the term surged in popularity right around when it was introduced on February 11, 2020. It quickly became the fastest term ever to be integrated into the Merriam Webster dictionary.
It also fairly quickly stamped out the term “Wuhan coronavirus,” which was the name many officials used to describe the virus until COVID-19 was officially named, and which had been starting to trend in mid-January.
“COVID-19” is starting to peak and trend downwards. People today may be searching for specific impacts of the virus, rather than looking for info on the virus itself.
As marketers, our messaging can obviously still reference the virus by name. But we may want to focus more on the broader impacts and disruptions than on the details of the virus itself since that appears to be where the world’s focus is turning.
The time for detailed discussions of your company’s sanitizing procedures and PTO policies has passed — it’s now time to focus less on the particulars of the virus and more on how it’s affecting your customers’ and employees’ lives.
The phrases “challenging times,” “difficult times,” and “uncertain times” are increasingly showing up in corporate communications addressing the virus’s impact, from Hyundai ads to consumer updates from companies like Constant Contact. Here’s a breakdown of the use of these three phrases over the last 90 days.
“Difficult times” is the most popular phrase, followed by “uncertain times” and “challenging times.” All three phrases started to peak in usage in mid-March, and they have since stayed at about the same levels or are trending downwards.
All of these phrases have been used extensively, becoming an easily recognizable shorthand for the COVID-19 pandemic. For your own messaging, that could be a good or bad thing. If you want to create messaging about the virus but don’t want to mention it by name, including copy like, “In these challenging times…” is a way to clue your audience in to the fact that you’re talking about COVID without explicitly talking about it.
It’s a bit like how Charmin talks about toilet paper. They urge people to “Enjoy the go," rather than saying what their product is actually used for. Everyone understands what “the go" means, even if it’s not explicitly stated.
Just as “Enjoy Pooping" makes for a lousy tagline, ads that mention COVID-19 too explicitly risk hitting a sour note, since they might suggest that a company is somehow capitalizing on the crisis. A car company that offers you a discount due to “challenging times" sounds friendly — one that offers the same discount due to a globally circulating deadly virus pandemic sounds parasitic.
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On the other hand, generic phrases like this can become so familiar that people start to tune them out. It can be helpful to include them, but it’s also important to speak more directly about the specifics of what your company is doing to respond to the crisis. In my own communications to my team, I’ve tried to walk the line between including stock phrases and talking more directly about how the crisis is impacting our business.