Keyword analysis - opportunity signals in times of accelerated change

Cultural Insights • 7 min read

The language we use describes our experience of life, but our experiences of life shape our language too. Brands that tune into keywords, tune into signals of change, which opens up opportunities for product and brand development.

Keyword analysis - opportunity signals in times of accelerated change

In a hyper-connected world, the pace of change can feel overwhelming. New technologies, social media, new money and fintech platforms, political tensions, the environment, social justice and protest movements make it difficult to stay abreast of current affairs. Throw in a pandemic and our lives change overnight. The structures and systems we rely on are swept aside and it reveals a set of new truths about the world we live in. This creates a new language and keywords that define it. Keywords are new words or words that resurface with new meanings.

Tuning into these keywords can help businesses and leaders develop social and emotional intelligence that helps them tune into the zeitgeist. This has huge advantages in adapting products and injecting your brand with the empathy required to communicate and operate on a human level.

Examples of Keyword Analysis

Towards the end of 2020, Brian Eno published the 25th anniversary edition of his diary "A Year With Swollen Appendices". In his new introduction, he lists 395 new words that have defined the last 25 years since he first published his diary in 1995. This is not all of the new words created in this period, just a list curated by Brian Eno as words he thinks are most significant.

It's a fascinating list. I created a Trello board with all 395 words, it's open access so feel free to use it. Some people have started adding notes and tags to make sense of them. It's hard to imagine that some words didn't exist 25 years ago. Imagine a world without "laptops", which I'm using to write this article and "blog", which is where you are reading this article now.

Edit: this link is now an invite link if you would like to add to the board.

Brian Eno, Keywords, Culture, Trends

Eno notes in his introduction that a lot of the new language over the past 10 years relates to our relationships with each other. Examples include, body-shaming, cancel-culture, crowdfund, remote working, cisgender, etc. He argues that new people want a new language because it differentiates them from older people. New language is not only a way of describing new phenomena but also a way for people to form an identity. Eno says:

“It’s often not about saying new things but about saying the same things differently and, in doing so, indicating which tribe you belong to (and which ones you don’t). Language is a badge of membership or affiliation, and sometimes that’s most of what it’s saying.”

Whilst searching online for a new word I heard last year, "Cottagecore", I searched online and found Aesthetic Wiki. This is a collection of many trending keywords and phrases with people discussing their origins, look and feel and how they have emerged to gain cultural significance. The wiki defines Cottagecore as:

"an aesthetic inspired by a romanticized interpretation of western agricultural life. It is centered on ideas around a more simple life and harmony with nature. Specific themes associated are the survival of the environment, food, and caring for people."

As the pandemic hit cottagecore became a trending subculture on social media with many people aspiring to an idyllic rural life where the bounty of nature provides for all our essential needs. For many people, this was a veneer to our cluttered lives and a need for more space as our homes became a school, an office, a gym and much more.

There are lots of new words being created all the time. Pre-pandemic the Global Language Monitor calculated that there were 14.7 new words created every day, that's 5,365 per year. This has accelerated through the pandemic as Casper Grathwohl, the president of the Oxford English Dictionary OED was quoted in the Guardian as saying:

“I’ve never witnessed a year in language like the one we’ve just had. The team at Oxford were identifying hundreds of significant new words and usages as the year unfolded, dozens of which would have been a slam dunk for word of the year at any other time. It’s both unprecedented and a little ironic – in a year that left us speechless, 2020 has been filled with new words unlike any other.”

It's not just new language, it's also the evolution of language that is significant as Raymond Williams said in his book "Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society" back in 1983:

“The original meanings of words are always interesting. But what is often most interesting is the subsequent variation.”

New words or variations in the meaning of existing words are the atomic units of understanding the meaning of new cultural phenomena. One of the key objectives of Raymond Williams's work is to understand how new meaning is created by the interconnections of words and how social and historical meaning is created within a language. He says:

“It is thus an intrinsic aim of the book to emphasize interconnections, some of which seem to me in some new ways systematic, in spite of problems of presentation which I shall discuss. It can of course be argued that individual words should never be isolated, since they depend for their meanings on their actual contexts.”

Using keywords in proposition design

The relationship between words creates what is commonly known in the business world today as cultural trends. Trends influence behaviour and thus expectations on the products and services people buy. Chris Dixon wrote a short but widely read blog post called, "Come for the tool, stay for the network". He was writing about the emergence of digital tools like Instagram whose initial product was a camera app with filters. Chris described the phenomenon of people downloading the app for the filters but staying because those fancy new photos could be shared with their friends using Instagram.

The world has moved on and those networks Chris described have become the digital space where culture happens and increasingly where commerce takes place. What this means for brands is that customers rarely buy the product. Instead they, come for the lifestyle and pay for the product. For example, when I spoke with Alan Klement last year about his Jobs to be Done research on Peloton, it was evident that customers were buying the lifestyle and what that said about their identity, not the product, in this case, the bike.

This is an important shift. People don't buy the product they buy the meaning associated with the product and the outcomes it fulfils. The starting point is not the product and the unit of analysis is not the customer. To build breakthrough propositions, they need to be designed around context. Clayton Christensen said in "The Innovator's Solution that:

“Companies that target their products at the circumstances in which customers find themselves, rather than at the customers themselves, are those that can launch predictably successful products. Put another way, the critical unit of analysis is the circumstance and not the customer.”

Jobs to be Done frameworks like the Four Forces have emotional and social motivations broken out from the regular functional ones. In my experience, one of the limitations of Jobs to be Done is the narrow focus on social jobs. They tend to articulate the Job of wanting to "belong to a community" or "for a product to reflect their values," but do not go into detail on how to do this. Using keyword analysis helps add much greater depth to the understanding of social motivations.

In a world of accelerated change, this can help ensure your proposition stays relevant. Adapting the language you use to communicate your proposition and empathising with the context of your customer's lived reality will ensure you continue to attract and convert new customers.

Connecting Jobs to be Done to culture

This is where we circle back in the research process. During the interview process, it's important to look for language patterns and to examine the social influences, taste preferences and interests people are currently engaging with. It's hard to cover all this off in a one hour interview so you can supplement this with online diaries or tasks - asking people to curate mood boards of influences, interests and aspirations.

By doing this you'll be able to add significantly more cultural context to the customer's Jobs to be Done. You'll be able to better target cultural contexts and tap into the zeitgeist, which is critical to creating relevance for your target audience and ultimately finding product market fit. Or, as D'Arcy Coolican at a16z calls it, "Product Zeitgeist Fit".

Much of the tech world has embraced Jobs to be Done thinking, but there is much more it can learn from the world of consumer products, fashion and luxury. Ana Andjelic in her book "The Business of Aspiration" argues:

"In addition to engineering products and services, brands need to engineer social influence in their market"

She talks about the importance of hacking culture to hack growth. To do this, a brand or product needs to be grounded in a subculture. It needs to speak the language of the tribe. To hack culture you need to understand the accelerated changes in people's lives and how this impacts their values. The impact of the pandemic has had a significant impact on how brands and influencers communicate towards their audience:

"Right now, we turned our attention away from brands and influencers promoting consumption toward our own socially responsible behaviour and to those enacting social cohesion, responsibility and compassion."

A brand is no longer judged by its visual look and its well-crafted soundbites. A brand's emotional intelligence, its values, how it lives up to those values and how it behaves during crises are key to building strong relationships with customers. For example, there is a big difference between Pret offering free coffee to NHS frontline workers and McDonald's splitting its arches. Pret acted quickly, showing generosity and empathy to those risking their lives every day. McDonald's adverts are merely a marketing gimmick with no substance. What quickly emerged from national lockdowns was a community of care, a warlike spirit with much greater collectivist values. Changes to keywords and phrases that represent this were, "stay safe", "key workers" and "shielding".

At the start of the pandemic me and a few others started collecting cultural artefacts that tracked changes to language but other cultural decodes like life rhythms, media forms and business models. This is also an open-access Trello board.

Coronavirus, COVID-19, Cultural Canvas, Trends

This pandemic has taught us that the truths of a brand's values can be laid bare during periods of accelerated change. Business models can become obsolete and products need to pivot quickly. Tuning into the cultural zeitgeist is essential. A key way to track the signals of change is to observe and understand the keywords that pervade the language we use to describe the reality we're living through.

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