Breaking Down Buzzwords: “Innovative”

Through overuse in the communications industry, certain words eventually lose their meaning.  But their underlying concepts still hold significant value to communicators.  Our ‘Breaking Down Buzzwords’ series will help you refine and define some of the most overused buzzwords and concepts in the communications and messaging industry.  You’ll learn how to rethink their use or substitute with more effective messaging solutions. 

When you use the word “Innovative” to describe your company, brand, product or service… what are you REALLY communicating?  According to the results from one of our recent surveys, the answer is: not much.

We conducted a representatively sampled online survey of American consumers and business owners to understand how and why they forge relationships with certain brands and ignore others.  Spoiler alert: effective communication plays a HUGE role in their decisions.

We asked consumers which brand descriptors were most attractive to them.  “Innovative” was near dead last from our comprehensive list of positive choices.  It appears this buzzword has reached the end of its language-shelf-life.

Make no mistake, this is a significant change in consumer perceptions.  “Innovation” was popularized by tech companies – specifically the social media and search giants we interact with daily.  They used the term to describe their process of market disruption. To them, “innovation” meant that they offered new ideas and approaches to how we connect with one another and consume information.

As other companies and brands witnessed the meteoric success of these companies, the word “innovative” suddenly found its way into most corporate lexicons.  It’s become nearly as ubiquitous as it is meaningless to consumers.  Now, nearly every company has “innovative ideas,” or employs “an innovative approach” or “engages in a culture of innovation.”

When everyone is an innovator… no one is.

But the problem has progressed far beyond overuse.  Indeed, some consumers have formed a negative connotation with the word.  They equate “innovative” with “untested.”  By employing this word, you communicate to your potential consumers that they will be your guinea pigs… and they don’t appreciate it.  Especially in high stakes communication arenas such as education, healthcare, finance, and security, “innovation” may be viewed as a negative descriptor.

While every consumer appreciates a more efficient and effective approach, they also hate unexpected surprises.  They would rather purchase tried-and-tested products and services than risk exposure to unintended outcomes.

In our survey, we wanted to test this idea in practice, rather than just in theory.  We showed respondents two nearly identical products as they might be represented in an Amazon search result page.  The only information they were given was the consumer rating score (out of five stars) and the number of reviews.

Item #1 had an average rating score of 4.0 stars with 200 reviews.  Item #2 had a higher average rating of 4.5 stars, but with a mere 10 reviews.  We asked which they’d be most likely to purchase: the better known, lower quality product (#1) … or it’s “innovative,” lesser known, but higher quality counterpart (#2.)

Consumers chose Item #1 by more than a three-to-one margin. 

When you communicate that your product is “innovative,” you’re framing it similarly to Item #2.  Yes, it may be higher quality, but it’s also untested in the court of social proof.   There may be a targeted market of early adopters who enjoy the challenge and risk of trying new products or services, but these are, by far, the minority of consumers.  If you want to appeal to a wider audience, describing your brand as “innovative” may actually alienate the very people you’re trying to persuade.

So, if “innovative” is (at best) overused or (at worst) communicates that your idea is risky or your product untested… what descriptor should you use instead?  Here are some ideas that tested near the top of our positive brand descriptor list:

  • Imaginative or Inventive: If you’re using “innovative” to communicate that your brand takes a new and novel approach to problem solving; consider “imaginative” or “inventive.”   Consumers equate these terms with a deliberate, thoughtful process to fill a need or provide a service that’s lacking in the industry.


  • Disruptive: If your company is changing the way that your industry approaches a specific context, problem, or issue; consider “disruptive.”  This term works well in larger, competitive industries with clear, inefficiencies or institutional problems.  Be careful with this term though, as many still equate disruption with a negative experience.  That said, “disruptive” is what “innovative” was… 5-10 years ago.   This term works especially well with younger consumers.


  • Effective or Inspiring: If you’ve been using “innovative” to describe how your product or service affects consumers or clients, consider “effective” or “inspiring.”  “Innovative” is all about YOU.  It describes your thought process… your new way of thinking.  But “effective” and “inspiring” are both outward-facing words that describe the result that your user or client can expect.


Every industry is different.  Every business communicates from a different vantage point.  There’s no way that we can categorically tell you that “innovation” is a word you should never use.  We can, however; tell you that general market trends point to a decreased effectiveness when employing this word – for any number of reasons.

If you’d like to understand how the descriptors that you use to describe your brand, products, ideas or company resonate with your specific audience, let us know.  We can craft a targeted research program that helps you refine and define your corporate lexicon.  You’ll know the most effective words to employ – and equally important – which ones to forget about completely.  And the best part – our approach is backed up by hard research that gives you the creative confidence to know your communications strategy will impact public perception in your favor.