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Swearing in marketing (a brand decision)

As we keep hearing about being “real” and “authentic” in marketing, and being “more human” in the content we create and share, we have to have the swearing conversation. 

Swearing has historically been considered “unprofessional”. Along with tattoos, drinking (alcohol, obvs) during working hours, and comfortable clothes which are unstarched and without collars or ties or jackets. 

And yet if the past year or two have shown us anything, it’s that we can - all of us, from accountant to lawyer to architect to HR specialist - continue to be “professional” even whilst working at home in comfortable clothes, with visible tattoos, swearing as the dog runs into the room and starts barking his head off, and having a drink with clients over Zoom at 3pm. 

All of us will be comfortable with those things to varying degrees. Some people still wear “office clothes” when working from home - or maybe just the shirt and tie, and figure it’s not relevant if you’re wearing shorts or jogging bottoms or….whatever...outside the rectangle of the Zoom shot. 

Even LinkedIn, that most “professional” of social media sites, has a lot more personal posts, from time to time including family photos or comfortable clothing or some swearing (or the kind that adds st*rs but everybody knows what you’re saying and it actually draws more attention to the word than if you just typed it out as is). 

But why? You might ask. Why do we “have to” have the swearing conversation? How come we can’t just leave swearing in the professional box, and pull it out when we are with family and friends (if then), and all is well? 

The problem is, it’s not really in that box anymore. It’s out. It’s there. Some people are quite comfortable doing it. Some companies and brands are comfortable with it (or riding close to the edge of it). 

And it’s a good question to ask, because it’s part of your tone of voice. Your brand. How your business does things.

It doesn’t matter if you decide you will never, ever use swearing in your company marketing or content. That’s a completely acceptable brand decision to make. 

But it must be a branding decision: not a “well that’s just how it’s always been done” decision. 

All your branding decisions need to be intentional. Thought out. Otherwise you just let your brand happen to you, rather than consciously choosing who and what your brand will be. 

We had the conversation many years ago here at PF. There were a variety of factors we considered, including thinking about our audience (exclusively accountants) and the feelings they have or might have about swearing in marketing. Would it be helpful? Did we all do it naturally at all? Did WE have feelings about it ourselves? I also thought about what I, as the founder and leader of the business, wanted. What kind of a business I wanted to have, and how I wanted my team and our clients to feel, and the feelings people would have when considering working with PF. 

I personally am not overly bothered by swearing now and then, but when it’s used too often it doesn’t have any impact or mean anything, so why overuse it to the point you may as well not have said it at all? And as a Christian I’m not a fan of God or Jesus’ name being thrown around as a swear, when it’s a name that matters to me, although I try not to Make It A Thing, since I can appreciate others may never have genuinely never considered it. (I’ve had times where I’ve casually mentioned this and seen someone’s face go genuinely horrified, as if I’ve been seething with righteous anger for months since that one time or all those previous times, which they hadn’t realised.)

At PF we came to the conclusion we don’t bring swearing into our primary content - our blog posts, our social posts, resource videos, giving presentations. We don’t bring it into client meetings or workshops or training videos. You won’t see it in this very blog post I’m writing ABOUT swearing. I don’t need to state the words for you to get the point. But we will be a little more relaxed in private conversation, or chatting in a coffee shop or over dinner, or in a one to one Slack or Zoom call. It’s more rare, but you won’t find the entire team gasping with shock if someone drops a swear when transparently sharing a very difficult or sad or hard thing in their life. 

The key with swearing is to actually think about it, and think about whether and how your brand uses it. I heard a talk given by Doug Kessler at a content marketing conference entitled “How to swear in your *** marketing” (and he didn’t bleep it out), and it was one of the best marketing presentations I’ve ever heard. He agreed it’s not about swearing in your marketing simply….to swear. That’s just a ploy, a tactic, and it’s inauthentic and stupid. But he also encouraged people to THINK about it, and not avoid the conversation just because it’s always been avoided in the past. Or because you presume the answer is no. Or because you’ve never stopped to think about it. Interestingly, although Doug’s talk was - appropriately, for the topic - full of swearing, he never once used what I would consider a “religious swear”, and I found that interesting. There are a variety of lines, and everyone considers them. (Here’s his post about it, which IS full of swearing.)

So, now you’re thinking about it, here are a few things to consider: 

Think about your audience. 
As with all marketing, always, always think about your audience first. Your marketing is not for you: it’s for them. What are they comfortable with? How do they interact with you in a variety of situations, such as: 

  • Social media comments & posts 
  • Direct messages and texts 
  • Emails and project management software 
  • Meetings 
  • Events 
  • Trainings, videos, workshops 

Think about yourself. 
It’s still your business. What are you comfortable with? Where? When? And WHY? When might you be okay with it, and when not? Think about some specific examples when you or a client or a prospect swore, and how you felt. Think about how the team approach it, or how you’d like them to approach it. 

Consider the kind of culture you have, and want to have.
What kind of a culture do you have right now in your business? What do you want it to be? If you’re just starting out, what kind of guidance do you want your team members to follow? Why? Does not swearing at all, ever, match you and your firm and your clients? When and where might you even consider it? 

We had this conversation with a group of clients and one accountant mentioned they had taken the decision not to swear at all, ever, in any of their content or marketing or business. It matched their life, because they didn’t do it anytime or anywhere. That was their decision, and it matched their personal culture and the business culture they wanted. 

Is it helpful, or just shock value? 
Most people - and certainly most accountants - would hit the swearing wall when it comes to this question. No, it’s not helpful: it would just have shock value and that’s stupid. I agree that swearing for shock value IS stupid. 

Are you afraid of alienating potential prospects? 
If in every conversation you keep using the same phrase, because it’s what you always say - to yourself, to your clients, to your prospects - and then we suggest you may want to put it on your website and you say “oh, no, we can’t do THAT”: it could be you’re simply afraid to alienate people. And yet, who are you alienating? After all, good marketing divides. Isn’t the point of good marketing to actually do some real solid alienating? What kind of prospects do you want - and not want? What kind of messaging will alienate the people you do NOT want? 

What are the cultural considerations relating to the areas and people you work with?
I once worked with a business coach who said “I don’t consider someone to have been fully honest with me, or themselves, until they swear”. I found it quite an interesting perspective in light of some of the cultural and religious considerations I’ve made in the past - and I shared this perspective. She agreed it was more of a cultural decision based on the type of clients she had, the type of people she worked with, and the regional and geographical locations she tended to work within. All of those combined meant that, for her, if a client didn’t swear at least once when telling her some of the hardest things going on in their business and life, then they hadn’t gotten to the good stuff yet. 

Depending on how global your company is, who your employees are and where they are from, or the cultural expectations of your clients and potential clients, you may take a decision for the company which looks different from your own personal decisions. You may ask your team to speak in a certain way with some clients, or all clients, or none. Again, it’s a serious consideration to make: not a presumption, because that can be misunderstood. 

What KIND of swearing is okay or not okay? What about swearing-adjacent words? What about acronyms?
This is an opportunity to consider what KIND of swearing is okay or not okay with you. Is literally everything off the table? I remember when I moved to the UK from America, I was giving a business development presentation to a group of 30+ business owners (mostly British males in suits, as it happened). I casually said something was ‘crap’, and someone came up to me afterwards and said, “Karen, I thought you were a Christian. I didn’t realise you swore”. I was like wait what? Where? When? What did i say? I felt like I had sworn like a trooper somehow without realising it, like a sleepwalking scenario. (Swearwalking?) Turns out in America many people use the word ‘crap’ very casually, meaning ‘rubbish’ or ‘terrible’, and I’d used it that way. But in the place I was with the people I was, they would have considered it quite a strong word to use in a business presentation. I had considered it either not a swear word at all, or at the most “swearing adjacent”, and hadn’t thought twice about it. (I even asked the PF team what they thought, and we all agreed it was a fairly mild word at best, but some of us still grew up with our mothers at least absolutely horrified when we used it.)

Swearing-adjacent words include something which means the same but on a much milder level; or stopping right before you say the word but everyone knows where you were going with it. Again, entirely your call. But make some sort of a call. 

If you use it or don’t, where? When? 
Does what you’ve decided apply in content your company creates, but not in casual conversation? Does it apply to everything? 

At PF, our brand doesn’t bring swearing into our primary content. This blog post you’re reading, the social posts our marketing manager creates, the presentations and courses we run. We tend not to lean that way even in client meetings or workshops (although if you’re a client or a prospect and you swear, it doesn’t overly trouble us. We appreciate the transparency). We are a little more relaxed about it when in private conversation, or sending Slack or text messages, or chatting over coffee or dinner. It’s infrequent, but it’s more about being real and being human with each other, and one to one.

Once in a while we have left a swear word in a client quote or testimonial - with their permission - because it was just so real. It sounded like them, it was their style and approach, and we knew that would help it get attention. We kept it on the down low (didn’t put it in HUGE FONT or display it on the front page of our website), but we kept it real. That’s more rare than not for us, and we’d never ask someone to do it for shock value. 

What if you use the w*rds with st@rs and l!ttle exlam@tions? 
If it’s one or the other, I’d say either go big or go home. If you’re going to swear, do it. If you’re not, don’t faff about with the stars and symbols because everyone knows what you’re saying anyway and it draws WAY more attention to it with all those symbols standing out amongst all the words. To be fair some social platforms might flag your post, but this is happening a lot less lately. At least as far as I can tell. 

Ultimately, the question is: 
How “real” do you want to be? 

This can be a hard question to ask. You could be tempted to say “oh, very real, very human...but not that real”. Where is the line, and WHY is it there? What does “real” or “authentic” ACTUALLY look like, for you and your team and your clients? 

Because it’s not just swearing, really. That’s one thing to consider, but...what else? What kind of images do you share, or quotes do you use? What time of day do you post or not post? Do you mention pets or children or their names? Being real covers a whole lot more than swearing.

I’m not even sure what question to ask this week, but I think it would be along the lines of...where do you land with this? Have you considered it at all? 

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