Language is fascinating. Written, spoken and designed communications are my trade, so my senses perk up when I happen across something new. That occurred while listening to one of Wondery’s entertaining and informative podcast series. WeCrashed covers the rise and fall of WeWork and its faux messiah leader, CEO Adam Neuman.
On a side note, Wondery produced the insanely popular, Dirty John, among other titles. Its growing library and model of partnering to develop content, made it attractive to Amazon. The giant company paid US$300 million for Wondery on December 30, 2020.
One word hooked me through the WeCrashed series. It was, yogababble. According to Urban Dictionary, it means, “Spiritual-sounding language used by companies to sell product or make their brand more compelling on an emotional level. Coined specifically about WeWork’s IPO prospectus in 2019, which was full of phrases like “elevate the world’s consciousness” and at the same time showed problematic financials. Yogababble is intended to disguise or compensate for practical or financial weaknesses in a business or product.”
Scott Galloway, a marketing professor at New York University, is the man behind the term. He once shared the stage with Adam Neuman at a business conference and was immediately put-off by the founder’s quasi-religious turn-of-phrase and orchestrated presence. When WeWork’s US$47 billion IPO prospectus came out, Galloway poured through it. On the very first page, it stated, “Here’s to the power of We.” Most cults are far more subtle.
As the professor read on, he was unsure if the document was describing a pharmaceutical company, a yoga company, or a religion. It was written by Adam Neuman and the design was directed by his wife, Rebekah Neuman, who had the title, Chief Brand and Impact Officer. No one at the company was really sure what responsibilities that carried and were further confused when Rebekah tended to relate everything back to her yoga training and particular brand of wellness. In terms of the prospectus, it seemed her role was to aggrandize her husband as more of a spiritual than business leader.
Given she studied both Buddhism and business at Cornell, this was probably a familiar cocktail. Critics inside and outside WeWork, long pointed out that Adam, who stands 6’4”, appeared in most photographs with his arms stretched out like a mystical wonder. The prospectus mentions him 169 times when most mention their CEO’s no more than 50 times. To boot, he is referred to only by his first name in the serious financial document, conjuring up Old and New Testaments in equal measure. Galloway recognized a Jesus complex seeping into a financial disclosure document.
For the professor, the yogababble in the IPO was one giant red flag. After years of following this company, and publicly doubting its positioning and claims, his frustrations grew. Galloway must have wanted to scream, “You rent desks!”
His ire is not reserved for WeWork only. Galloway likes to cite the Peloton fitness bicycle phenomenon. That enterprise refers to itself as, “an innovation company transforming the lives of people around the world.” The professor’s response? “No. You sell exercise equipment.”
This makes me laugh and ponder in equal measure. You have to laugh because corporate-speak and business communications have been humorous for a very long time. Decades before I worked on Madison Avenue, there was the notion of, “sizzle and steak”. Your product was grilled beef, but you differentiated with a florid and fanciful description of how it slices like butter, melts in your mouth, and tells the world you have arrived.
Somewhere between then and now, marketers and brands have adopted new age terminology used in non-religious and non-spiritual contexts, to convince people to buy their crap. WeWork was a bricks and mortar business but sought the excitement, respect and valuation of a Software as a Service enterprise. Liberally peppered in its communications was an ersatz seasoning of fake do-gooderness introducing an incredibly vague and non-relevant notion of becoming a global movement.
The cuttingly humorous show, Silicon Valley, brilliantly roasts all the startups and wannabe unicorns for, “wanting to make the world a better place”. That hollow goal permeated WeWork. Adam once spoke of solving the worldwide problem of orphans at a company retreat. Rebekah started a school, WeGrow, for adolescents who were to be schooled in entrepreneurship, marketing and more. She even touted that these toddlers would be treated to “branding masterclasses”! It should be noted that Rebekah’s cousin is Gwyneth Paltrow, so vacuous and questionable branding claims are in great supply within the family.
Galloway’s sharp and honest assessment of WeWork went viral. It prompted him to create, The Yogababble Index®. Here is the blunt and funny introduction to the construct:
“The brand era manufactured the notion that inanimate objects could take on animate characteristics. Objects and companies could be personified — likable, young, cool, patriotic. Corporate comms execs began to scale the charisma and vision of the founder. Overpromise and underdeliver has become a means for access to cheap capital (“We’ll have a million autonomous Teslas on the road within 12 months”). You could fake it till you make it. The lines between charm, vision, bullsh*t, and fraud have become so narrow as to be one line.
The MDMA of capitalism is the corporate communications exec. According to LinkedIn, there are more corporate comms personnel working for Bezos at Amazon (969) than journalists working for Bezos at the Washington Post (798). When firms are still searching for a viable business model, the temptation to go full yogababble gets stronger, as the truth (numbers, business model, EBITDA) needs concealer.”
The attack on corporate communications folks is spot-on. I held the title, Chief Communication Officer at DDB Worldwide, the storied ad agency with over 10,000 employees globally. I saw my job as protector and marketer of the DDB brand. In public companies, the role oversees Public Relations and Investor Relations. More and more, I witnessed in my industry and others, corporate communications professionals being doe-eyed cheerleaders for the business’ leadership. Long-term communication strategy has been sacrificed for short-term executive celebrity fluffing.
Galloway must also be lauded for the attacks on WeWork and Peloton brand positioning. I wrote a blog, A Brand is Not a Way of Life, questioning why every brand wants to be a “lifestyle” brand. I cited the absurdity of Listerine desiring to be one. Rich Duprey agreed in The Motley Fool piece titled, Why Declaring Yourself a Lifestyle Brand Is a Bad Decision. He profiled Burger King’s desire to be a lifestyle not a burger restaurant, suggesting that such a move proves “a company has nothing left to offer.” He called Burger King, “delusional”.
I concluded that, consumers expect brands to sell to them, but they are not asking for them to define and run their lives. Where Galloway likes to pick on Peloton, I love to go after Soul Cycle. Having written more brand stories than most will read, I barf a little when reading. “At Soul Cycle…we aspire to inspire. We inhale intention and exhale expectation.” Further, I think it irresponsible for the exercise company to state, “Addicted. Obsessed. Unnaturally attached to our bikes.”
The podcast hints at fraud and explores what Galloway calls, the Unicorn-Industrial Complex, that can be summarized as, “the pursuit of stupid capital.” For me, I appreciated the exploration of language and its impact. A strong narrative is incredibly powerful, but it must be real. As the professor points out, there is a thin line between vision, bullsh*t, and fraud.
Simply stated, stories sway. That means they come with incredible responsibility.