Business communications are fascinating. Whether written, spoken or designed, they can be compelling and entertaining or deceptive and even fraudulent. Apple TV is streaming the highly entertaining show WeCrashed. It covers the rise and fall of office-sharing unicorn WeWork along with the decisions and fate of CEO Adam Neuman and his wife, Rebekah.
Having first listened to the podcast of the same name and been engrossed, how could I possibly not watch Jered Leto and Anne Hathaway play the couple? Simple, I answer, I can’t. But this is not a television show review, it is an indictment of vacuous and deceptive language.
It is hard not to roast all wannabe unicorns for “wanting to make the world a better place”.
The story of WeWork created an entirely new word, 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 hid a poor business model and 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 and someone I know from the profession, coined the term. He once shared the stage with Adam Neuman at a business conference and immediately questioned the founder’s quasi-religious turn-of-phrase. 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.” Cults are more subtle.
The professor was unsure if the document was describing a pharmaceutical company, an exercise brand, or religion. It was written by Neuman and the design was directed by his wife, who held the title Chief Brand and Impact Officer. No one at the company was really sure what responsibilities that carried and they were further confused when Rebekah tended to relate the business back to her yoga and wellness training. Her role was to aggrandize her husband as both a spiritual and business leader.
She studied Buddhism and business at Cornell which produced an interesting cocktail. Critics inside and outside WeWork pointed out that Adam, who stands 6’4”, appeared in most publicity photographs with his arms outstretched like a mystical wonder. The prospectus mentions him 169 times when most mention their CEOs no more than 50. He is referred to only by his first name.
This yogababble in the IPO was a giant red flag. After years of following the company and publicly doubting its claims, Galloway’s frustrations grew. He may have wanted to scream, “You rent desks!” His ire is not reserved for WeWork only. Galloway calls out Peloton. 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.”
Corporate-speak has been humorous for a 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 the meat slices like butter, melts in your mouth, and tells the world you have arrived.
Now marketers have adopted new age terminology, used in non-religious and non-spiritual contexts, to convince people to buy. WeWork was a brick-and-mortar business but sought the excitement, respect and valuation of a technology company fused with a wellness retreat. Liberally peppered in the communications was a seasoning of fake do-gooderness. WeWork considered itself a global movement that was vague and irrelevant.
It is hard not to roast all wannabe unicorns for “wanting to make the world a better place”. 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 and marketing. She touted that the toddlers would be treated to “branding masterclasses”.
Galloway’s assessment went viral. It prompted him to create The Yogababble Index®. It exposes those who overpromise and underdeliver and believe faking it until you make it is fair play.
Consumers expect brands to sell to them, but they are not asking them to define and run their lives. Where Galloway likes to pick on Peloton, I go after Soul Cycle. I have written the brand stories for Fortune 500 companies so cannot stomach this verbiage, “At Soul Cycle … we aspire to inspire. We inhale intention and exhale expectation.” That is new age snake oil. It is highly irresponsible for the exercise company to state, “Addicted. Obsessed. Unnaturally attached to our bikes.”
WeWork, Peloton and Soul Cycle have all struggled of late. Yes, the pandemic was no small issue but there is a thread that that links them. Disingenuous communications and questionable leadership. As Professor Galloway points out, there is a thin line between vision, bullshit and fraud. Stories sway, so they come with incredible responsibility.