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It’s good to be #1. And on a list of, say, a thousand items, it’s also pretty darn good to be ranked #7, or #17, or even #47. In fact, just being among the top 50 is really quite an accomplishment, don’t you think?

Yet business writers — particularly in marketing and PR — sometimes get a little consumed with rankings. Maybe this obsession comes from wanting to stand out from the competition, to communicate that you or your client is part of the elite, one of the best. And, for their part, organizations as disparate as U.S. News & World Report, the Zagat Survey, and the Bowl Championship Series feed the phenomenon, doling out top 100 lists and extensive rankings in a wide range of categories.

Look, there’s nothing wrong with this stuff, not really. Inclusion on a respected list might be worth an ad campaign or a press release. But my eyelid gets twitchy when I come across sentences like this one (and yes, I have encountered them):

Widgets International is a Fortune 19 manufacturing company based in Utopia, New York.

I mean, c’mon. There’s no such list as the Fortune 19. Everyone reading this sentence knows that. What you mean, if you must say it, is this:

Widgets International, ranked 19th on the Fortune 500, is a manufacturing company based in Utopia, New York.

The same thing goes for a statement like this one, the likes of which I see all the time:

Brickstone University is one of the top 43 colleges in the Southeast, according to U.S. News & World Report.

This is pure spin, trying to make more of your ranking than it is. But no one will be fooled into thinking that U.S. News just happened to stop its list at an off-round number of colleges like 43 and your institution made the cut as one of 43 equals. Give your readers some credit. Better yet, tell a truer story.

One more example — one of my favorites for its absurdity:

Day and Night Freight Services is one of the top two providers of shipping services in the metropolitan area.

Really? “One of the top two”? As the kids say: Dude. In this reckoning, you clearly came in second. And that’s still plenty respectable. Any of these edits says the same thing without the spin factor:

Day and Night Freight is one of the top providers of shipping services in the metropolitan area.

Day and Night Freight is the second-largest provider of shipping services in the metropolitan area.

Day and Night Freight is the #2 provider of shipping services in the metropolitan area.

I tell you, it’s enough to make an editor dizzy.


This category is where I let my inner curmudgeon out to play for a bit. (Actually, he doesn’t play so much as rant and kick and tear up the grass. Oh well.)

So, yes, I know that centric has been an English word in good standing since the late 16th century. I’m also aware that it’s a perfectly acceptable suffix — how better to describe Galileo‘s heliocentric view of the universe?

What makes my eye start to twitch is how the suffix is used in business writing. Do you come across this as often as I do? Marketing philosophies are customer-centric. Direct mail tactics are audience-centric. Web navigation is user-centric. Enough! This buzzword (buzz affix?) needs to have its credentials revoked.

But it’s a particularly entrenched bit of jargon. Its staying power probably has to do with the fact that it seems like a pithy way to communicate an critical idea: what’s at the center, what’s most important. And that’s an attractive prospect in the business world, where it’s often hard to peel away the baloney and get to the heart of the matter.

The problem is that a term like customer-centric or user-centric is virtually meaningless, relying on a metaphor that’s vague and insubstantial at best. Plus, this particular conceit — that your customer is really, really important to you — is one of the biggest corporate clichés out there.

My quick fix is usually to substitute -centered for -centric. Granted, this doesn’t really address the problems I detail above, but it’s a small improvement. The better solution, of course, is to figure out what you’re actually trying to communicate, and then say it. For example:

The website features multiple audience-centric ways to navigate.

Any of the following sentences does a better job making a statement that’s specific and focused:

The website’s navigation features different paths for different audiences.
The website’s five navigation paths target five different audiences.
Users can navigate the website in several ways, based on what they’re looking for.

So, that’s the case against -centric. What do you think? Persuasive? Or poppycock? Speak up, if you like, in the comments section.


June 2023
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