Communities give language its power.

A familiar psalm echoing in the halls of a weary congregation, a rallying cry rising above tear gas-strewn streets, a crowd of 65,000 belting out Bohemian Rhapsody in front of an empty stage — the strength of shared language is undeniable.

Today, most communities congregate in a digital rather than physical location (for example, a social platform or e-newsletter), and their connection is spread out across many moments. Though they can’t raise their voices in unison, the principle still applies: Language gains power as members of a community enter into a common “language-game,” a set of rules that governs how words carry meaning in a specific context. Shared language builds community, and vice versa.

But where does our shared language originate? Who invents these language-games?

This is where your brand comes into the picture. Be it one person (e.g. Taylor and her legion of Swifties) or a committee (e.g. banks like Wells Fargo, Chase, and Capital One that dictate how we talk about personal finance), every language-game needs a leader.

Your brand has the opportunity to be that leader, creating your own language-game and the digital community to sustain it.

By consistently saying the same things in the same ways, you can forge brand-specific neural loops in the minds of your audience. You can introduce words, phrases, and modes of thinking, inviting your customers to join into your language-game — and inviting your competitors to borrow from your thought leadership.

As your audience adopts this language, as their neural connections tighten, as your brand community grows, your words will gain influence within your niche and, with time, your entire industry.

Language-Games 101: Meaning Is Use

To understand how words put your mind to work, we’ll draw from an influential philosopher’s most influential idea: Ludwig Wittgenstein’s concept of language-games. (Of course, it’s just a theory, but it’s an eloquent and useful one, and it will serve as a foundation for the messaging strategy recommended in this piece).

First, an example.


Deprived of context, the word carries no real meaning. It might invoke the image of tiny white crystals or a briny flavor, but your mind doesn’t know what to do with it. You don’t know who’s saying it to you, you don’t know why, and you certainly can’t see any actions that accompany it.

In other words, you don’t know the rules of the language-game that is being played.

Now, imagine you’re at a mediocre French restaurant with a group of friends. Your waiter places a small plate of haricots verts in front of you and asks, “Salt?”

Immediately, you know what he means — because you understand the rules of the game. You know that salt can enhance flavor, you know that part of a waiter’s role is to ensure the food is to your liking, and you know that a sub-par restaurant might not trust their chef to properly salt the beans before they go out.

Now, pretend you’re a member of the custodial staff at a large school district in Colorado, and a blizzard is rolling in. As you prepare the property, your taciturn supervisor jabs a finger at the sidewalk: “Salt!”

Again, you understand right away. Salt melts ice, and you ought to cover the sidewalk with it if you want to avert accidents the following day (and avoid a stern lecture from your supervisor).

The Invisible Community

Now that you’ve endured six paragraphs that establish the banal truth that context matters, let’s get to the real point: Where does this context come from?

Each time you engage in conversation, you’re part of an invisible community. You’re drawing from the generations of humans that have created, cultivated, and clarified the meaning of any given word or phrase in a specific set of circumstances.

In the first example above, the community is rather large: not just the people around the restaurant table, but also the millions of English speakers who would equally understand the same question in the same context (and those who, over many decades, defined and refined the rules of the “transacting at a restaurant” language-game).

In the second, the community is slightly smaller, consisting of English speakers who know that salt can prevent the formation of ice and who could infer the action they ought to take from such a command (and, again, the generations that sculpted this usage).

In either instance, this invisible community has given the language a substrate of meaning — what we might call the collective context. This is the meaning that is passed down through generations, which we gain via conversation, observation, and interaction (often with books, movies, and other media).

The rest of the meaning is provided by the immediate context: things like tone of voice, the disposition and actions of the speaker, and your role in the conversation.

So, how do these two contexts converge to make meaning? By way of a language-game.

The Austrian Know-It-All (Who Actually Might Have)

Born in Vienna in 1889, Ludwig Wittgenstein published only one book (catchily named the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, or “Logical-Philosophical Treatise”).

In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein sought to understand the relationship between language and reality. After its publication in 1922, he declared that he had solved all philosophical problems, and retired from philosophy to pursue careers in teaching, gardening, and architecture, among other things.

A few years later, he came to the harrowing realization that he hadn’t actually solved all of philosophy’s problems — so he set out to do it again. That pursuit became the Philosophical Investigations (PI), a work published in 1953, two years after the philosopher’s death. It is in this collection of passages that the concept of a language-game emerges.

Like many of Wittgenstein’s ideas, a language-game is notoriously hard to define, but here’s the gist:

  • Language-games involve a set of highly contextualized rules.
  • To understand the meaning of a word or phrase, you must be attuned to the rules.
  • The greater your understanding of the rules, the richer your interpretation of the word or phrase will be.
  • Like language itself, language-games are active and ever-evolving.

Wittgenstein generously offers a list of basic language-games in passage 23 of the PI, which includes

  • giving orders (and obeying them),
  • speculating about an event,
  • forming and testing a hypothesis,
  • making up a story (and reading it),
  • telling a joke,
  • translating from one language into another, and
  • asking, thanking, cursing, greeting, and praying.

Instead of investigating the underlying structure of language, as he did in the Tractatus, Wittgenstein argues in the PI that the interplay between language and context lends meaning to words. Meaning is not some “thing” inherent in language that you can unearth if you dig deep enough — it’s a creation that occurs in real-time.

In his 1968 paper, J.F.M. Hunter describes the context-hungry nature of language-games thus:

“Unlike most ordinary games, language-games are intricately bound up with other aspects of life, with plans and fears and thoughts and activities, and cannot be understood in isolation from these.”

In short, meaning-making is an active process. As many scholars have summarized it, Wittgenstein’s view is that “meaning is use.”

Language-Games 301: Forms of Life

Like language and its meaning, culture is in flux.

In fact, they inhabit a reciprocal relationship: Language is entwined with the cultural fabric, and it is impossible for one to advance without taking the other along for the ride.

Wittgenstein was eager to capture this notion in his philosophy, so he formulated another murky yet beautiful concept, the “form of life.” For Wittgenstein, forms of life and language-games are very closely related, if not exactly the same. Though a handful of valid interpretations exist, for our purposes, a form of life is best thought of in the following way (again borrowed from Hunter):

“To say that something is a form of life is to say that it is a way of life, or a mode, manner, fashion, or style of life: that it has something important to do with the class structure, the values, the religion, the types of industry and commerce and of recreation that characterize a group of people.”

So, language doesn’t just find meaning in relation to our individual hopes, desires, and fears; it also finds meaning in relation to our shared modes of living, including industry, commerce, and recreation — the engines of economic prosperity.

Though we rarely (if ever) think about these games, they exert a profound influence over our minds, our companies, and our cultures.

Put another way: When deciding which language-games to participate in, the stakes are high.

Language-Games and Your Brand

Whether you’re aware of it or not, your brand is playing many language-games.

There are words and phrases you repeatedly use, and they find meaning in relation to your collective and immediate context. They are:

  • Industry-specific. “Appeal” means something very different in personal injury law than in revenue cycle management.
  • Niche-specific. Within the healthcare industry, “oblique” refers to an X-ray projection angle for radiologists but a pair of abdominal muscles in anatomy.
  • Situation-specific. Within the wealth management niche, “diversification” might be across geographies, industries, or asset classes.

99% of brands are content to be a participant in existing language-games, games they didn’t invent and have little or no influence over.

1% of brands care enough to build their own language-game.

By developing precise, thoughtful messaging that is relevant to your niche, and then hammering it home month after month in cross-channel campaigns, you can establish a language-game that’s unique to your brand. If you package it in creative that’s brilliant enough, it might stick for decades — or centuries.

When It Rains, It Pours

You’ve probably said the saying. In mainstream usage, it means roughly this: “When something bad happens, a flood of bad things seems to follow.”

You’d think it originated in the mind of a literary giant like Shakespeare or Chaucer, or the book of Job, or the teachings of Buddha, but no.

It started with Morton Salt.

Until the early 1900s, table salt clumped together on humid, rainy days, rendering salt-pouring nearly impossible. In 1911, the company introduced magnesium carbonate, an anti-caking agent, into its product to thwart these unruly clumps.

But how to promote the free-flowing magic of Morton Salt?

N.W. Ayer, one of the oldest ad agencies in the United States, put their heads together and presented Morton executives with a handful of lead concepts. All were rejected. Thankfully, one of their backup ideas hit the target: the now iconic phrase, “When it rains, it pours.”

Today, just about every American is familiar with the adage. Is that a win for Morton Salt?

Yes and no, but mostly no. While the saying permeates our culture, the vast majority of us don’t associate it with the company. When we use it, we’re playing the “idioms common to society” language-game, not the “Morton advertising tagline” language-game. It’s widespread, but it’s not brand-specific.

Morton has established a core piece of a far-reaching language-game, but nobody knows it was them — and that isn’t good for business.

15 Minutes

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we find GEICO’s “15 minutes could save you 15 percent or more on car insurance.”

Everybody associates it with GEICO, and everybody knows what it means. In that sense, it’s a success. However, virtually no one says it in day-to-day life. It’s brand-specific but has very little sway outside of a tiny corner of society.

The gecko might be legendary, but it rarely works its way into public thought.

Just Do It

Ah, the sweet spot.

“Just Do It” invokes thoughts of Nike, of courage, victory, and daring, of the iconic “swoosh” — it’s well-known in every county of America (and much of the rest of the world as well).

Equally important: People use it. Whether it’s a dare between friends or Shia LaBeouf screaming in front of a green screen, it has seeped into our culture and everyday conversations. To those of us who are a part of the community, it means something different, something more, than it does to those who are not. And that’s profoundly important.

One scintillating campaign after another, Nike has invented a language-game of its own, and it exudes power because hundreds of millions of people know the rules.

An Invitation to Lead

As a brand, your words can shape culture in a way that individual voices can’t. Your words can generate economic progress in a way that individual consumers can’t. What you say and how you say it matters deeply.

By honing razor-sharp messaging and delivering it with consistent excellence, your words can form and nurture a flourishing brand community.

To start, all you need is the right seed.

If you want to talk messaging, drop us a note.

Magneti aims to be the most effective and innovative growth marketing team in Colorado.