Business Has a New Favorite Buzzword

As corporate executives grapple with the pandemic, rising inflation and stubborn labor shortages, they all can agree on one thing.

 Business Has a New Favorite Buzzword
Pedestrians pass in front of the Nasdaq MarketSite in New York, U.S. [Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg]

As corporate executives grapple with the pandemic, rising inflation and stubborn labor shortages, they all can agree on one thing: It’s been quite a journey.

Mentions of the word “journey” by S&P 500 executives on conference calls this year have soared almost 70% to 3,091, making it one of the fastest-growing corporate buzzwords in recent memory. The term was rarely used before -- in fact, just once in 2001 -- but it’s now used to describe practically any kind of business goal, even if it’s totally mundane.

“You’re always looking for new ways to say the same things,” says Grant Barrett, a linguist and co-host of the public radio show “A Way with Words.” “I like ‘journey’ for this purpose. It’s less clinical and corporate than saying something like, ‘during the last eight quarters,’ and it’s more affirming than talking about a period of transition or uncertainty.”

 Business Has a New Favorite Buzzword

Types of corporate journeys vary widely. Typically they’re strategic, like the path CVS Health Corp. is on to evolve its business model by closing hundreds of brick-and-mortar pharmacies and amping up digital health-care services. General Motors Co., meanwhile, is on a journey “from automaker to platform innovator,” its finance chief said earlier this month. A big merger prompts an “integration journey” of the type that wireless provider T-Mobile US Inc. is now undertaking to digest longtime rival Sprint Corp. 

Diversity and inclusion efforts don’t happen overnight, so naturally they’re a journey, as is sustainability, or the more mundane, never-ending process of cost-cutting. Spam maker Hormel Foods Corp. has even gone on a “pricing journey” that is likely to lead to higher bills for grocery shoppers. Customers are often unwitting passengers on these corporate journeys, in fact -- Inc. wants to take clients on a “connected journey of commerce,” presumably involving a trip through some virtual clouds.

Whatever the journey entails, the end date is rarely, if ever, defined. “The word has the advantage of being opaque,” says Mark Stoeckle, chief executive officer of Adams Funds, which manages $3 billion. “This allows companies to gain flexibility.” 

And that’s the point. Analysts who press executives for clarity on when journeys might lead to fatter profit margins or better shareholder returns are often scolded to remember that  journeys take time, and it’s still early. 

“When managers are on a journey,” said Brandon Fletcher, an analyst at Sanford Bernstein, “shareholders are getting taken for a ride.”

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