Inbound marketing. Conversational marketing. The subscription economy. Growth hacking. Each term, now ubiquitous, had humble origins but a profound—and profitable—impact.
The phrases have defined brands. Those brands, in turn, have nurtured and sustained the intellectual capital of the phrase.
So how do you create one? Reverse engineering the origins of brand-owned terms is not a breakdown of the step-by-step planning that led from term identification to widespread acceptance. That didn’t happen.
Instead, the process is best understood as a narrative: each term born of deep expertise, attuned to the language of consumers, tested in various forms, and told persistently yet patiently—until it clicked.
Brand-owned terms: The long play
In retrospect, brand-owned terms feel inevitable: What could modern marketing be other than inbound marketing?
The reality, as detailed in later sections, is more complicated. The process isn’t formulaic, and it may take years to separate success from failure. What is clear is the close tie between the rise of term usage and brand awareness:
|Brand||Brand-Owned Term||Correlation in Search Interest|
Note: Omitted from the table is Sean Ellis’
Getting there requires patience, internal buy-in, and supporting content. Animalz’s Jimmy
In contrast to “distribution-first content,” movement-first content is a conscious sacrifice of reach: “it isn’t beholden to any SEO tactics like word count and keyword density.” Instead, it is opinionated, often contrarian content that “has to pack a very real punch.”
Notably, that investment in movement-first content may largely follow, not precede, the growth of a brand-term.
Here are the paths that four companies took—and the implications for those seeking to do the same.
HubSpot and “inbound marketing”
- Quick identification of the term doesn’t translate into quick adoption.
- Picking a term with a well-understood foil (“outbound marketing”) makes it easier to understand and differentiate.
- An eponymous book (e.g. Inbound Marketing) can help push a term into the mainstream.
As detailed in a co-authored book, Brian Halligan, a recent MIT grad in 2005, observed startups failing with “‘tried-and-true’ marketing techniques that he had seen work throughout his career; techniques such as trade shows, telemarketing, e-mail blasting and advertising.”
That realization coincided with his observation that Dharmesh Shah, Halligan’s future co-founder, was earning visibility with a personal blog:
We started describing the way companies were traditionally marketing as “outbound marketing” and the way Dharmesh marketed OnStartups.com as “inbound marketing.” Our conclusion was that interruption-based, outbound marketing techniques were fundamentally broken.
The term “inbound marketing” benefitted from its natural contrast with outbound marketing. (Historically, both terms had narrower definitions related to telemarketing, which differentiated outbound versus inbound calls.) Additionally, Shah told me, “It was more specific than ‘Internet Marketing.’ More than just ‘Content Marketing.’”
While the term was new, many of the ideas aligned with “permission marketing,” which Seth Godin brought into marketers’ consciousness in 1999 and contrasted with “interruption marketing.” By the mid-2000s, however, its influence had already begun to wane:
That created intellectual space for Halligan and Shah, whose concepts of “inbound” and “outbound,” unlike Godin’s, were not entirely foreign to marketers.
HubSpot started in 2006, yet inbound marketing wasn’t mentioned on the homepage or within the “thesis” section of the early website. HubSpot finally shifted its language from “internet marketing”—the SEO-friendly choice—to “inbound marketing” in December 2007:
Still, even in February 2008, Shah accepted that inbound marketing was an unfamiliar concept to his readers, mentioning the term for the first time on his blog:
The following year, in 2009, Shah and Halligan coauthored Inbound Marketing. By that time, interest in “inbound marketing”—and HubSpot—had begun to climb, with search interest in the brand-owned term rising more sharply than the brand for at least a year:
The widespread adoption of the term, Shah noted, benefited from a conscious decision not to own its intellectual rights:
We made the deliberate decision not to trademark it or try to “own” the term. We wanted the idea to spread (and the term to be used far and wide). So, in order to foster that, we let others use it as an industry term instead of something HubSpot specific.
In contrast to Shah and Halligan, who settled on a term early in the process, Drift refined its language for years.
Drift and “conversational marketing”
- Testing and refining a term until it catches on can work.
- An early sign of success is customer adoption of the language.
- You can postpone investments in collateral until a term take off.
“The most underrated piece of marketing advice is that you’ve got to name something,” Drift’s Dave Gerhardt told Leadfeeder. “If you don’t name something, then it doesn’t become real.”
For Drift, founded in 2014, that was easier said than done: Drift didn’t go all-in on “conversational marketing” until 2018. (The term was not new—you can find articles and even a book that covers “conversational marketing” from a decade prior—but it had no clear owner or widespread usage.)
While it took time to refine the language, Drift formed the kernel of the idea based on experiences developing their product. The company:
- Knowingly entered a commodities market and needed a strong brand to stand out.
- Identified a communication gap between customers and the sales and marketing teams as a primary pain point.
- Knew that no one wanted to waste time answering hundreds of basic questions.
From a product perspective, the solution was a chatbot that had the potential to “filter out that noise.” From a brand perspective, Drift recognized the higher aspiration: “We realized what everyone wants to do is just have conversations.”
It took more than two years—and far more homepage designs—before “conversational marketing” made its way into the homepage headline:
By September 2017, Drift had gotten closer, but a “conversation-driven” platform, Gerhardt conceded, “sounds like a bunch of BS and jargon.”
Finally, later in 2017, Drift found its term: “‘Conversational marketing‚’ Gerhardt said, “It’s the same exact concept, we just found a cleaner more relatable way to say it.”
The homepage shift—and preceding company growth—pushed “conversational marketing” into the mainstream:
Success, Gerhardt noted, came when customers, not the company, used the term to talk about Drift’s product or, eventually, in unrelated webinars or articles:
Once we gave it a name, it clicked even more. It became easier for those businesses to tell other people, “Oh yeah, we use Drift. It’s conversational marketing.” We enabled them to tell more people because it’s easier.
Unlike HubSpot, which catalyzed brand-term growth with a book, the content collateral for Drift came after the homepage change:
- April 2018: Main article defining conversational marketing
- May 2018: Supporting blog post on conversational marketing
- January 2019: Book on conversational marketing
Drift grew positioning into a philosophy. For Zuora, the scope of impact was greater and quantifiable.
Zuora and the “subscription economy”
- Your deepest experience is your best source for trendspotting.
- You can’t fake economic trends; if you’re right, you’re right.
- The prediction of an economic shift—not just marketing tactics—has greater reach.
Both HubSpot and Drift developed brand-owned terms that were central to their product positioning. Zuora, in contrast, predicted an economic trend that, for the company to thrive, needed to come true.
The foundation for Zuora’s ownership of “the subscription economy” is a single blog post, published by founder Tien Tzuo in May 2008, though it doesn’t use the term. As Tzuo wrote in that post, his experience at Salesforce was formative:
We didn’t realize that we would actually create a whole new business model for our industry as well: subscription services– the idea that you shouldn’t buy software, you should subscribe to it as a service.
Recently, I’ve started to ponder an interesting question: what if we weren’t alone in discovering the power of subscription services? What if the shift to subscriptions was not a trend limited to software, but one that is going on in many industries?
Tzuo’s argument for the coming economic change was pragmatic; he cited the potential economic benefits of subscription models and the impact of disrupters like Netflix.
Still, the Zuora tagline remained “Powering the Business Cloud” until July 2010, when Zuora began its campaign to popularize “the subscription economy”:
That tagline change was part of a broader effort: Weeks earlier, Tzuo published an article on VentureBeat promoting the term and announced it—to crickets—on Twitter:
The same sites and commentators writing about the product launch also discussed Tzuo’s pitch for “the subscription economy.” By that point, the company had already raised tens of millions of dollars in venture capital, and the product and company were a platform to raise awareness about the term.
The term didn’t take off until 2015, when commentators, perhaps, looked for a way to describe the success of subscription-based products like Spotify, Amazon Prime, and, by then, Zuora:
The adoption of the “subscription economy” hinged on economic realities. Tzuo was right, which made the term not just a clever branding tactic but a real economic trend, one that warranted discussion in academic circles and research and reporting by industry stalwarts.
Compare that trajectory to others:
- Inbound marketing has, effectively, become synonymous with marketing.
- Conversational marketing may be remembered most for how it fueled Drift’s growth.
There’s another trajectory, too: The rapid rise of a brand-owned term untethered to a product.
Sean Ellis and “growth hacking”
- Terms that precede products may be more difficult to control.
- Without a product for your term, build a community.
- Choose wisely—the potential for misinterpretation will be realized.
Not every brand-owned term started with that intention, nor has every term-coiner retained full ownership. In 2010, Sean Ellis wrote a blog post that offered novel advice to startups:
So rather than hiring a VP Marketing with all of the previously mentioned prerequisites, I recommend hiring or appointing a growth hacker.
Ellis’ contrarian view cast aside the prerequisites—”an ability to establish a strategic marketing plan to achieve corporate objectives, build and manage the marketing team, manage outside vendors, etc.”—in favor of
a person whose true north is growth. Everything they do is scrutinized by its potential impact on scalable growth.
Ellis identified the perspective while, as a consultant, he struggled to find hires to fill his shoes. Without an associated product or company to keep the term in front of an audience, however, Ellis’ idea lay dormant.
The rapid rise was not obvious even with the success of Chen’s post, which earned a couple dozen retweets and a few hundred social shares:
Unlike others, Ellis didn’t have a product tied to the term before it took off, though he launched the community content-sharing site GrowthHackers months later, eventually adding a SaaS product and GrowthHackers conference. A book, coauthored with Morgan Brown, followed in 2017.
Controlling the meaning of the term has proven challenging. Many have interpreted “hacks” as a laundry list of shortcuts rather than a commitment to growth through experimentation and innovation, Ellis’ intended meaning.
Managing an already-popular term is a struggle some companies wish they had.
Copper and Dialpad: Works in progress or lost causes?
Other attempts to create brand-owned terms are fledgling:
- Copper has staked a claim to “the relationship era,” though the term predates their use of it. It is popular but has only tenuous connections to the brand.
- Dialpad is still working to make the term “anywhere worker” widely known. Search volume is effectively zero.
Copper, like Drift, has taken on an existing term; Dialpad, like Zuora, is betting on a large-scale market shift.
As Daly writes, these movement-first strategies are best executed in tandem with traditional strategies, which provide an undercurrent of marketing that focuses on near-term results while patiently awaiting—perhaps indefinitely—the liftoff of a brand-defining term.
Starting points to create a brand-owned term
If you don’t have time and you don’t have buy-in, don’t bother: None of the examples outlined above—which count as some of the most successful in recent history—went from zero to common in less than two years. Most took several years more, with an interregnum devoid of encouraging signs.
Three strategies maximize the chances of success:
1. Use consumer research as the foundation
Relying on user research to identify potential words or phrases can also validate the choice. “That’s when it really took off,” according to Gerhardt. “Not when we said it, but when we heard someone else say it back to us for the first time.”
Qualitative user research comes in many forms—interviews, surveys, live chat records, website comments, reviews. You may already have the data you need to frame a potential brand-owned term in words your consumers use.
As Drift eventually realized, the least-adorned phrase won out.
2. Tap into consumer aspirations, no matter how basic
David Cummings, whom Daly credits as the originator of the “movement-first” idea, sets a lofty standard for the ideas behind a brand-owned term: “Movement-first companies are on a mission greater than themselves.”
Other articles and research on “movement marketing” suggest similar ambition:
There is purpose beyond the brand and the transaction. – Deloitte
Your goal is to overcome a state of complacency. This requires you to turn a deep human (vs. product) insight into a sharp instigation that stirs your audience’s souls. – The Drum
The narratives in this article suggest something less mystical:
- “Inbound” or “conversational” marketing makes marketers feel better about their profession—they’re not bothering people, they’re giving them what they want.
- The “subscription economy” is a convenient way to group companies and talk about an economic trend.
- Being a “growth hacker” sounds cooler than being a “marketer.”
If successful terms usually originate from user research, a more practical set of aspirations makes sense: What would consumers actually talk about on a daily basis? If a word or phrase promises to make it easier to hit quarterly sales goals, that’s aspirational enough.
3. Create resources to maintain ownership of the term
With the exception of HubSpot, the “grand plan” for content to support a brand-owned term was a “grand reaction.” Drift, Zuora, and GrowthHackers all invested in resources after their terms caught on.
Those resources fall into three categories:
1. Foundational resources. Halligan and Shah wrote Inbound Marketing. Tzuo wrote Subscribed. Cancel and Gerhardt wrote Conversational Marketing. Ellis and Brown wrote Hacking Growth.
Only Halligan and Shah used a book to drive initial interest in their term; the others wrote after popularization suggested hardbound potential. If you “wrote the book on it,” that’s a strong way to claim ownership.
Online, foundational resources are definitional overviews that target the highest-volume search terms. Still, popularity comes at a cost: HubSpot owns only one of the top search results for “inbound marketing”; GrowthHackers ranks seventh for “growth hacking.”
2. Original research. Zuora charts the growth of the “Subscription Economy Index” against the S&P 500 as well as retail sales. The research reinforces the trend that the phrase’s notoriety depends on while also tightening ownership of it:
HubSpot offers the “State of Inbound” report, which reinforces the shift the company initially posited:
3. Discussion moderation. If you’re hoping for widespread adoption, contrarian opinions and misinterpretation are inevitable, which is why conferences can help guide the wider conversation:
- GrowthHackers maintains an annual “GrowthHackers” conference.
- HubSpot runs the annual “Inbound” event.
- Drift manages “Hypergrowth,” a conference whose name has its own emerging brand-term potential.
Speaker selection alone can help reinforce what should count as “inbound marketing” or a “growth hack.”
Origin stories get condensed. For brand-owned terms, years of gradual refinement and dogged proselytization are retold as a flash of brilliance that, immediately and perpetually, defined a brand.
In reality, the common starting point wasn’t a whiteboard session or day-long retreat but years of work on challenges that only later could be named.
From there, more years passed until:
- HubSpot’s founders translated an idea into a book.
- Drift’s marketing team refined a concept.
- Economic realities validated Tzuo’s prediction.
- Ellis got a bump in visibility from another blog post.
The flash of brilliance, without patience and determination, would’ve become nothing more.