December 14, 2021


by William Turner in News, White Papers
As communicators, we are absolute nerds about words. We like rearranging them, adding and subtracting them from sentences, and learning new ones. Heck, we even like inventing them (vaccinfluencer, anyone?). That’s why, in 2020, when our agency launched the inaugural Word of the Year, we challenged ourselves to identify one word to describe what had turned into the most unconventional year in modern memory. To get our one word, we went to people who are generally of many words — fellow comms professionals — and asked them to narrow their experience down to a single word. (UnmuteUnmaskedNew normal?) Or, following in the footsteps of major dictionaries, did more conventional options come to mind? (Pandemic? Coronavirus? Lockdown?) In the end, pivot and unprecedented rose to the top and ended up sharing billing as our 2020 Word of the Year.  
  This year, we were eager to continue our explorations. (We didn’t intend to produce a statistically precise thought leadership piece; rather, our aim is to foster a discussion to engage colleagues, clients and creators around the world about our shared passion of brand communications.) We asked some 200 of our closest friends: What one word or phrase would they use to describe how communications have shapeshifted in 2021? And they delivered — more than 170 words were put forward, coalescing around two major themes:
  • Adaptability/adaptation/adaptive/adapt, including agility, adjust, evolving and transforming  
  • Resilience/resilient/flexibility/flexible, including endurance, bouncing back, relentless and overcoming 

Drumroll, please!

The Red Havas Word of the Year 2021 is: Adapt.  To us, it doesn’t sound as corporate jargony as the words agility and resilience have become. We also like that it’s a verb, that it’s simple and that we can extrapolate on the many ways people have been forced to adapt at work, at home, in school, within the context of social interactions and travel. Many of us have had to adapt in response to different virus variants, to highs and lows, to having “long COVID” or to a vaccine debate that won’t go away anytime soon. The concepts of adaptability and resilience naturally both fall within this sphere — very often, in explaining the reason for their selection, our respondents referenced resilience when discussing adaptability and vice versa. And for business, the phrase ‘adapt or die’ has never been more apt than in 2021 as business stopped waiting for change and made it happen themselves. We are calling adapt our winner of 2021 — and a return winner at that. Adapt has been an unsung linguistic hero many times before, attesting to the indomitable human spirit that’s made to adapt, over and over and over again—to circumstances ranging from the agricultural to the industrial to the information age throughout history. Consider not only COVID-19 and the massive vaccination efforts, but BLM and the ongoing social justice issues at a local and global level. We’ve adapted, too, to landmark deals on coal, deforestation and methane coming out of COP26, and to remote school, remote work and supply chain challenges, to name a few recent examples.

Here is what else we heard 

We also looked at our Word of the Year relative to the well-heeled findings of major dictionaries around the world. Perseverance, selected by Cambridge Dictionary, was mentioned a handful of times, mostly in connection with our respondents’ comments relating to adaptability and resilience. COVID-specific words such vaccine (Merriam-Webster’s word), vax (the Oxford English Dictionary’s), vaccinated, delta variant, or other related, but more unique options like strollout (Australia National Dictionary Centre’s choice to describe the slow vaccine rollout Down Under) had few or no mentions among our friends. Other common themes among our 170-plus submissions:
  • How the times really are changing and so are we: demonstrated by key words like journey, reinvention, restart and turning point
  • How we are seeing our way through: thanks to our endurance, relentlessness, pushing through and thrive
  • How our emotions continue to run the gamut: from devastated through hopeless to connected and hopeful
  • Plus, a few choice words for a new lexicon in a new era: like delta, cancelled, hybrid and headspace
Our most original Word of the Year submission was probably coronacoaster, submitted by our friend Brandi Boatner, digital and advocacy communications manager at IBM.
As Brandi explains, “This word applies to both my personal and professional life. Some days were good. Some days were bad. It was a constant rollercoaster of emotions. However, I am stronger, wiser and more focused thanks to my time on the wild ride that is the coronacoaster.”

In other (their own) words…

We also took some time looking at the Word of the Year in terms of what it means to people both personally and in the context of what we all do professionally around the comms landscape. Check out our Word of the Year e-book that features the word of their year and rationale from agency leaders, word lovers, and brand communicators and marketers from around the world. Or, listen to the final ”Red Sky Fuel for Thought” podcast episode of 2021 for a discussion about our findings, featuring Redster Linda Descano in conversation with Dino Delic, director of executive deliverables at Meltwater, and Red Havas CEO James Wright. Overall, there was agreement that there is still immeasurable change happening both in the world at large and also on a very personal level. Last year brought some big changes, this year every one of us has had to adapt in many, smaller ways. 2020 had been a challenging year, but we spent most of it waiting for—and expecting—the pandemic to be over. 2021 is the triumphant year where we realized we could still haul back our lives and freedoms. A year that forced us to continue to adjust, overcome and succeed. As communicators, we are the true heroes of reinvention, thinking big and acting small. We had to adapt to new ways of connecting with our targets and our clients at a much faster pace. We had to be agile, adapting to new trends, budgets and client needs, and comfortable with our continuously changing circumstances, accepting curve ball after curve ball at work, at home, in our town, in our country, in politics, in our relationships, in our families and even in our finances—while continuing to deliver. Amidst our new normal of remote work, virtual learning and happy hours via Zoom and Teams, compromise would be a negative, adaptability feels like the positive. Most of us have been trying to adapt to a new lifestyle of working from home, juggling between job and family, and finding the lines between our personal and professional lives blurred. While there is a trend to focus on wellness and mental health, what most of us are searching for is balance. We hold onto beacons of hope and strive to come out the other side as stronger individuals and resilient communities. We can’t wait to see how we adapt in 2022, and what new words and phrases we will bring forth in the next 12 months.