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That’s So 2007

November 5, 2010

Originally, this was going to be a post about Starbucks and its recent earnings statement.   The Seattle-based coffee giant issued an 8-K yesterday to share its good news: after a few down years, things are looking good again for the green-encircled, wavy-haired mermaid (is that what she is?).

Some are speculating that the turnaround in Starbucks’ fortunes is a good sign for the economy as a whole: that the sale of premium coffee beverages is a bellwether for consumer confidence overall.  If you’re doing well, you splurge and pay $5 for that venti Frappuccino.  If you’re down on your luck, you stay home and drink Folger’s.  Or so the logic goes.

But this post went in another direction when I read Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s statement in yesterday’s press release.  “In 2010,” Schultz intones, “we continued to improve our customer experience, [and] further leverage our coffee authority. . . ”  Huh?  Leverage our coffee authority? It’s equal parts bombast and jargony marketspeak .  “Coffee authority” is a silly phrase, even if it refers to something real (the authoritative Starbucks brand).  But it’s the word “leverage” that really stuck in my craw.

That word — used specifically as a transitive verb — has emerged out of obscurity to become the buzzword of the decade in the arena of business and marketing.  Everyone claims to be able to leverage this and leverage that.  A decade ago, it was hip.  Now, it’s become a cliché.

And I have data to back that up.  I did a search on our SEC Filings page to track the rise of the word “leverage.”   I looked at Exhibit 99s (press releases) for each calendar year starting in 1996.  Of course, the word has long been used among specialists to talk about debt, so we’d expect it to show up with some frequency the filings.  But there is no other way to account for the precipitous climb in usage from 1996 to 2007, reflected in the chart below (you can click on the image for a larger view).

During this 12 year period, the number of SEC-filed Exhibit 99s containing a form of the word “leverage” increased a remarkable 14 fold.  We see a steady gain year over year, with a particular uptick evident between 2002 and 2003, when the number doubled.   For 2007, the query returns nearly 13,000 results (compared to only 941 in 1996).   That’s the peak.  They’ve slowly tapered off since.

So maybe the leverage fad is beginning its slow fade.  Then again, they were saying the same thing about gourmet coffee drinks a few years ago.

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