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Tell NatWest that “Tell Sid” might not get the message across to today’s retail investors

Language Concept
By Polly Warrack
13 February 2024
Office, Retail & Commercial

If all change is inevitable then the changes in how we use language feel especially frequent, with phrases coming in and out of common parlance with the same regularity that ITV produces a series of Love Island. Once I might have just said that this is how things are, but, since the 2019 edition of the dating show, I, like many others, would say that “it is what it is”, a phrase which had no special significance until Sherif’s eight-day stint in the famous Mallorcan villa.

While easily the most memefied – a word that came into use in the early 2010s – Love Island is not the only UK reality TV programme to have an impact on our vernacular. Indeed, it was just last month that The Traitors returned to our screens and brought the word “traitorish” with it.

I shall start with the obvious: this is not a word. Not only is it not a word, but there is already a word in existence with that exact meaning: treacherous. So, why is it that “traitorish” instead gained currency in Ardross Castle? While I was not a player in this year’s series and suspect my inability to compartmentalise means I’d definitely be one of the Faithful should I ever participate, I imagine it is because “traitorish” better conveys what the players actually meant: specific behaviour within the context of the game that would make someone seem like a Traitor, rather than a traitor. At risk of being pedantic, I would argue that “traitoresque” would have been more appropriate, but the point remains that even if it does not quite meet the boundaries of correct English, the language evolved to meet the needs of the contestants and it worked – everyone knew what was meant, even if nobody except poor Jaz could see the Traitors in front of them.  

This all came to mind when I read the recent news that the government was planning a “Tell Sid”-style deal to offer NatWest shares to the public in the summer. I cannot imagine I was the only person who read this fairly widespread coverage and had a big question: who is Sid? As it turns out, these headlines referred to a successful1986 campaign to encourage the public to buy shares in British Gas. Upon research, the parallel is clear, but I wonder if the reference itself was too opaque for many younger readers and investors to be effective.

Like the images chosen to accompany a news story, words, phrases and cultural references act to grab our attention and signpost that something will be of interest to us and while some of this shorthand will have universal cut-through, for most there will be far greater variables. This is because the phrases and words we use change significantly by age group – at 32, I am too firmly in the millennial bracket to engage with the word “rizz” – and by geography, which is why bap, cob and barm can all mean bread roll depending on where you are in the UK.

Why could that be a problem when trying to raise awareness of potential investors ahead of the opportunity to acquire shares in NatWest? Well, because the youngest person old enough to be a retail investor in 1986 would now be in their mid-fifties, while the average age of a retail investor in the UK in 2021 was 38, according to a survey by EQ.  The upshot of this is that there are many potential investors who could miss this message and the ability to engage with the opportunity because it was couched in language that is not inclusive of their generation.

Language is constantly evolving and while that can give rise to expressions that some may mock, and others may find mystifying, it is important that we pay attention to how the world is communicating so we can do so in a way that is impactful and relevant. Given it has been 38 years since the original “Tell Sid” campaign, a more recent point of reference or clear English that lets the news speak for itself may have proven more successful. Sorry Sid, but it is what it is.