When is value added?

“Do I add value?” asked a man walking past me on a train platform. I almost laughed out loud until I realized he was talking on a hands-free phone and possibly repeating a question from an employer who had questioned his worth.*

Adding value is a popular claim nowadays. Maybe it will help you keep a job.

In the European Union, if a company adds value to a product at some stage of production, it pays a tax on the value added: a value-added tax.

But what in the world is a “value-added product”?

“We expect the company’s increasing emphasis on its high-margin value-added products to positively affect its results,” stated Forbes stated on April 7, 2015, in an article about the aluminum manufacturer Alcoa. A Google news search on April 14 for “value-added” turned up 143,000 results, some of which made sense but a lot of which were incomprehensible phrases such as “value-added services” and a “value-added distributor.”

How did a meaningful phrase get turned into a meaningless business buzzword? I suspect that some business type heard the words “value added” and liked the sound but had no clue to the meaning and started sticking them everywhere.

If a product, distributor, or service adds value, it’s a value-adding product, distributor, or service. Grammatically, it’s like the difference between a gold-plated machine and a gold-plating machine. A machine might be plated with gold, but a product cannot be added with value. It’s nonsense.

But a grammatically correct turn of phrase still might be an empty buzzword. What exactly do the value-adding product, distributor, or service add, and for whom? It would be more convincing to hear some specific benefits conferred by the product, distributor, or service rather than a promise of vague value.

If, when editing, you see a “value-added” anything that isn’t a tax, please kill it with a stick. But don’t stop with fixing the grammar. See whether there’s any real meaning in it and try to bring that out.

* This anecdote is repeated from my Commuter Crossroads column that appeared in the Fredericksburg, Virginia, Free Lance–Star newspaper on March 2, 2008.


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