Why you should be tapping language-based consumer insight to build brand

Linguabrand founder, Alastair Herbert, details the power of analysing customer language and competitive landscape to build better brand storytelling

Alastair Herbert at the 2018 AANA Reset
Alastair Herbert at the 2018 AANA Reset


Consumers are a lot less interested in change than organisations are, and it’s brands who listen, rather than talk, to customers who are best placed to find this out and act on it.

That’s the view of Alastair Herbert, the founder of Linguabrand, a brand consultancy house using psychology insights and language-driven research to help organisations better connect with customers. Herbert shared his views on the importance of making and maintaining relationships at this week’s AANA Reset event in Sydney.

Behind Linguabrand’s approach are the work of University of Texas professor, James Pennebaker, who has built software that picks out emotional intelligence from everyday language; and American linguist and professor, George Lakoff, for identified subconscious, linguistic framing as the basis for persuasion.  

Linguabrand’s offering is built around ‘Bob Robot’, a deep listening tool built off the back of Pennebaker and Lakoff’s work that taps into conversations and what consumers are saying in order to help brands connect with them better. As an example, Herbert noted customer insights derived via Bob helped triple switching rates for Samsung from dissatisfied Apple customers by informing and then tweaking the questions its sales assistants asked consumers.

“Language is extraordinarily powerful,” he said. “These frames are really important to understand.”

For Herbert, customers are telling brands what they want. The problem is, most brands aren’t listening well enough.

“How can you communicate with customers if you don’t know what they want to hear from you and they fib if you ask them directly? But more importantly, how do you position a brand if you don’t understand where other brands are positioned?” he asked. “And how can you differentiate brand and communications if you don’t understand what all the generics are in the marketplace?”  

Herbert suggested one hurdle is the emphasis on focus groups and customer research. He claimed these are mostly flawed because the language used is inherently persuasive, the format doesn’t factor in the influence of the subconscious “social pecking order, and it doesn’t consider how many of us are trying to project a ‘best self’.

Another problem is organisations aren’t focusing enough on what customers are telling them about the whole brand landscape, Herbert said.

“It’s utterly naïve to not focus on what competitors are doing. You’re trying to build relationships and you have rivals trying to take these away,” he said. “Every time you communicate with people, you’re trying to take someone else’s customers.

“So start taking rivals seriously. If you don’t put things into context, you don’t have a strategy, you have a plan.”

The good news is customers are telling brand what they want, Herbert said. To showcase the power of language, he explained how words fall into three buckets: Head words, body words and picture words.

Head words are problematic because they force our brains to think too much, he said. “They’re usually on the bullshit bingo cards,” he said, and include terms like brand, responsibility, sustainability, respect and innovation.

Body words are more sensory and include terms like perfumed, noisy, tangy, colourful, sing and scratch. While more impactful, they’re very difficult to own as a brand and easy to copy, Herbert said.

Pictures words are powerful as humans think in pictures, and Herbert described their successful application as about building ‘metaphorical persuasion frames’.

“As we grow up we start describing things visually and our minds wire these things up,” he said. “If you listen to these on any subject, you know how to convert these conceptual ideas into the sorts of language that emotionally engages people. You could change your communications to fulfil people’s deepest psychological needs.”

An example of successfully using these psychological persuasion frames is ‘money is water’. The reason it’s influential is it’s sensory - running coins through your hands feels and sounds like water, Herbert said.

“So if you’re a bank, it doesn’t make sense to use buildings as either images or language in your communications or approach,” he said.  

Making language work for brands

Herbert outlined further insights into how customer language informs brand work. On the sensory perception side of things, for example, socially-fuelled insights via Bob showed the Samsung Galaxy X phone was all about the sense of touch.

Tapping into consumer reviews around whiskeys, meanwhile, found it’s all about taste for consumers. In the case of working with a bank, Linguabrand looked at the concept of helpfulness and found auditory perceptions are particularly powerful.

“If you have a customer complaint and you want to demonstrate helpfulness, don’t tell people you know how they feel; don’t say we see your point of view, you say ‘thanks for talking to us, we’ve listened and we’d like to say X’,” Herbert advised.   

Linguabrand has also investigated consumer perceptions around change via hundreds of millions of words. These showed consumers much less interested in change than brands and organisations are. Just 13 per cent of consumers were found to be interested in revolution, 50 per cent want evolution, and 36 per cent prefer tradition.

“Always understand the approach people have to want change. Because if you’re selling transformation, you’ll only have a one in eight chance of being successful if you don’t know who they are,” Herbert said. “You’re better off selling something they’ve already got but that’s better – then you have a 50 per cent chance.

“But even better: Find out and listen to what they want as far as change is concerned.”  

To show how to put these conceptualise insights into action, Herbert said Linguabrand worked on defining creativity for a small learning and development company wanting to expand into China. It found that while the general consumers see creativity as something artistic, the core HR, mentor and training audience for the company saw creativity as a valuable source locked inside individuals.

“This company had been talking about igniting… we changed this to ‘releasing your greatest human resource’. This has allowed them to go into China because Chinese people think the same way and it’s been unbelievably successful - they trebled their business by opening in China and using this approach,” he said.  

Ultimately, knowing and using these frames gives you much broader creative licence, connects better to consumer psychology, and enables brands to deliver consistently across channels, Herbert concluded.

“Brands are not real – they’re just imaginary constructs inside people’s heads. Brands live or die inside people’s heads. You might think you work in advertising, marketing or branding, but truth of the matter is you do work in psychology whether you know it or not. I urge you to become better listeners,” he added. 

More on the power of consumer insight:

Follow CMO on Twitter: @CMOAustralia, take part in the CMO conversation on LinkedIn: CMO ANZ, join us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CMOAustralia, or check us out on Google+:google.com/+CmoAu     

 

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