Dawn Lerman, Ph.D. Professor of Marketing and Executive Director, Center for Positive Marketing, Fordham University and Author of The Language of Branding: Theories, Strategies and Tactics
Choosing the right language to express your brand in the marketplace has never been more important. By today’s digital standards, the time and space that marketers have to pitch their brand in, say, a traditional thirty-second spot or a magazine ad seem like a luxury. Each word really matters now because, frankly, in digital platforms, there are not too many of them.
Social media has led the pack in transforming how consumers and brands connect in the marketplace. It has empowered consumers and encouraged them to take the lead in the dialogs they now have with brands. Brands contribute to the conversation as just one of many participants, rather than as a director of the conversation. This can be messy territory on a variety of linguistic fronts. And despite the central role of social media in modern-day marketing, brands continue to make social media missteps. We still have much to learn, for example, about how and when brands should assign linguistic agency to the consumer rather than to the product (e.g., ‘consumers can clean’ vs ‘the product can clean’) and the best substitutes for the signaling cues that nonverbal communications (e.g., facial or hand gestures) provide so well in person-to-person interaction.
While we continue to wrap our heads around how best to use language in social media, we are learning to navigate the linguistic capabilities and limitations of a newer technology: artificial intelligence. So far, artificial intelligence has produced what is, in many ways, artificial language. Many of us have witnessed Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa unable to understand and respond to what seems like a simple question. Or, perhaps it gave an answer that is entirely irrelevant or perhaps incomprehensible.
We may find such experiences mildly amusing or deeply frustrating. They may also be somewhat comforting. In this age of increasing concern about consumer privacy, automation putting people out of work and the like, voice-controlled-personal-assistance-gone-awry reminds us that our lives are not being—and cannot easily be— taken over by robots, at least not yet. This current state of affairs made good fodder for Burger King’s 2018 television ad campaign which claimed that each spot was “created by artificial intelligence,” an explanation for some odd and amusing voice-overs such as “Bed of lettuce for you to sleep on, bed of mayonnaise for extra sleep.”
Consumers respect brands that are authentic
The point is clear: We really do not know what artificial intelligence can do or how best to use it.
No doubt, technology will evolve in a way that allows machines to interact more naturally with us. A key question we should be asking is whether this process will be sped along by our own evolution, or more specifically, the evolution of our language. In other words, will human language change to accommodate interactions with software systems capable of natural-language processing? And if so, what does that suggest for how businesses should communicate with their customers online and offline going forward?
We already have evidence of language adaptation. Users of Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri use trial and error to learn how to ask questions in ways that the device and the technology behind it will understand. With enough such practice, will those users naturally construct their questions similarly in other contexts? The original character limitations of texting and Twitter inspired us to vastly expand our use of emoticons and abbreviations as a short form way of sharing our experiences and expressing our thoughts and feelings. With enough practice expressing ourselves in this sound-bite kind of way, will we become more likely to express ourselves superficially—without the depth of expression—in other contexts?
The answers to these questions will have implications for how consumers will interact with any new and forthcoming marketing platforms as well as the capabilities those platforms will need to have to be widely adopted by consumers. If we can and do adapt our language with relative ease, developers need not worry about perfectly mimicking human speech. And if the language we are learning to speak in a digital or virtual context becomes the language we speak in all contexts, then at some point in the not too distant future, today’s language may no longer seem natural in any context.
There are also implications for non-digital environments such as in-store where language appears on signage and packaging, and in the interactions that customers have with sales personnel. While the language used to express and communicate a brand should be true to the brand and its image, it also needs to resonate with target customers. Consumers respect brands that are authentic. Brand language authenticity means authentic to the brand but also authentic to how consumers naturally process language.
The question of how technology impacts language has other implications for marketers. Researchers have long debated the relationship, if any, between language and thought. In other words, is our thinking governed by what we can express (or vice versa)? If such a relationship exists—and there is strong evidence both for and against—then, are we simplifying our thoughts about products and brands by simplifying our language as we adapt to technology? How will such simplifications affect our product/brand expectations or our customer choice and satisfaction criteria? Will the use of less nuanced language in daily life effectively discourage consumers from examining or evaluating brands with any depth and result in their putting more weight on superficial aspects of brands when making choices?
Only time will tell us the answers to these questions. In the meantime, here are a few ways to prepare for your brand’s linguistic future:
• Recognize that as a living thing, languages change over time.
• Utilize social listening and other text analytical software to learn not only what is said and how it is said, but also how that ‘how’ changes over time.
• Use your insight about linguistic changes to help inform the evolution of the language used for marketing your brand across a variety of platforms.