It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it that counts

As consumers, data increasingly dictates our lives. The potential benefits of this can be alluring: as seen in an episode of Netflix series Black Mirror, a neural implant creates a direct monitoring pathway to detect and remove daily stressors and give real-time health alerts.

Unfortunately, applications sprung from ‘dark interactions’ such as these can also be controversial. They can also contribute to the loss of personal identity by setting limitations on how we navigate our everyday lives, and by stripping away the ability to make personal choices about who we are in the communities that surround us.

As marketers, we face a similar dilemma. We have a desire to know and execute irreproachable scientific, data-led solutions, yet this often comes with a niggling sense of dread over the stripping away of creative interpretation.

The good news is, this dilemma does not need to be resolved with a binary choice between marketing technology versus intelligently applied human analysis. We should continue to champion the use of intuitive insight, or ‘gut instinct’, alongside data-led evidence, in order to gain layered perspectives on how our target audiences think and behave.

A discipline that sits squarely at this intersection of art and science is Natural Language Processing (NLP). Inspired by the special kind of reasoning that linguists do, NLP allows us to work on bigger data sets (or even new kinds of data) to draw more accurate conclusions around what our minds are computing, and how.

After all, the power of language goes much further than just a form of communication. According to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, verbal labels, speech patterns and adjectives can actually indicate different sets of sensory representations. In other words, the language we use and even our flukes of grammar are intrinsically linked to how we see the world. Language provides a window to see parts of the mind that are not consciously controlled, revealing emotions behind behaviours that often elude researchers asking respondents “how they feel” about a brand.

Considering linguistics is especially relevant in an era where the prevailing mantra of brand success seems to be to ‘move at the speed of culture’, as it creates new opportunities to break down the final barrier to direct communication.

For starters, analysing vocabulary patterns across different cultures can accelerate and enhance predictions around complex purchase intentions and habits. Researchers from Yale University recently uncovered that differences in how people prefer to spend and save across countries are correlated to how their native speakers talk about the future. Specifically, languages that require speakers to grammatically separate the future from the present lead them to invest less in the future – and they also save less, smoke more, practice more unsafe sex and are more obese!

Point to consider #1: By analysing how people talk about abstract concepts that are important to the success of a category or product (e.g. the concept of the future within the investment and insurance industry), can we identify cultural barriers and opportunities even more effectively?

Language framing can also help to validate data from more conventional forms of research such as surveys, especially when it comes to questions on self-perceptions and motivations. For instance, traditional analysis might not pick up on the subtle but substantial difference between ‘wanting a McDonalds’ and ‘craving a McDonalds’. But wanting and craving are distinctive motivations. Expressing a ‘want’ may indicate hunger. Expressing a ‘craving’ may nudge our choices towards acquiring things that made us feel good in the past in response to a particular stimulus (i.e. a hangover) – even if those things may not be consistent with our personal identity or lifestyle goals, whereas the reverse might be true when the term ‘want’ is used.

Point to consider #2: By examining specific catchphrases used to communicate intent and predicate action in pivotal moments of influence for a brand, and the language framing around them, can we develop more relatable creative?

The insights we’ve discussed so far don’t just apply to strategic thinking. A more visually-driven example would be how English speakers communicate time in terms of distance – “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” – versus Spanish speakers, who refer to time in terms of size – “mucho tiempo,” or much time. This supports research findings around better memory recall for length-related visuals when it comes to time for English speakers vs. volume-related visuals for Spanish speakers.

Point to consider #3: In your category, are there relevant linguistic quirks that might inform an approach to visual design?

Language is, and has always been, a curious and living creature that forms the foundations of culture and even human identity. The examples above only scratch the surface on interesting outcomes that can happen when both data and cognitive understanding inform creative output. By marrying data-driven automation such as social listening tools with semantics and context, we can harness culture and shed light on invisible cues around social identities, interactions and shared ideologies to connect better with audiences. “Learn a new language and get a new soul,” says the Czech proverb. In an age of innovation comes newfound opportunities to deliver truth, connection and wonder – it’s time to get to grips with linguistics.

By Michelle Chan, senior strategist, Digitas Hong Kong

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