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Psycholinguistics: How brand messaging impacts consumer behavior

Psycholinguistics: How brand messaging impacts consumer behavior

I’ve always been someone who believes words have power.

It may be the journalist in me, but I’ve never been able to deny the impact language has on those who come in contact with it (and if you haven’t noticed… that’s everyone).

Outside of daily communication with loved ones, friendly neighbors and co-workers, language also has a pretty large influence on how consumers perceive your marketing content. The addition or subtraction of a word, phrase or synonym can completely alter customer engagement for better or worse.

Interested in learning more about language and the psychology behind it, I spoke with Dawn Lerman, Ph.D., professor of marketing at Fordham University and co-author of "The Language of Branding: Theories, Strategies, and Tactics," about how language determines decision-making and brand marketing.

Take a look at some of the key concepts we discussed:

What is the psychology of language?

Lerman studies the psychology of language, also known as psycholinguistics, making her the perfect person to describe the relationship between the words we speak and the ways our brain processes them.

“Psycholinguistics refers to an area of linguistics that focuses on how the human mind processes language. Specifically, it focuses on the acquisition, storage, comprehension, and production of language," Lerman said. 

In addition to looking at how the brain comprehends language, experts like Lerman have also studied how that language impacts human behavior and decisions.

“We know from research in marketing and psycholinguistics that the type of language used has an influence on the degree in which we pay attention to messaging, how we relate to messaging, whether messaging is memorable or not, and those same areas — awareness, memorability, the likability — have strong impact on the brands that we choose,” said Lerman. 

Believe it or not, you’ve likely utilized psycholinguistics before and just don’t know it. Brands that use things like alliteration, the repetition of sounds, and rhyme (among other things) have leveraged these linguistic techniques that have an impact on how the brand is processed by consumers.

“These are great techniques to encourage customers [to] pay attention. They also help increase brand memorability and can help position the brand. Alliteration and rhyme, for
example, can add an element of fun. Whenever you repeat the same word or sound you introduce some musicality to your messaging,” said Lerman. 

That language can be used in every area of your brand marketing. And, according to Lerman, requires some creativity.

“When a brand, in its packaging or advertising, uses imagery —, visually descriptive or figurative
language that encourages a consumer to imagine — it can increase attention and involvement with that packaging or ad. It may also increase likability," Lerman said.

Brand language examples

In her book, Lerman and her co-authors reference a strategic decision made by ING Direct, the first Internet Bank, which was eventually taken over by Capital One. The contemporary modern bank set forth on a mission to offer consumers innovative options, but had to prove themselves to customers. They used language as a means of doing so.

“Online banking was an innovation at the time, so they not only wanted to make clear that this was a new way of banking, but they had to establish themselves as credible and trustworthy,” said Lerman. “In the book, we discuss an outdoor ad for ING Direct that touted ‘Money Mitosis.’ First, there’s the repetition of the letter M. The copy also makes you think 'What’s money mitosis? It makes you imagine how this biological term could be relevant to banking. Consumers need not know the exact definition to understand the message, as long as they have some idea that mitosis refers to growth.”

Lerman says this strategy works well because it utilizes vocabulary that doesn’t typically spend much time in the limelight.

“There are hundreds of words in the English language. We use very few of them in everyday speech and writing, but we know so many more. Our comprehension of language is much greater than our production, and that offers a great opportunity for marketers,” said Lerman. “Language can be
used both strategically and tactically to help break through all the clutter out there. One way for brands to do this  is to leverage a wider range of vocabulary to help position their brands and  capture consumers’ attention.”

When it comes to language, the opportunities to influence consumer behavior are endless. Lerman says there are smaller tactics, like those mentioned above, that you can implement into your marketing campaigns, but there are also larger tactics like the creation of a brand language.

“The iconic example is Starbucks. They have their own lingo. You either speak Starbucks, or you don’t speak Starbucks. Starbucks taught us a whole new language,” said Lerman. “And they want you to speak that language. How do you learn the Starbucks language? That's a psycholinguistics question. How do you encourage consumers to  order an item ‘Starbucksese?’ ”

And in cases like that with Starbucks, brand language is almost its own element of the customer experience. 

“One way to think about this is as long as there have been marketers, marketers have been using language. [It’s used] to communicate benefits or even to establish a brand name...” said Lerman. “There’s always been a language of marketing that’s been used for marketers to communicate with consumers and there will always have to be.”

Making the most of your brand's language

Just because a marketer or brand is using language to communicate doesn’t mean that language is being leveraged to its fullest potential. With there being so many different ways to communicate the same idea, it’s critically important that your brand determines the best way to communicate to its consumers, including what to say and how to say it. 

“Three different ways of saying the same thing may approximate each other but each one has its own nuances. If you think of synonyms for the word happy you’ll come across ten or more words, but each one has a slightly different meaning,” said Lerman. “So when a brand starts thinking about which meaning or nuance is relevant to their brand and how they want to communicate with consumers, they’re starting to use the language more strategically.”

Part of being strategic includes ensuring that your brand language goes hand in hand with all other areas of your brand: its mission, persona and more. And of course, audience is included in that. It only makes sense that a brand geared toward a younger audience will speak much differently than a brand catering to Fortune 500 companies.In teaching her students this concept, Lerman has them choose an established brand to emulate. 

“If we’re going to humanize brands in some way and view them with some sort of brand personality, then presumably that would include a way of speaking,” said Lerman. “One student wrote an example of Red Bull going on a date. You can imagine that if you’re creating a brand language for a brand like Red Bull, they’ll speak quickly and get to the point compared to some romantic luxury brand that has a different vocabulary and speed of speech.”

Outside of her classroom, Lerman suggests marketing experts consider creating a brand language brief, an organizing framework or document that lays out what you want to communicate and how you will go about doing so. It will help in making sure that everyone involved in your brand is working toward the same language-focused goal.

In preparation for the brief, she encourages brands to develop a brand language audit, a detailed analysis of your brand’s communication style and the tactics displayed by your competitors.

“Look at your main competition, identify the different linguistic techniques they’re using and figure out the overall sense that language creates. Do that for your brand as well,” said Lerman. “Dunkin' Donuts speaks very differently than Starbucks speaks and you see this across many aspects of their language,  punctuation, sentence length, syntax, and more. When you take the entirety of both languages, you get a sense of what those brands are about and how they are different from one another.”

Lerman says you can look at it like a sort of checklist: What is your vocabulary? What sort of punctuation, if any, is appropriate for your brand? Should you be using things like alliteration and rhyme? The process of doing an audit for your brand and those in your competitive set really helps to clarify how you should be using language. 

Words have power, and when you use them wisely, the effect they can have on your brand value is profound. Be mindful of your brand messaging and what it says. When those words are speaking for you, make sure you’re giving your customers something worth listening to. 


Picture of Lindsay Keener

Lindsay Keener

Lindsay Keener is a brand journalist for Quikly. She covers stories that help to inform and educate consumer-facing marketers.

Picture of Lindsay Keener

Lindsay Keener

Lindsay Keener is a brand journalist for Quikly. She covers stories that help to inform and educate consumer-facing marketers.