The power of language: How words shape people, behaviour, and culture
Language shapes how we view the world, influencing how we think and feel about a person, a product or a brand. This makes it crucial for businesses to strategically use language to engage and communicate with their audience. But the community and culture surrounding us can also change the language we use, so it’s important that brands are aware of how this influences their customers.
At Observe Summit 2022, Tina M Lowery, Professor of Marketing at HEC Paris, and Cynthia Vega, Global Product Lead in Digital Analytics at Kantar explored this topic with James Cuthbertson, CRO of Relative Insight.
Understanding the gender of language and its influence on consumer perceptions
Gender is an important aspect of language, often having an influence on how the masses perceive things. In one of her research projects, Tina noticed the challenges related to introducing the word “COVID” in European countries that speak gendered languages.
In French, for example, when COVID was referred to in the press as “le COVID” (masculine), it was considered more dangerous and people were willing to take precautionary measures. When referred to in the press as “la COVID” (feminine), people considered it to be less serious, and so weren’t willing to take precautions. This phenomenon is also seen in the naming of hurricanes in the U.S. If it has a feminine name, it is perceived as less dangerous. But this often results in more deaths due to people taking fewer precautionary measures.
Tina has studied the gender of language extensively even in a branding context. She observed how with openly gendered brands such as Mr. Clean or Mrs. Butterworth’s, people tend to respond to them with gendered stereotypes. So although the gender of the brand doesn’t affect female consumers' purchasing decisions, male consumers will choose masculine brands over feminine ones, particularly those who are more conservative.
With covert gendered brand names, feminine brands actually have an advantage when the consumers don’t realise they’re feminine.
Uncovering context in language for relevance
Digital data allows us to understand the context of communications. So it goes beyond the brand or the category of the product that consumers are talking about, providing context by uncovering when, where, why, and how they are consuming or interacting with that category.
Cynthia explained that this is important for brands because “it’s about understanding trends in context so you can be relevant.” For example, if we look at the topic of sweat, we’d need to think about what it means in the context of gender. What body parts are being talked about in the context of sweat? Do those conversations have positive or negative connotations? How does it change across genders?
Additionally, we may need to think about how consumers communicate about the topic in the context of different life stages. She explained that the beauty of language is not just about understanding a product or brand but how consumers talk about it in the context of specific life stages and moments in their lives. “This applies to all categories and this is where brands can really capitalise and find white space to be relevant.”
Solving the challenge of language for international communications
When trying to reach an international audience, marketers are faced with the challenge of trying to connect with people speaking different languages and having different cultures. In these instances, Cynthia explained how it’s important for businesses to go beyond text analysis by also looking at images. “If you think about Instagram, TikTok, consumers are not only talking about things, they’re showing symbols through the images they post.”
She explained that there are unspoken codes in different cultures. For example, in Egypt, someone’s idea of having fun and going out may involve having dinner together with friends. But for someone in Mexico, their idea of having fun may be going out in the park. Consumers in different countries will still have similar needs, but they will express them differently through images and text.
Additionally, when advertisers communicate in the native language of the consumer, their advertising tends to have a more emotional connection. Moreover, consumers are more likely to remember the brand and the message. “So it’s important for brands to consider how to appeal to international audiences but also in the native languages with key messages,” Cynthia concluded.