If customers feel distant from your brand, use abstract language

People who felt distant from a tea brand paid 35% more when it was described using abstract language (e.g. “Its essence envelops”). If they felt close, specific wording was 28% better

77% of people say they don’t forge strong relationships with brands. When probed more deeply, people listed 2.15 brands on average that were ‘important’ to them.

It’s very unlikely that your brand is one of them. But don’t despair, a new study in the Journal of Marketing offers a solution.

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Use abstract language with people distant from your brand and be specific with those close

Impacted metrics: Customer spending | Customer acquisition
Channels: Ads | Marketing communications

Tip type: New research (December 2020)
Previous tip: Some negative reviews are good for you (All tips here)

Recommendation

Match the language in your marketing communications (e.g. ads, emails) to the psychological distance people have to your brand (are you more like a family member or the neighbor they occasionally meet?):

  • If they feel close, use low-level specific language focused on the ‘How’ (e.g. “Acme accounting software integrates with your bank account so you don’t need to manually track your expenses”)

  • If they feel distant, use high-level abstract language focused on the ‘Why’ (e.g. “Stop worrying about tracking expenses with Acme accounting software”)

Use the opposite formula if your products can be reliably evaluated before purchase (e.g. clothes that can be tried in a shop).

If you can, segment your communication based on customer types. For example, Walmart or Lidl should target regular customers (e.g. “Buy 2x1 strawberries this week”) and occasional customers (e.g. “The best deals you can find”) differently.

Effects

  • Different language affects people differently depending on how close (or far) they feel to your brand. If they feel close (which probably also means they are a regular customer) you’ll benefit by giving them concrete, specific information. If they feel distant (probably not a customer, or an only occasional one) you should give them abstract information.

  • The effect works both on brand evaluation (attitudes, trust, satisfaction) and spending:

    • A distant brand talked about in an abstract way was evaluated 10.4% higher than when it was described in a specific way (the opposite happened to a close brand: 7.2% higher when specific language was used)

    • A charity ad co-branded with a Canadian beer brand, collected 67% more donations from people who felt distant from the beer brand when the ad was abstract (“Why is your donation important?” -> “because it ensures healthy animals”) and 88% more donations from people close to the brand when the ad was specific (“How does your donation make a difference” -> “by providing medical care”)

    • At a TWG tea booth, people who felt distant from the brand paid 35% more when the marketing material was abstract. Those that felt close to the brand paid 28% more when the language was specific.

  • Doesn’t work if people don’t normally buy in your product category (e.g. they don’t drink tea) or your brand has strong stereotypes (i.e. they already know what it’s about, e.g. Coca-Cola, Tinder).

  • If people can reliably evaluate a product before purchase (e.g. clothing, jewelry, furniture), the effect is reversed. Use abstract language for close customers and specific language for distant ones.

Why it works

  • Matching psychological distance with how abstract vs specific brand information is makes it more persuasive and easier to remember because we process it more easily.

  • The effect is based on construal level theory, whereby we tend to think about the specifics of something close to us and the big picture of something distant from us (e.g. a holiday that’s about to happen or one that’s far away).

Limitations

  • This study contains several new interpretations of consumer-brand relationships and of the distance between brands and people (using construal level theory). The researchers used several experiments to test different situations but we probably don’t fully understand these new effects and how they interact with other marketing elements (e.g. how similar are distant customers to top-of-funnel customers?). Apply with caution.

Companies using this

  • Companies don’t seem to be consciously adapting their language based on brand-distance. 

Steps to implement

  • Ask how close or distant your customers feel to your brand using the Inclusion of Other in the Self (IOS) Scale (“Which picture best describes your relationship with the brand?”). You can also use previous purchase data or make assumptions based on how people are talking about your brand on social media, for example.

  • If you don’t find a clear answer at first, try segmenting your customers into different groups.

  • Adapt the language in your ads and marketing material (e.g. website, emails, direct mail) to be more abstract or specific according to your results and objectives (e.g. you may be more interested in driving sales from one segment vs another).

Study type

Lab and online experiments, Canada

Source

Connors, S., Khamitov, M., Thomson, M., & Perkins, A. (December 2020). They’re Just Not that into You: How to Leverage Existing Consumer-Brand Relationships through Social Psychological Distance. Journal of Marketing, 0022242920984492.

[Link to paper]

Affiliations

Ivey Business School, Western University; Nanyang Business School, Nanyang Technological University; and Washington State University. Canada, Singapore, and United States

Remember: Because of the groundbreaking nature of this paper, it could be disproven in the future (although this is rare). It also may not be generalizable to your situation. If it’s a risky change, always test it on a small scale before rolling it out widely.


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