Be careful with fancy words in your product description

“Rooibos soap”. “Harissa fried chicken”. Don’t use words that most people won’t understand to describe your product. It will make it seem worse and more expensive.

Marketers are often tempted to use fanciful descriptions for products. They’re right to do so in many cases, descriptions can help people imagine using (or savoring) their product and increase purchase likelihood.

But there’s a dangerous pitfall that’s easy to fall into, especially in a globalized world where less than 30% of the 1.27 billion English speakers are ‘native speakers’.


Don’t describe your product with words that many people might not understand

Impacted metrics: Customer acquisition
Channels: Product | Packaging | Website/App | Marketing communications

Tip type: New research (January 2021)
Previous tip: Stories about others get retweeted more (All tips here)

Recommendation

In your product name and descriptions, don’t use words that your target customers might not understand (e.g. Coho salmon, chelating shampoo, melamine cups).

Little-known words may sound sophisticated, but they backfire and hurt your sales. Particularly if you are selling internationally or many of your customers are non-native speakers.

Effects

  • When people find words they don’t understand in the name or description of a product, they expect its quality to be lower and price higher, reducing purchase intention. 

  • For example, people expected a bag of cornbread mix to be 9% worse quality and 12.5% more expensive when it was preceded by a randomly generated meaningless word.

  • Does not apply to words that are uncommon but easy to understand in context. For example, previous research found that atypical color names lead to positive reactions (e.g. monster green, Alpine snow).

  • When someone is looking for a gift for a friend that they know has atypical tastes, the negative effect disappears and could even reverse.

(When a meaningless descriptive word was added in front of a product - e.g. ‘zal’ neck pillow - people expected lower quality and a higher price - Click to zoom in)


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Why it works

  • Meaningless descriptors make us compare a product to others in the product category (e.g. poq apple vs red apple). We assume it must have a special characteristic and be different, but we’re not sure if that’s positive so we assume it’s negative.

Limitations

  • The effect was tested on common food and non-food items and could be not generalizable to all product categories.

  • For example, highly innovative products with rarely understood words could signal groundbreaking technology. Luxury goods with names understood only by a few (e.g. Chanel 2.55) could be used to signal exclusivity and are therefore attractive.

  • Instead of using words that some may know the meaning of (and most not), the researchers generated made-up three-letter words to perform experiments (consonant-vowel-consonant). While this is an imperfect reflection of the real-world, the principle should hold.

Companies using this

  • Companies seem to have already started to simplify their product naming and descriptions over the years, as the importance of clarity over 'sounding fancy' has become more understood.

  • Some cosmetic products have entertaining examples of what not to do:

    • May Lindstrom’s description of their skin cream: “Mystical blue tansy eases feelings of emotional anxiety while releasing heat [...]”

    • Pac McGrath’s lipsticks:
      “Ethereally erotic colour meets surreally seductive shine in LUST: Gloss. This orally fixating balm glides on [...] while evoking three-dimensional lustre. Turn your lips on in ravishingly resplendent hues – ranging from teasing transparencies to negligee nudes to poetic pinks [...] scintillating shades”

  • As with anything, there are exceptions. Skincare company The Ordinary successfully used a strategy of naming its products after previously little-known names of active ingredients, such as “Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1%” or “Retinol 0.5% in Squalane” (yes, those are the actual product names). However, these terms are now widely understood by its target customers.

Steps to implement

  • Use as simple and as common as possible words to describe your product. This doesn’t stop you from using highly descriptive attractive descriptions (e.g. slow-cooked caramelized zucchini bites, moody blue jelly beans, Oh So Orange phones).

  • If you think your product is highly innovative and uncommon words are necessary (or you think they’d make it more attractive), tread carefully and try to test it with your target audience before using it.


Study type

Online experiments, United States

Source

Baskin, E., & Liu, P. J. (January 2021). Meaningless Descriptors Increase Price Judgments and Decrease Quality Judgments. Journal of Consumer Psychology.

[Link to paper]

Affiliations

Saint Joseph's University and University of Pittsburgh. 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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