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Listening to Voices


Managing and measuring marketing promotion through messaging

The struggle to measure the potency of our marketing efforts is eternal. We spend hundreds of billions on promotion, and what do we get from it? Mounds of paper and electronic detritus.

We can learn a lot in our efforts to research and manage our messages and their effects by determining our underlying voice, and viewing it through the lens of marketing and psychology.

It is our belief that there are four different voices, and each seeks to elicit different responses. Each voice has a different tone and overtone, and each seeks something specific. Also, each voice needs to be addressed in a different way. These differences can manifest in many ways and are rooted in the psychology and physiology of our response to language.

The Voice of Love

Marketing deals very often indeed with adoption and seduction.

First, consider adoption. How often do we frame our offering (product, service or issue) as a desirable addition to what you already have, get or believe? Love, in the sense of adoption, implies taking something into one’s home and viewing it as “part of the family.” Consider how this process played out when first the television and then the personal computer entered the home. Advertisers first had to persuade people that these devices were not alien, business-like or threatening—distancing themselves (as in Apple’s famous hammer-throwing ad) from the telescreens of George Orwell’s 1984. The sight of a friendly—even beloved—face can turn a sterile, demoralizing task into a pleasant one. Language, too, can evoke that sense of kinship.

Television, print and Internet advertising are often the public face of businesses. Consider the De Beers slogan “A Diamond is Forever.” That statement conveys dependability and endurance, qualities that reinforce the social, familial bond (more than the ephemeral sparkle of lust or beauty) that the marketing campaign sought to establish.

This approach is not without its risks. As many marketing researchers, including Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, have pointed out, invoking social norms rather than market norms places a greater burden on businesses to show reciprocity.

Unrequited love or the feeling of being manipulated can turn love into deep, long-lasting anger.

Seduction, on the other hand, is about stoking and possibly satisfying needs rather than building bonds. The language of seduction, like the language of adoption, needs to convince its audience to let its guard down, but at the same time, it offers excitement and risk. This tension leads to reliance on imagery and innuendo.

What should our voice (or voices) of love be similar to, then? Soft and appealing? Without roughness or abrasion? Not tedious, tough or tendentious? Soft, sympathetic, authentic, and, well, seductive?

The Voice of Poetry

A key to poetry, as opposed to prose, is its ability to go beyond the meaning conveyed by the words themselves. Language does more than convey meaning. It has sound, rhythm and emotional reverberations that can help the consumer connect with a product. Our research needs to do this, too.

Poetry combines our more conventional use of language (to inform or persuade) and adds to it more subtle shades of meaning and perceptual effects that tie into our more basic use of sound. There is evidence that we encode information in memory using the elements of alliteration, meter and rhyme. Therefore, our message will stick in the mind if its poetry makes it easy to encode.

Poetry and music can also stick in our minds by triggering parts of the brain beyond those that are required for understanding language itself. Research shows that mental imagery makes information easier to remember. Insights like these help to explain why poetry sticks in our minds. Poetry (and vivid prose) in advertising copy may activate parts of the brain differently, influencing what eventually becomes part of our memory.

The Voice of War

The threat of war can invoke within us trust in authority figures, a desire for the familiar and a “fight or flight” response. This can be seen literally in the marketing of guns or security systems. Americans, and others across the world, are girding for battle in the contentious issues of immigration and gun control.

The language of war intersects with the language of love, both in the sense of adoption (patriotism, loyalty and shared sacrifice) and seduction (bloodlust and glory). The audience’s side is a beloved object of affection, while the enemy is debased (sometimes through sexual imagery) and enemy territory is lusted after. We can turn back to Apple’s hammer-throwing ad—what better way to show our love for the brand than to strike out against its (drone-like and dehumanized) enemies?

The language of war is a powerful but double-edged tool of advertising because it evokes powerful and conflicting emotions. A marketing campaign can be caught on the wrong side as the battlefield conditions shift, particularly when the ad outlasts the conflict. Ads that allude to race, class or gender conflicts, for instance, as a way of connecting with target audiences may work against the company if they hope to win over the “enemy demographic” later on.

The Voice of Sports

With the voice of sports, there is almost always a winner—and a loser.

The language of sports also intersects with the languages of love and poetry, but in a more personal way. We may respect generals and military heroics, but we do not always personally identify with warriors. Athletic events, however, are commonly portrayed in popular culture as metaphors for personal achievement and, in a sense, self-actualization. We can personally identify with athletes and adopt them as role models. This can backfire if the athlete does something unseemly, like taking steroids or having an extramarital affair, but the stakes are not quite as high as in war. Redemption is often possible, and there is always another game to be played.

The Possibilities

Marketers may not even be aware of these voices, but the range of possibilities exists. If the voice we use to tell our story is different every time, we must try to figure out where its story was supposed to go, and if it did the job it was supposed to do. Psychology cannot, as of yet, offer precise answers as to which ads or which voices do best in any particular situation, but it can raise new questions. Marketing, in turn, seeks the pocketbook as its ultimate aim, but the head and the heart must be addressed in order to succeed.

Understanding the voice that we choose is surely vital in understanding the choices that the market makes when we offer them what we have to sell.

And in that search for understanding, surely four voices are better than one.

This article was written by AMA contributors Sean Green and Neil Holbert and this post was re-purposed from the American Marketing Association. Read more Marketing News here.