Talking Funny (Accents and Advertising)

As the world has changed, so has advertising. Promoting a product, service, idea, place-thing-to-be-sold-here isn’t just about promoting features and benefits, it is also about promoting a sense of meaning and identity. And much to my surprise, an aspect of this that too often overlooked is the importance of language.

In a country there are a host of regional dialects and accents. In the US there are dozens, though the sake of simplicity we can “group” them into broader families ranging from seven to twenty (it really depends on which linguistic model you choose to apply).  What this means is that various forms of the English language coexist and help define us in the context of where we are in relation to others. Marketers need to take into account that language is not just a way for us to speak (as in the transfer of information), it is also a revealing element of who we are.

Based on accent, word choice, etc. it is possible to determine our background and social status. Granted, depending on the context we may shift from one speech pattern to another, but the point is that language carries identifiers of class, region, gender identity, etc. (a dear friend originally from Alabama becomes decidedly more Southern after a drink or when in the company of other Southerners).  The dialect used in an advertisement therefore has an influence on the brand and the way it is perceived. Some dialects are seen as friendly and down to earth, some sound erudite, while others are viewed as authoritative. Because of these various attitudes towards the dialects of the English language, choosing the right one for a campaign is relevant to the way consumers perceive the message put forth..

Some years ago, a US-based survey found (we’ve all heard about it at some time or another) that brands using standard British English were viewed more favorably and rated higher in quality and sophistication. That could of course be disputed since context and history play a role in the interpretation, but the underlying point holds true; because the variety of English used in marketing has a powerful influence on how the audience judges the spokesperson, who also functions as a voice for the brand, the attitudes consumer forms are transferred to the overall brand. The important point being that language identity not only enhances the message put forth, but also validates it.

Ultimately, as the cultural characteristics, including speech, of the spokesperson influence the persuasive process, the ability to identify with the spokesperson based on the dialect has an influence on the purchase intention. The more connected in terms of dialect the speaker and listener are, the more favorable the evaluation of speaker, and the associated brand, will be. Language creates a deeper sense of cultural belonging. By underlining and verifying a company brand, as well as enhancing the possibility of identification, the presence of dialect has a great impact on overall perception when promoting a product or brand through television adverts – simply because of the social constructions and strong attitudes towards our speech.

What that means is that when crafting a brand platform, a campaign, or even a simple one-off piece of collateral, the importance of language goes beyond word choice. If the goal is to connect, then how we sound is as important as what we say.

 

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Semiotics and Brand Development

A brand is more than one iconic symbol, it’s a system of interconnected images, actions and signs that create a response in your consumers. While it is often put down to something as simple as logo design (which is anything but simple, in fact), identity and branding work extends beyond the creation of a company logo or trademark. The identity of any particular corporation, product or service encompasses a variety of materials including business cards, marketing materials, staff uniforms, advertisements, commercials, web presence, etc. All of this is created to establish an identity that the consumer comes to value beyond the direct benefits of the company.

A part of establishing the company brand, the identity work is important in conveying the principles, ideas and standards of the organization for which it is developed. Designers work together with strategists, copywriters, marketing directors and a host of other professionals to ensure that a brand identity is communicated effectively and efficiently from the client to the consumer. And in an age of social media and assumed shared interests, the communication is increasingly a multi-faceted conversation.

Most design firms and agencies create branding and identity work for their clients on some level, others specialize in identity and branding only. In any case, brand development involves deep thinking and a commitment to understanding the symbolic interconnectedness of the parties engaged with the brand. This is the art and science of semiotics. But why bother?  There are a number of simple reasons.

Understanding

Semiotics can help you dig into the underlying meanings in communication and establish a richer connection with consumers. On a practical level, a semiotic approach allows you to determine why an ad, a web page or a new product’s design is or isn’t working. It allows you to isolate components, but it also allows you to determine how they work or don’t work in relation to other elements.

Renovation

Over time symbols change and without constant care brands fall apart. A brand can keep making small changes, but ultimately, this process doesn’t work. Eventually you have to strip right back to bare bones and rebuild the brand completely. Semiotics can be used to deconstruct brands and categories, exposing truths that can be used to reconstruct them, and make them stronger.

Articulation

Semiotics can help articulate the problem you actually have, as opposed to the symptom you are trying to address. The approach allows you to move beyond intuition and get to the deeper issues behind what is happening with your brand.

Research

A semiotic approach can help you improve your qualitative work, by helping you redevelop your line of questioning, or listening for different things. Rather than focusing on traditional needs-based questioning and observation, a semiotics approach uncovers deeper issues and subconscious triggers that strengthen the meaning behind the brand.  There is a strong tradition in ethnographic research specifically of employing a semiotic approach.  Both methods are observational and interpretive. Ethnographic research aims to understand what consumers do and why they do it, rather than what they say. In other words, it assumes that human behavior is more complex than what people tell you. Similarly, semiotics assumes that how human beings interact with and understand the world is more than what they tell you.

Briefs

Ultimately, semiotics creates richer, deeper briefs and platforms that creative teams can actually work from. Rather than simply providing data, it provides avenues of expression that the creative team can build upon and use to explore a range of opportunities for communication. It can provide platforms from which to strengthen your communication, be that advertising or design.