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Brand Messaging: Don’t Get Lost in Translation (Article)

Have you ever been in a conversation and you can tell from a blank stare that the other person has no idea what you’re talking about? While that’s an awkward social scenario, it’s probably even worse if you are a brand having one-sided conversations with your customers. Now, more than ever, the consumer is overloaded with messages across multiple mediums, and the words you use matter.

But do you and your customers agree on what words mean? How do you make sure you use a common vocabulary?

Here are four ways to define a common language with your customers:

Start Broadly

When talking with your customers, take a step back and start the conversation very broadly. For example, if you want to understand why a customer visits your store or business, have him describe a typical day surrounding that visit. Using this technique helps you identify opportunities from places you might not expect.

Does his visit always coincide with a busy day? Or is it a leisure time that he might otherwise be spending with others? These clues can change the way you position your company and message.

I often see brands make the mistaken assumption that the core purchase driver is price. In reality, this is rarely the case. By looking for patterns in what customers are talking about when they talk about your product, you can understand what is really important to them. They may see or be open to seeing your brand in terms of higher-value words or experiences like relaxation, convenience, or camaraderie.

Offer Up Definitions, Not Slang

I recently led a set of interviews for a local church that was looking to establish Sunday school classes for unmarried people in their early 20s and 30s. I kept using a word that the church employees had mentioned to me–“singles”–until one of the survey participants said: “I don’t want the pressure of dating in that setting.” I asked her what gave her the idea that I was talking about dating, and she told me the word “singles” led her to that conclusion. In the remaining interviews, I described the types of people and activities the church had in mind for this group. In so doing, I discovered the right word choice was instead, “young professionals.”

In order to understand how your customer really thinks, reverse your approach. Don’t start with a word and then ask for a definition; do the opposite. Give the definition and then let the customer tell you in a few words what that definition means to her.

Be Aware That Customers Lie

Our research shows that customers are not always honest if they don’t understand a certain word or concept. Perhaps to say they’re lying to you is an overstatement, but you should recognize this phenomenon before you base your marketing decisions on consumer feedback. This is why we do on-on-one, face-to-face research.

When I did a research project on identity theft, I learned quickly that a majority of customers defined identity theft as merely having a credit card stolen. They thought a call to the bank or credit card company would fix everything and the “identity theft” would be taken care of.

But those consumers who had been victims of identity theft defined the concept with far more depth and emotion. They had experienced it and knew it was a big deal. Unless something has happened to you, you often can’t define or truly understand it. To attract new customers, speak in terms that others can empathize with.
Use Their Words, Not Yours
Too many companies use technical or industry jargon and expect outsiders to follow along. I work hard to try to simplify what our company does so that an outsider understands our message. I am far from having perfected this and rely on customers and third party vendors to help us continue to improve. I see every conversation I have as an opportunity to do just that.
Our research shows that when people don’t understand you they tune you out. It’s more important than ever to use varied and objective techniques so you don’t miss out simply because your customers don’t get what you are saying.