Interview with Dawn Lerman: Using Language to Improve Brand Value 
and Influence Consumer Behavior

Dawn Lerman is professor of marketing at Fordham University (New York) and director of its Center for Positive Marketing. The Center conducts research that explores marketing as a value exchange relationship between consumers and marketers and encourages leveraging this relationship for mutual benefit.

Lerman’s own expertise is in the field of consumer behavior, with particular emphasis on consumer language processing. Her work has been published in a variety of academic journals and books and presented at both academic and industry conferences. She is also a member of the editorial board for the Journal of Business Research and International Marketing Review.

She is a co-author (with David Luna) of an upcoming book, The Language of Consumers: Strategic Brand Building, that will show how certain language functions have an impact on brand awareness and will recommend specific steps for building a sound brand strategy based on exploiting the richness and complexity of language.

How would you characterize some of the work you and your colleagues are doing at the Center for Positive Marketing?

We founded the Center for Positive Marketing about two years back to promote marketing as a force for good in the world. Business in general, and marketing in particular, is often maligned as a force for evil. However, this is not at all how my colleagues and I see marketing. We truly believe that marketing is intended to do good, and we wouldn’t train students as marketers if we didn’t. Yet our business discipline is not perceived that way, and why is that? What can we learn about consumers and marketers that would help ensure that marketing is, in fact, a social good?

And so we coined the term “positive marketing,” which we define as marketing in its most ideal form. We would say that ideal marketing occurs when an organization improves an individual’s life by identifying and satisfying his or her needs. And then in turn, the individual willingly gives back to the organization in some form—maybe monetary payment, word of mouth, loyalty, or other consideration.

Our key point in emphasizing the satisfaction of needs and the giving back is that both parties are supposed to benefit from the exchange. So the individual’s life is improved in some way, while the organization and its stakeholders enjoy higher revenue and/or profits, greater market share, or even just sustainability of the organization. This exchange process is actually the heart of marketing as a philosophy, a discipline, and even an organizational function. We go beyond this idea of exchange, however, to consider the impact on society. It wouldn’t be positive marketing if great harm is done to, let’s say, other individuals or the environment as a result of the exchange relationship between consumers and firms.

In applying positive marketing to higher education, the key questions are: What value are prospective students looking for? If their parents are paying, what are their parents looking for? If an employer is supporting a prospective student’s education, what is the employer looking for? What value do educational institutions offer? And is there a match between this offer and the value sought? If so, that would be ideal marketing, or what we call “balanced exchange.”

And actually, our research at the Center has found evidence, at least in the broader market, of a gap between the value that consumers are looking for and the value that organizations are currently giving. The evidence comes from our quarterly survey, which we refer to as V-PositiveTM. The survey is based on a proprietary measure that we developed in order to track the needs of Americans and how well brands are actually fulfilling those needs. Shortly, we will be reporting the results as a Consumer Value Index.

Just to clarify, do you measure how well marketers are fulfilling consumers’ needs for information about a brand’s product, or how well brands are providing consumers with value via the product itself?

I would say we’re not making a distinction. It’s the value that the brand is providing through its products, through its services, and also through its entire brand presence—and that would include its communications.

Our consumer value index is based on a range of human needs that come directly out of the psychology literature: (1) basic needs—the need to support the physical functions of one’s body, such as our need for food and water; (2) security and protection needs—the need to feel and be safe; (3) social needs—the need to have satisfying and healthy interpersonal relationships; (4) esteem needs—the need to feel good about oneself; (5) actualization needs—the need to reach one’s potential; (6) experiential needs—the need to be engaged in activities; and (7) happiness needs—the need to feel pleasure.

For the past three quarters, we’ve been tracking the largest 100+ brands—largest by financial measures—on how well they are meeting these needs. And what we’ve found—and maybe this isn’t too surprising given the state of the economy over the last couple of years—is that Americans right now are most concerned about their personal security and safety. But those needs are not being well addressed in the consumer marketplace. Generally speaking, brands are doing a good job fulfilling other needs, particularly basic needs, experiential needs, and happiness needs. But they are not doing nearly as well in satisfying the one need that Americans are saying is most important to them: personal security and protection.

So if you envision the needs in a pyramid shape, then the gap is really at a foundational level?

Exactly. In the marketplace, marketers are doing a great job satisfying the higher-order needs—the experiential and the happiness. And they’re also doing well on the basic needs, but in an advanced society that shouldn’t be a surprise. Yet the most basic need we have in our advanced society, which is protection at level two from the bottom, that’s where the gap is.

So the implication is that right now there’s a great opportunity for organizations, both for-profit and nonprofit, if they can credibly appeal to and satisfy those protection and security needs. And I’d say this is a credible message for education—especially for schools with a good track record in terms of graduation rates, career placement, the success of their graduates, and so on.

I would say that when I was applying to college, my parents were most concerned that my education provide opportunities for me to be happy and reach my full potential. Our research suggests that this may not be where it’s at for today’s parents.

Because you would argue that financial security falls under safety, essentially?

Yes, I would. And actually, it’s interesting, we found that Walmart was number one in fulfilling consumers’ needs overall, including safety and security, in the last quarter of 2011. In the third quarter it was Visa, which sort of makes sense since Visa is a financial services company that allows people to purchase what they need. But in the fourth quarter, Walmart took over that number one spot. We interpret that as being driven by the fact that right now consumers are very conscious about what they’re spending, and Walmart is allowing them to purchase goods in the product categories that they need—whether it’s food or health and beauty products or what have you—at prices that don’t break the bank.

One of our next steps with the survey and index will be to break out the needs by age group or generation, and I think this is relevant to higher education, as well. It’s very likely that the needs that Americans are looking to fulfill vary demographically and psychographically. Protection needs may be more pressing for retired adults and adults in the workplace, and maybe a little less pressing for, let’s say, college-bound high school students. But this doesn’t necessarily suggest there isn’t an opportunity for educational institutions to focus on security needs. The point is, there may be a need to emphasize different pieces of the value proposition that an institution can offer to different audiences. So the college-bound high school student may not be as concerned about protection and security—at least not in the short term—but the parent paying for the education may be. An adult returning to graduate school may be concerned about security needs, whereas the employer financially supporting that employee’s education may be more concerned about something else. So we’re about to start parsing the data to see some of those differences.

What lessons do you think admissions counselors could take away from the research in positive marketing to use as they recruit students?

Again, in terms of ideal marketing, what marketers should be doing is identifying consumers’ needs and then finding a solution for satisfying them. So for college marketers, that would involve taking a look at the value proposition that’s being communicated from the university. What need is being targeted in that value proposition? And is that need in line with the pulse of the target market? Again, we haven’t parsed the data by age, but Americans are still feeling pretty insecure, and so that’s something that really requires some reassurance.

Let’s jump now to your own research interests regarding the use of language to influence consumer behavior …

Language is the very first contact that an individual has with a brand—most particularly, through the name itself. Brand names actually conjure up many associations, and oftentimes those associations come from the semantics of the name. Most educational institutions don’t have dictionary names (meaning, words that you’d find in the dictionary) in the way that consumer brands such as Tide or Staples do. But the names of some schools, such as state schools, evoke associations that people make to that particular state. Other school names may evoke associations to a person. Others may just sound like a proper noun, but they don’t necessarily conjure up any specific association.

We know that particularly in the absence of semantic associations—and I’ve done some of this research myself—consumers oftentimes make judgments about brands based on just the sounds in the name. Research suggests that this is particularly true for unfamiliar brand names when consumers have nothing else to go on. This is called “phonetic symbolism.”

For example, vowels that make us open our mouths wide, such as the sound for the letter “a” in short form (“ah”), connote size—large size—and power. Vowels such as the short “i” (the “ih” sound) connote smallness and sharpness. Hard consonant sounds like the letter “k” (“kuh”) are deemed more powerful than softer sounds like “s.” Sounds in the name that have what’s called a “full stop”—so the letters “p” or “b” or “t” or “d”—connote slowness, whereas sounds that are sort of continuous and we can drag out, like “f,” “v,” and “z,” connote speed.

We make associations to a brand based on these sounds. So even the name of the school itself, in the absence of any other communication, has the potential to encourage the prospective student to start making judgments as to what that school’s all about and what an experience at that school might be.

Does it also make a difference whether someone first encounters a name via a visual or auditory medium?

Yes, we know that visual information leaves a stronger memory trace—which I think is relevant for educational institutions, actually, because a lot of schools advertise (particularly their professional programs or their adult learner programs) on radio. And radio can be a challenge, especially for lesser-known schools.

If a college has an established name in the mind of the prospective student, then something like a radio ad would help reinforce those associations. But anything that’s auditory only is not really a good medium for introducing a school to a prospective student for the first time. The message won’t get processed—”processed” meaning noticed, understood, and remembered—as deeply as a visually communicated message might. And it’s not just a matter of a visual piece of communication having images—that’s part of it, but even the words themselves do not necessarily get processed as deeply. So that makes it much more difficult to recall the name when you go search for information at some later point.

What happens when we read something in a print or digital ad, let’s say, is that we automatically recode it. Consider what happens when you read a word that is presented to you visually; it’s very hard to read that word without hearing in your head how that word sounds, even if you’re reading silently. So you can almost think about that process of seeing a visual word as giving the reader two exposures. You’re exposed to it visually, but you’re also hearing it in your head—you can’t help it. And that auditory exposure helps to reinforce that name and match it to the associations it has for you.

Granted, most colleges are stuck with the name they have. But could these language considerations be relevant as colleges develop new initiatives and think of what to name them?

Absolutely. And I would say especially so if it’s a student service. Too many times, I think colleges tend to use descriptive names for those services and end up with something uninspiring, if not also long and winding. Consequently, those names don’t roll off the tongue. When something rolls off the tongue, it can automatically create a perception that that service is easy to use, that the staff will be approachable and personable, and so forth. But when it sounds a little too technical or bureaucratic, students can easily reach a different conclusion as to what can be expected there.

And then, of course, there’s the larger context of the language in the marketing communications a college puts out …

Yes, after the first impression a college’s name makes through its language associations, there is plenty of opportunity in what is subsequently said about a school to either reinforce that impression or to change it.

If the name of the school, based on the sounds in the name, has positive associations, then there are a lot of ways to reinforce that through the brand communications. Let’s say that a college is trying to emphasize personal attention or warmth—this is a school where students get individualized attention, you’re not a number, that kind of thing. Then it makes sense in the brand communications to develop a style—what I would call a “brand language”—that mimics those same qualities. The writing style maybe should be a bit romantic with softer sounds and longer sentences. Syntactically, it would be appropriate to use commas. Speak in the first person instead of maybe the second or third person. Have the student be put in the ad, let’s say.

For a professional school, where the emphasis is on what this is going to do for someone’s immediate career, maybe the emphasis in the brand communications should be on simplicity. It’s not a long time horizon; you’ll be able to take what you’ve learned in the classroom today and use it at work tomorrow. No long, flowery prose here. Use shorter sentences with very little punctuation, just a period. Simple sentences and powerful words that aren’t too complicated—perhaps that aren’t even multisyllabic—would reinforce the message that the school is trying to get across.

What are some considerations when creating, say, a “tagline” for an institution’s marketing efforts?

Word choice is really important. Thanks to synonyms, there are many ways to say the same or similar thing. One option to consider is whether to use “high-frequency words” or “low-frequency words.” High-frequency words are words that we tend to use or read or hear incredibly often. Our lexicon is huge, but we actually only use a small portion of our vocabulary on a daily basis, whether it’s for speaking or even for comprehension. And so that group of words would be the set considered high frequency. But our vocabulary is much more vast than this set would suggest. Those other words that we know but tend not to use, or at least not use often, are called low-frequency words. Low-frequency words are processed differently than high-frequency words. Because we don’t expect to see them, they capture our attention. We also may focus on those words a bit more. In turn, this can aid memory for the brand, or school, being advertised.

But, again depending on the positioning of the school, that may not be the way to go. If the message is about how “this is a place where you’re going to feel at home” and you’re trying to communicate something warm and familiar, then you probably want to stay away from those low-frequency words. Use the high-frequency words, because they are consistent with that message.

So in going for distinction, you may sacrifice resonance and actually fail to convey authenticity?

Absolutely. Making the language distinctive will likely set the school apart, but perhaps not in the way that is intended. A school’s brand language needs to be consistent with its value proposition.

My guess is that these kinds of language issues don’t get addressed all that frequently in higher education marketing—that the focus tends to be on the content of the message rather than the way the message is communicated.

But it’s something to be aware of!