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When Pronouns Get Personal

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When Pronouns Get Personal

Research shows that the little word 'we' can make a big difference in attitudes toward brands.
A man uses an automated teller machine. (Reuters photo by Gary Cameron)

Whether targeting customers or prospects, marketers sometimes use pronouns that suggest a partnership between their brand and the people they're talking to. Think of "Together, we can make a difference," the slogan Whole Foods uses to promote bag reuse, or Wells Fargo Bank's "Together we'll go far" slogan. A set of experiments in press at the Journal of Consumer Research, which examined messages from banks and a health insurer, shows that these types of messages do shape attitudes toward brands, but not always as marketers intend.

Study coauthor S. Christian Wheeler, professor of marketing, had good reason to believe that personal pronouns could have strong effects. Marketing scholars have long known that people ascribe personalities and other human-like qualities to brands. In fact, a seminal paper by marketing professor Jennifer Aaker distills five human traits, such as ruggedness and sincerity, which we recognize in brands. What's more, a long line of research, including Wheeler's own, has shown that subtle cues can affect thoughts, feelings, and even behavior. So it makes sense that using the pronoun "we," which implies intimacy, could increase a sense of closeness between the consumer and the brand. "And in actual close relationships between people, it works," Wheeler says. But his experiments, which he conducted with his PhD student Aner Sela (now a marketing professor at the University of Florida) and Gülen Sarial-Abi at Koç University in Turkey, reveal that the chummy "we" doesn't work if it's inconsistent with the actual relationship.

The research shows that although the "we" works well in actual relationships between people and companies, it backfires if customers don't expect a congenial relationship with a particular type of company; in those cases the "we" arouses suspicion, tarnishing perceptions of the brand.

One of the team's first discoveries came from an experiment involving Wells Fargo Bank. The researchers had participants read a passage of text, supposedly taken from an ad for the bank, and asked them to rate their attitudes toward Wells Fargo and their likelihood of recommending the bank to others. The text was the same for all participants, except for one subtle but crucial difference: one version used the phrase "you and Wells Fargo" throughout, while another used the word "we" instead. (For example, in part of the message some participants read, "Together, we make whatever decisions necessary to ensure your life goes uninterrupted," while others read that "Together, you and Wells Fargo" do.) As a control condition, a third version simply used "Wells Fargo," with no mention of the customer. Which version led to the most favorable attitudes toward the brand?

The answer depended entirely on whether the reader was already a customer of Wells Fargo. For customers, the "we" message got the best results, apparently reinforcing the sense of closeness they already felt about the brand. But for non-customers, the choice of pronoun didn't matter. A study using the Stanford Federal Credit Union found the same pattern. "I would bet that if you had people read those messages and recall which pronouns were used, they wouldn't be able to tell you," Wheeler says. "All you're doing is changing two words that are linguistically equivalent to one another."

So why did "we" fail to work its magic on non-customers? The researchers found that non-customers simply didn't care enough about the brand to pay attention to such subtle linguistic differences. More interestingly, when they were made to think carefully about the marketing message (by being told in another experiment that they were part of a small group whose opinions matter), non-customers actually formed better attitudes toward brands after reading "you and the brand" rather than "we." This finding suggests that what comes across as out of line in social situations is also inappropriate for brands. "When you're meeting a stranger in a professional context, you use more distance-implying language," Wheeler points out. "The same thing seems to be true for communicating with [prospective] customers."

Even for existing customers, expectations of closeness affect perceptions of pronouns. A close relationship with brands, as with people, is warm, caring, having shared goals, and the like; what's more, people tend to expect closer relationships with some types of companies (like their neighborhood banks) than with others (like their health insurers, whom they view as adversarial). In line with this reasoning, the researchers found that customers of Wells Fargo responded more favorably to "we" messages than to "you and the brand" messages, whereas the opposite was true of customers of Aetna, the health insurer. Customers don't expect a company in Aetna's industry to act like they're your friend. And, as Wheeler puts it, "When brands act in ways we don't expect, that raises a red flag."

The broader lesson, of course, extends to other industries. "I'm a big proponent of tailoring your marketing when you can," says Wheeler, pointing out that personalized email and advertising on social media offer the opportunity to create separate messages for customers and prospects. The "we" message can work well for everyone if readers aren't particularly engaged. "But if people are thinking carefully, then it becomes much more important to do it right, and doing it right means knowing the relationship expectations for your company, and that depends on what industry you're in."

The paper, 'We' Are Not the Same as 'You and I': Causal Effects of Minor Language Variations on Consumers' Attitudes Toward Brands, is forthcoming in the Journal of Consumer Research.

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