Knowledge Bank Blog, Shopper Communication

Choosing the Right Words

Are you using the right words to frame choices?

“I can’t” versus “I don’t”.

Two four letter words, which share two of the same four letters.  But when used in response to the same question can lead to very different outcomes.

Many studies have found that when participants framed a refusal as “I don’t” – for instance, “I don’t eat sugar” – instead of “I can’t”, they were much more successful at resisting the desire to eat unhealthy foods.

Why does such a subtle change in language make such a difference?  Well, “ I can’t” implies an element of discretion.  It suggests that in different circumstances you might do it.  Whereas “I don’t” is an absolute rule.  When you say “I don’t” there is no need to think about it any more.  “I can’t miss any fitness sessions” = I might end up missing it.  “I don’t miss any fitness sessions” = I’m going.

So, for those of you who have failed on your New Year resolutions already, there is a small tip on how to do better next year.

Why are we talking about this?  All the evidence from behavioural economics demonstrates how influenced we are by how choices are presented.  Exactly the same choice presented in two different ways leads to two different outcomes.  Want to increase the number of organ donors?  Simple – make the system “opt out” instead of “opt in”.  Most people don’t opt out and the number of organ donors rockets.

What the “don’t” and “can’t” example shows is the power of words – often very simple ones – to frame choices.  Small changes in the words that you use can have a big influence on behaviour.  In an incredibly competitive retail environment it might just be the difference between getting bought or not.

So, how can you use words to reframe choices?

Turn a negative into a positive.  Take the words ‘search’ and ‘find’.  ‘Search’ describes what you are doing – “I’m searching for my keys” or “I’m searching for a product on shelf”.  Searching is often frustrating.  Now consider ‘find’.  ‘Find’ describes what you are trying to achieve – a positive outcome – “Panic over, I’ve found my keys” or “Finally, I’ve found the pine nuts” (have a go next time you’re in store, it’s not easy…).

Searching is bad for shoppers, manufacturers and retailers.  Finding is good for them.  So, it is perhaps no coincidence that the online retailer with the most user friendly ‘search’ function on their website – Ocado – is the one that doesn’t call it ‘search’.   Instead they use the word ‘find’.  After all,  that is what shoppers are trying to do when they use it.

Encouraging small behaviour changes.  Most behaviour change is small and incremental.  It is rooted in a combination of being familiar enough and new enough.  Familiar enough means we still feel comfortable with the behaviour.  New enough means that we feel like we are doing something interesting and different.  The right words can help you hit this sweet spot.

Sainsbury’s ‘little twists’ campaign is a great example of this.  Two words loaded with meaning.  ‘Little’ gives reassurance.  You are not going to have to do anything radically different.  You can still eat the things you usually eat.  ‘Twists’ says there is something slightly different and interesting.  ‘Put greek yoghurt in your tuna pasta bake’ – no thanks.  ‘Try a little twist, put greek yoghurt in your pasta bake’ – OK, I’ll give that a whirl.

Choosing the right order of words.  One of the biggest balancing acts many foods are trying to perform is the one between taste and health.  Go too big on taste and you imply unhealthy.  Go too big on health and you imply that it doesn’t taste too good.  To get this balance right, the words that you use, and the order in which you put them is key.

For instance, Graze sum up their proposition by saying “we make good exciting”.  A total of four words.  ‘Good’ appears first = we want you to think of us as good for you.  Then ‘exciting’ follows = healthier doesn’t need to be boring, it can be interesting.  The main reason to buy (healthier) leads.  The supporting reason (exciting) supports.

Some brands will lead with taste and reassure with health.  Others will lead with health and reassure with taste.  Whichever order you follow, use a few simple, well chosen, words to frame things.

Words are important.  And how you frame them is particularly important.

As Churchill said “tact is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip”.

Feel free to forward.  Have a great weekend and speak to you next week.