Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Marketing and Language

Starbucks is not infrequently ridiculed for its serving cup sizes – while it is unfortunate that Starbucks isn’t getting their due respect for the brilliance of the “tall, grande, venti” size (which is just the beginning of the entire language education required to “get” what Starbucks is all about), it boils down to people not grasping the fundamentals behind the brand cue. Marketing is definitely a broad and all-encompassing discipline. So, let’s break it down a little.

If you want “4-wheel drive”…
  • Audi offers“Quattro”
  • Volkwagen offers “4Motion” (which is interesting, since VW also owns Audi and therefore owns “Quattro” – but Quattro is for Audi, not VW; 4Motion is for VW, not Audi, and they’re likely both built in the same shop)
  • BMW offers “xDrive”
  • Mercedes-Benz offers “4Matic”
  • Porsche offers “4”
  • Acura offers “Super Handling All Wheel Drive or SH-AWD”
  • Subaru offers “Symmetrical AWD”
Why can’t they all just say “4-wheel drive”? While it is true there are technological differences in how these all actually function, it’s missing the point to stop there, when the next level issue is about the power of language.

If you want the McDonald’s signature burger, you ask for a “Big Mac.” You can get a burger pretty much anywhere, but if you want a Big Mac, there’s only one place you can go, and if you want a Whopper, you’ve got to go somewhere else. Why don’t they all just call them “hamburgers”? Because they understand the power of language.

Language is one of the hallmarks of identity, culture and community, and a strong brand recognizes that it is, to varying degrees, creating a sense of identity, culture and community, especially for discretionary products (which, by definition, are more about “wants” than “needs”, more about “choice” than “necessity”, and higher on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs towards self-actualization). To learn a language is to build the experience of an identity.

With respect to Starbucks, one can get a “large coffee” pretty much anywhere. But, if you want a “decaf, Venti, five-shot, half-full Americano,” or a “half-caf, triple, Venti, sugar-free vanilla, non-fat, extra-hot, no foam, light whip latte,” there’s only one place you can go to get it – Starbucks (Matthews, Ted (2009). Brand: It Ain’t the Logo. Toronto, ON: Instinct Brand EquityCoaches, Inc., p. 136).

The fact that Starbucks is capable of creating such a customized experience is an extension of the language it has developed to support it. As such, for many, a trip to Starbucks is an expression of personality, a statement of identity and individuality – it’s about a whole lot more than “just a cup of coffee.”

The feeling of exclusivity is also not to be dismissed. Remember when you first learned “pig-latin,” how cool it was to talk to friends when others had no idea what you were talking about? A unique language makes you feel set-apart, distinct, exclusive.

The feeling of identity is also not to be dismissed. Isn’t it nice to go somewhere and find yourself amongst people like you. A shared language creates that sense of community, which is in part why being at Starbucks is a part of the experience (more than taking it to go, although walking around with the logo showing on the cup is also a way to extend the experience outside a location, and a nod to all those other Starbucks compatriots one may pass in passing).

George Orwell's dystopic Nineteen Eighty-four is oft quoted, including this gem: "He who controls language controls thought" - coupled with the knowledge that the mind controls the actions, we have the reality that language controls actions. Businesses want people to take action and buy their products: creating a language smooths consumer's path towards a purchase decision. The auto makers know it. McDonald's knows it. And Starbucks knows it.