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Consumer Research


The Laidback Linguists phenomenon

The Laidback Linguists phenomenon

New from OMD Sense

"We don't just borrow words. On occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary", James D. Nicoll, Canadian writer

Imagine how much poorer English would be without words from other languages: Kayak (Innuit); Robot (Slovak); ketchup (Amoy, China); shampoo (Hindi).We don’t think of these words as imports – languages swap words all the time.

They change in other ways too, rapidly.  If you hear a recording of the young Prince Charles, his speech is incomprehensibly refined.  Prince Harry recently talked about “dragging my sorry arse through Sandhurst.”

He’s a man of the people, by comparison.  In 1922 Lord Reith, father of the BBC, gave us the Received Pronunciation of newsreaders who spoke like the aristocracy.  His legacy lives on in some Radio 4 listeners who complained about the station’s first Caribbean continuity announcer a couple of years ago.

Most of us are more like Prince Harry – we don’t stick to the old rules so much – we improvise.  We’re Laidback Linguists and brands need to know a bit about our language if they’re going to speak to us in the right way.

In English now, we see 5 trends that have particular relevance to brands and communications going forward. 

•         Abbreviations: ASBO; op; hubby; RSVP; ‘fessing and indeed, abbrv.  More and more, abbreviations and acronyms make their way out of writing and into our speech.  Spoken use of short codes like these started with military talk, for efficiency in battle.  Our use of language in this way reflects our fast-paced, high-stakes urbanised world.

•         Widespread use of colloquialisms: ‘Hole in the wall’, ‘dog’s bollocks’, ‘shrapnel’, ‘argy-bargy’ are just a few ‘choice cuts’.  Such terms are often metaphors, invented by people. Increasingly politicians and brands adopt them to sound more like the consumer.

•         Looser punctuation.  This isn’t referring to the greengrocer’s apostrophe (“potato’s for sale” etc) or other mistakes.  Ads often disregard grammatical rules to make a certain impact. Dropping capital letters at the start of sentences makes the copy feel chatty.  And so does using ‘And’ to begin sentences like this one.  It’s a pat on your shoulder to get your attention.

•         New coinages – many from technology.  Words like ‘texting’ and ‘blogging’ would have confused people less than a decade ago.  Spell-checker still doesn’t recognise them.  Yet new words are part of the UK-English we speak every day.  ‘Fingerfall’ was recently used to describe visits to a virtual retailer. It may become as familiar as ‘footfall’.

•         Hybrid English.  New words aside, languages combine in ways that are also useful to brands.  Hinglish, a mixture of English and Hindu, is one example.  Chinglish, from Chinese, is another.  These pairings are mainly used outside the UK, but the effect of other languages on UK-English will grow along with the economic and political influence of their countries.

How such changes are put to use has different effects.  A key effect for brand communications is that language puts you in a group or tribe.  Group identity – nation, religion, town, football club, profession – is important to consumers, and poorly-chosen language can make a brand sound ingratiating, patronising or worse.

If a brand is advertising to an audience of predominantly Indian descent, use of Hinglish should be considered.  If an advertiser wants to promote a brand with Indian relevance, perhaps a new air route to India, Indian style food or an Indian themed entertainment product, it’s also worth considering Hinglish.

In India marketers are already aware of the need to communicate in Hinglish.  Google (a new verb from technology) Coca-Cola’s 'Life Ho To Aisi' (‘Life should be this way’) campaign for a brilliant example.

UK brands have used slang with mixed success.  Barclays recently re-branded its ATMs as ’Hole in the wall’.  This attempt at a makeover from faceless corporation to old chum may not have convinced people.

Since this makeover, yougov and Milward Brown have both released data that shows consumers do not regard the brand highly.  Using the less colloquial ‘cash machine’ may have been less of a stretch for the brand.  Tony Blair, a classic political brand, has made this mistake several times.  An inappropriate tone alienates consumers.

On the other hand, some brands have been successful with a cuddly, friendly tone.  Such brands are the opposite of a faceless corporation – this is what allows them to address the consumer in such a way.

Product, branding, language and tone are consistent with each other.  Some can go even further than Barclays and infantilise the consumer – talk to the consumer on a sort of kiddy level – and work just fine.

It all comes down to tone.  Lynx is a brand with a tradition of relatively risqué (foreign word again) advertising.  It also has a long-established ‘matey’ image.  Therefore Lynx’s use of ‘a bit on the side’ to describe a mistress, in a football World Cup related press ad, didn’t sound strained.

This was helped by the context for the ad – red-top newspapers and men’s weeklies – which worked together with the Lynx brand and the language used.   An eye to brand essence and another eye to consistency are the keys to success.  Your tone has to be suitable for what you’re advertising, where and to whom.

For feedback or comment, please contact Insight Manager, OMD UK, Michael Tully on

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