Hidden Words

How to uncover the secret language of your customer for marketing that resonates.

In the old spy movies, we see an investigator find a letter that initially seems innocuous, but he has a hunch it may be evidence of a crime. The letter could be a love letter or a message to a colleague with routine updates. But a closer look shows that the letter has a hidden message within its nouns and verbs. With the code cracked, a filter showing keywords while covering others reveals a hidden message. Thanks to the keen eye of the investigator, now a hero, the real message in the letter has been uncovered, and the spy's plans are foiled.

Story of My Life

This is what brand managers deal with every day – but without the espionage. To uncover that key message that connects with your customer, you must get inside their head and crack their secret code. A brand manager who does so successfully might even be considered a hero.

These hidden words are key to your brand communications. Every ad should not use inside jargon, but those words that your customer can relate to. The words they use themselves. A marketer needs to speak, not in her own language, but in the language of her customer.

The words and phrases that resonate most with your customer may differ from the shop talk you use with colleagues in your industry. But a message that resonates is a message that works, so it's important.

I like to illustrate it with this simple, if not slightly exaggerated, example about the goals of McDonald's. What do their executives want? To monetize prime real estate and produce burgers quickly and efficiently. Now, let's take a look at the goals of the target audience. Consider the goal of a mother in her minivan. She wants a convenient place to stop to make sure the kids are fed and happy on the way to the soccer game.

  • Prime real estate = A convenient place.
  • Produce burgers with efficiency = The kids are fed and happy.

I cannot confirm or deny if a spy intercepted this message in an actual board room at McDonald's headquarters, but it does illustrate my point. The goals of the brand align with the concerns of the audience, but their language is different.

How To Uncover Hidden Words

To understand the secret language of your consumer, the best place to start is to ask them. Much like interrogating a spy, the best way to find out what makes your customer tick is to ask probing questions. In this case, without the yelling and punishing overhead lights. What you're looking for are less the answers on the face of them but clues within their answers. For a dentist, does your customer worry about plaque and gum disease or worry about toothaches and having a healthy white smile? If you're a plumbing company, is your homeowner concerned about your service tech being efficient or about them being trustworthy? The language of your audience is often different than yours, and in some cases, their concerns are different too. It's important to know these concerns and understand the language your customer uses to talk about them.

Here's how to find your customer's hidden words.

Ask. The first step is the simplest. Select a representative sample of your customers and ask questions. Ask, with open-ended questions, how your customer describes what your brand offers them. Find out how they think about what problems your product solves or what desire it fulfills for them. Separately, ask for descriptive words like, what words best associate with your feelings related to our product? Or what are some of the ways that you would describe yourself after you've used our product? Relieved? Excited? Happy?

Investigate. Next, look for the hidden words in their answers, especially when you see a trend across several of your customers. Do your customers describe your service differently than you? If everyone shared an experience with family or friends, perhaps that's an example of how your product is used. Or imagine you offer a B2B service. Do your customers hire you because you reduce costs or relieve stress by handling something for them? You're looking for trends in your customer's emotional takeaway and the common phrases customers use.

Translate. Translate these customer takeaways into your brand's voice. You've heard what past customers have felt after they've done business with you. Now, it's time to introduce these emotional takeaways to future customers. If done well, your message will resonate with future customer's concerns and create an expectation.

Once you've uncovered the secret language of your audience, you can let that guide the development of your brand language and the messaging in your advertising. Messaging that is keen to the underlying needs and concerns of your customer stimulates more connection. We call it resonance, and when your message resonates, it increases response rates. That's why it's worth taking the time to investigate to find those hidden words.

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