Subtle differences in brand messages do have obvious effects on the statements being conveyed. This certainly isn’t a new discovery by any stretch of the imagination but, when I came across a news article published on the Stanford Graduate School of Business website (see link below), I just had to rethink my old ideas on this matter. The report references a recent study revealing the impact of using specific personal pronouns on how banking and financial leads respond to brand messages.

The paper cited in the above article was published by Stanford researchers who studied how using the personal pronouns “we” (first person, as in “you and I”) and “you” affect how marketing audiences for Wells Fargo, Stanford Federal Credit Union, and Aetna respond to switches between the two “linguistically-equivalent” words. Characteristics like being existing customers or not as well as respondents’ “expectation of closeness” to the company are considered as contributing factors. The study’s findings are very interesting and are as follows:

When to Use “We”

One of the researchers, S. Christopher Wheeler, a marketing professor at Stanford points out that the pronoun “we” works best when crafting brand messages for audiences consisting of existing customers who expect greater levels of engagement from the company. This was the case for Wells Fargo as clients generally form close relationships with neighborhood banks. The term “we” creates a sense of better cooperation and partnership that existing banking clients typically look for.

In contrast, non-customers of Wells Fargo registered a lower response level to the message materials having the pronoun “we” compared to the other group. Prof. Wheeler says using the term “we” loses its effectiveness with and is even perceived to be inappropriate by audiences not expecting tight relations with a company. Prospects could view this as a highly presumptive move which could in turn harm the company’s reputation and brand.

When to Use “You”

The personal pronoun “you” appears to be the antithesis of “we” in brand messages. Continuing from the above survey involving Wells Fargo customers and prospects, the bank’s non-clients seem to respond better to message materials containing “you” instead of “we.” As explained by Dr. Wheeler, this seems to indicate that the communication cues people take in other social situations very much apply to brand messages as well. People want to keep that distance between them and others whom they don’t really know.

Furthermore, the term “you” is likewise appropriate in brand messages for existing clients who don’t expect closer relationships with the company. In the study, this was demonstrated by Aetna customers, people who normally don’t consider health insurers as their “friends.” Wells Fargo customers, on the other hand, scored a relatively lower response level to ad excerpts that relied on the word “you” which further supports that perceived closeness influences brand response.

Other Takeaways

These nuances become even less pronounced in situations where customers and prospects pay more attention to elements in the marketing campaign other than the brand message itself. However, lead generation for financial services usually involves a more critically-thinking audience, highlighting the need to carefully consider every aspect in your campaign, including the pronouns in your brand message. So, with that aside, be sure to choose your pronouns wisely from now on if you don’t want to alienate or inundate your prospects with inappropriate branding.