Nouns and Verbs: Important to Your Marketing Strategy

By Diane Baedeker Petit

I recently read a blog post citing research that said if you want to get someone to do something, nouns can be more influential than verbs in your communications with them.

That's a fairly simplistic description of what the researchers, Gregory Walton and Mahzarin Banaji, proposed in their article, "Being What You Say: The Effect of Essentialist Linguistic Labels on Preferences" (Social Cognition, Vol. 22, No. 2, 2004, pp. 193-213). In their experiments, people evaluated preferences (both those of others and their own) as being stronger and more stable when the preferences were described using nouns rather than verbs.

Photo courtesy of kconnors/

This has potential marketing implications. If you can get someone to associate your product with something they are, rather than something they do, they are more likely to buy that product.

For example, if you follow the New England professional football team, you probably say, "I'm a Patriots fan," not "I root for the Patriots." If you did the latter, you'd probably be less likely to spend money on team merchandise, tickets and anything else associated with the team brand.

Now, extend that theory to food preferences and purchases. If you're selling pizza, are you going to target people who eat pizza or pizza lovers? Pizza Hut chose the latter approach, with their Ultimate Cheese Lover's Pizza, Pepperoni Lover's Pizza, Meat Lover's Pizza and Veggie Lover's Pizza.

If you make wine, chances are you're going to target your marketing efforts - directly or indirectly - to wine connoisseurs, not just people who drink wine.

The food and agriculture sector has seen this concept blossom in recent years, with people identifying themselves as "foodies" and "locavores."

Two very strong essentialist labels in food marketing that have been around for years are the terms vegetarian and vegan. People who identify themselves as such see it not just in terms of their food choices, but also their lifestyle and values.

I would think that people who buy only organically grown products would also have adopted their own essentialist label. If one exists, however, I'm unaware of it. A Google search turned up no clues.

So how can you capitalize on this motivational concept in your marketing strategy? Here are a few thoughts.

If you sell products that are associated with an existing essentialist label - locavore and foodie, for example, are universal terms that can work for most farms - then link your marketing messages to those identifiers. Work the terms into your advertising and social media communications.

Ask your customers and potential customers: "Are you a foodie? Are you a locavore?" If they never thought of themselves that way before, they might start once you ask them. They might think, "Hey, now that you mention it, I am a foodie."

You can also create your own essentialist label that's unique to your farm or product. It can be creative - think of all the possible spin-offs of locavore: tomatovore, applevore, cheddarvore. It can be simple and straightforward: "Are you a tomato lover?" versus "Do you love tomatoes?"

There are many ways you can reinforce these labels and thought processes and get others to adopt them. Using social media is a natural and timely approach. Simply "liking" or "following" your farm instills a sense of belonging in your customers. Being able to converse with you through social media adds to that sense.

Best of all, when customers like, follow and comment, others see it and may decide to like and follow you too, giving you the chance to reach new customers.

There are also old-school ways to help people identify with your farm and products. Membership and loyalty cards are a couple that come to mind. A few others are buttons, bumper stickers and T-shirts, which allow folks to tell the world that they're your customers.

However you choose to go about it, the main objective is to get customers to feel that buying your product or patronizing your farm is not just something they do, it's part of who they are.

The author, a freelance writer, is a public affairs specialist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Amherst, Mass., and was previously director of communications at the Massachusetts Department of Food & Agriculture. Read past marketing columns by this author at