Selected Journal Publications


Talking up a brand

Word of Mouth versus Word of Mouse: Speaking about a Brand Connects You to It More Than Writing Does
SENGUPTA, Jaideep | SHEN, Hao
Journal of Consumer Research

Marketers are not only keen to get consumers discussing the brands they're promoting, ideally they’d like them to connect and identify with the products on a personal level. But does the mode – written or spoken – consumers use for communicating their thoughts and feelings about a brand, influence how connected they feel to it afterwards?

In their recent research paper, Professors Jaideep Sengupta from HKUST’s School of Business and Management and Hao Shen from the CUHK Business School, examined this novel question.

Before the advent of the internet, consumer discussions about products were conducted, quite literally, in the form of word of mouth. Nowadays, using social media, email, text messaging, and the like, they can also swap opinions in writing.

But there is a key difference between writing and speaking: while we normally talk to someone, writing tends to be a more solitary activity. Because of this, writers tend to focus primarily on the information they are conveying – rather than seeing the written communication as an active interaction with the recipient. With speech, on the other hand, the interaction aspect is much more important. As a result, speakers typically try to build a connection with the recipient – and one easy way of doing this is to make the communication much more personal. In one illustrative study published in 1982, Wallace Chafe found that first-person references, including “I,” “me,” and “us,” occur only 4.6 times per 1,000 words in written discourse, but over 61 times per 1,000 words in the spoken equivalent. In other words, people deliberately express the self more often when talking than when writing.

But how does the choice of communication mode, and the associated degree of self-expression, feed into a consumer’s relationship with the brand they are communicating about?

Previous research work has consistently found that consumers often use favored brands and products to establish, maintain and signal their concept of themselves. This ‘self-brand connection’ (SBC) is stronger if some quality associated with a brand is connected to a valued aspect of the consumer’s self-identity – for example, environmentally aware consumers are likely to have a strong connection to “green” products; a strong bond is also usually formed with products that are used to signal one’s self-concept to others, such as in the wearing of ‘label’ clothes.

Connecting the idea of self-brand connection with the differences between speech and writing, Professors Sengupta and Shen came up with a simple but powerful prediction: the greater expression of the self when talking about a liked brand should result in a stronger connection with that brand than writing about it.

Testing the connection

Five studies were conducted to test this novel prediction. Up to 250 Hong Kong undergraduate students were recruited for each of the studies; in each, the brands commented on were ones widely viewed in a positive light. In a typical study, participants were asked to either write down their thoughts about such a brand (e.g., Apple, Nike, etc.) on a piece of paper, or share them by speaking into a voice recorder. Afterwards, everyone filled out a standard seven-item measure of self-brand connection (SBC), featuring scales such as: ““this brand reflects who I am”, “I can identify with this brand”, “I feel a personal connection to this brand”, etc.

In each such study, Professors Sengupta and Shen found good evidence for what they had predicted. Speaking about the brand, as compared to writing about it, not only featured a much higher degree of self-expression (e.g., a substantially greater use of personal pronouns), but also led to a stronger connection with it, as reflected by higher scores on the SBC measure. And this difference in SBC had important consequences: the stronger brand connection made speakers more willing to wait for the brand in a situation where it was out of stock; it also made them more motivated to resist and challenge any external criticism of the brand.  Clearly therefore, marketers can gain substantial benefits by encouraging consumers to speak about their favorite brands instead of writing about them.

Can writing sometimes yield as strong a brand connection as speaking? The researchers turned to this question next, and drew upon their theory to identify such conditions. Since the “speaking advantage” results from a greater focus on the recipient, writing should also yield a high SBC if writers can be encouraged to adopt such a focus. In several follow-up studies, this was indeed found to be the case. For example, in one study, a research assistant first briefly interacted with each participant. The students were then asked to use the social networking app WeChat to either type messages or generate voice messages about Adidas. In the default condition, the usual result was obtained: speaking about the brand produced a stronger connection to it than writing about it. But this study also had another two conditions, featuring a high interaction focus: in these conditions, all participants were explicitly asked to direct their comments to the assistant they’d just met. Because they had just interacted with this person, the expectation was that even writers (not just speakers) would focus to some extent on the interaction aspect of the communication. If so, both writers and speakers should engage in a high degree of self-expression when sharing their thoughts about the brand (in a bid to personalize the communication), and thus heighten their self-brand connection. This is exactly what was found – showing that as long as writers can be encouraged to focus on the person they are communicating with, they end up behaving like speakers, with similarly favorable consequences for the brand they are communicating about.

Final words

Awareness of these phenomena should provide food for thought, especially for marketers wanting to know how to increase the strength of consumers’ connection to their brands. The results suggest that at least in the case of popular brands, it might be advantageous for marketers to actively encourage spoken feedback – since oral communication can strengthen the self-brand connection and also yield favorable downstream consequences. Thus, for example, brand pages on social media that allow for voice comments can bring about significant benefits. On the other hand, if such “speaking” options are not available, encouraging consumers to think about the person they are communicating with can have a similarly positive effect.

This research has interesting implications for consumers as well, who may be prompted to reflect on their feelings for certain brands in relation to their self-image. In fact, one intriguing suggestion arising from Professors Sengupta and Hao’s research is that the heightened self-brand connection that arises from talking about a brand could feed back into a consumer’s view of themselves. Would, for example, a consumer who talks, rather than writes, about a “creative” brand such as Apple, be more likely to view themselves as being creative?  This is an issue that the researchers are currently looking at: stay tuned!


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