Social media platforms have become immensely important and attractive sources of information for consumers. From a company’s point of view, they hold great potential. At the same time, they are associated with the challenge of maintaining control over the way products (and services) are discussed on the Internet. Our research shows that companies can subtly influence how their services are discussed in online forums using specific consumption vocabulary (e.g., Apple’s Retina Display or Tesla’s Insane Button).

How can companies gain influence on the discussion about their products on social media platforms?

The communication landscape as well as the communication behavior of consumers have changed radically over the past 10 years. While information about new products was spread largely via unidirectional traditional mass media, today consumers mainly inform themselves via decentralized peer-to-peer platforms (Godes et al. 2005; McAlister et al. 2012). Online communities and forums have become relevant sources of information that enable rapid information diffusion between consumers (Berger 2014; Godes and Mayzlin 2004; McAlister et al. 2012). In addition, consumers rely on information from such sources because they often find it less manipulative and more trustworthy than traditional advertising (Godes et al. 2005; Trusov et al. 2009). From a business perspective, these changes in the media environment go along with the challenge of maintaining control over the discussion of their products on the Internet (Godes et al. 2005; Goldenberg et al. 2001; Kozinets et al. 2010). Therefore, the Institute for Customer Insight is currently investigating the extent to which companies can regain control over such discussions through simple mechanisms. Within the research project described here, we are specifically interested in whether companies can lead the dialogue between consumers by means of consciously used vocabulary.

Purposefully chosen consumption vocabulary influences the discussion about and perception of products

Previous research in the context of consumption vocabulary has focused mainly on the influence of language on the individual preference formation of consumers. The influence of specific consumption vocabulary on interpersonal communication processes has been neglected so far (West et al. 1996; Shapiro and Spence 2002; Latour and Latour 2010). A relevant function of vocabulary is to make communication possible between several people (Nöth 1995). Based on this, we argue that vocabulary used to describe a product can influence the perception of a product by making it easier for consumers to verbally reference certain product features. As a result, these characteristics are discussed more intensively and are also remembered in a better way.

A brief overview of the key findings of our research

Our research is based on the analysis of real online discussion forums about a concept car of a German car manufacturer. Within the framework of the project we had the opportunity to influence the available consumption vocabulary. Based on the analysis of the generated data we come to the following conclusions:

  • The highlighting of concrete product features using catchy terms simplifies the individual reference to these product features within the framework of discussions. Through this primary influence, product discussions also develop in the further course more focused around the labeled product features. If, for example, certain design features of the vehicle are named by verbal descriptions, these design features are more likely to be addressed by individuals, so that the discussion will continue to focus more on these features.
  • Consumers use the given vocabulary creatively: This means that the consumers do not always use given terms exactly in the given form; they also adapt them into their own language.
  • The increased discussion of named product features also leads to a stronger memory of these specific features after the discussions.
  • Highlighting specific product characteristics verbally leads to less pronounced discussions about other product characteristics – consequently, consumers remember such other aspects of the product less clearly after the discussions.
  • Participants do not properly assess their communication and memory behavior.

Our recommendations

Based on our findings we come to the following implications: At a time when consumers are increasingly using peer-to-peer discussion forums to inform themselves about products, the use of specific labels for product features (such as Apple’s Retina Display or Tesla’s Insane Button) offers a potential way for companies to subtly regain control over what consumers learn about their products. Below we have listed some recommendations for the usage of such specific consumption vocabulary:

1) “Market” a specific vocabulary to highlight characteristics of your products (or services) that are particularly relevant for their positioning in the market.

2) Make sure that the terms used are catchy and fit the company brand.

3) Find a suitable way to include the specific vocabulary into consumers’ language jargon – e.g. by using the terms in customer conversations or in brochures or other communication media.

Finally, our research results can also be interpreted in a more general way. Our findings highlight the subtle influence that language can have on our perception of reality. This principle, commonly referred to as linguistic relativity, has attracted a great deal of scientific attention over the past 100 years. Recently, such linguistic influences were the focus of a broad public discourse within the framework of the ARD Framing Manual. Our research confirms under realistic conditions that language can indeed have an influence on people’s communication and perception. Not only companies, but also consumers should be aware of this capability of language when dealing with specific consumption vocabulary.

More information regarding our research:

  • The project is a cooperation project with the Goethe University Frankfurt, Rotman School of Management and Booth School of Business. If you are interested or have any further questions, please feel free to contact us: Dr. Philipp Scharfenberger (, Jenny Zimmermann (
  • Find out more about our research: /de/competence/consumer-behaviour-2/


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