Musings of a Not-So-Mad Woman in Marketing: Chapter Four

February 25, 2015

Is Futureless Language the Future for Financial Marketing?

This post is part of a series. Catch up with chapter one, chapter two and chapter three.

Like every marketing agency worth its salt, Proctor + Stevenson takes tone of voice in copy pretty seriously. We've also been considering the ramifications of localised language issues for quite some time, as you can see in the 'Watch Your Tone' blog piece we wrote way back in December 2014.

In that piece we explored the notion of having to flex one's language in order to communicate effectively with no less than 11 urban 'megaregions' in the USA; and how that related to the pan European campaigns we create, where a single piece of copy is translated, often very literally, for a number of different languages rather than territories or cultures.

Yet I have since become aware of an even more interesting phenomenon: the concept of 'futured' and 'futureless' languages.

Basically, English is a 'futured' language, in that it enables us to distinguish between the past, the present and the future. Chinese, however, is a 'futureless' language, in that its speakers use the same words and phrases to describe the events of the past, the present and the future.

None of which is to suggest that Chinese is a simpler language than English; in fact, in many ways it is far more detailed and nuanced.

Is There A Point To These Musings Anywhere in Your Future?

Yes, I know, this is complicated stuff. But please stick with me, there is a point, and it's an important one, particularly for marketing in the financial services industry.

'Futureless' languages are not simply a means of communication, it seems that they actually affect the way we think, and most notably the way we relate to the future.

In his recent study, behavioural economist Keith Chen noted that speakers of 'futureless' languages were 30% more likely than speakers of 'futured' languages to save for their retirement. He also offered his own explanation for this: "When we speak about the future as distinct from the present, it feels more distant: and we’re less motivated to save money now in favor of monetary comfort years down the line."

To put it another way, as we English speakers universally talk about issues such as pensions in terms of 'planning for the future', they seem remote and irrelevant to us; whereas people who live in the moment, linguistically, are far more apt to think "I don't want to be poor", and then to take affirmative action in the here and now.

Is it Time to Rethink Our Tone of Voice and Our Tenses?

As any financial copywriter will tell you, brand guidelines always entreat them to write with 'active' rather than 'passive' voice; as active phrases such as: 'You need to start saving now', are clearly more engaging and motivating than passive phrases like: 'Saving from an early age is generally considered wise.'

In fact, there is probably no area of the marketing arena where copy talks so excessively and almost religiously in the future tense, than in financial and particularly pensions marketing.

So the point is, if Keith Chen's research is sound, that the active language we are all prone to using is actually counter-productive when it comes to inducing consumers to save for tomorrow. The 'futured' English language actually helps to foster the notion that retirement is a remote concept, which we can put off thinking about, whereas 'futureless' languages clearly help to shape a more immediate decision-making process.

Can We Make Our Own Financial Marketing Futureless?

OK, it goes without saying, I hope, that I'm not suggesting we should start getting our financial copy written by speakers of futureless languages and then translated into English. But I do think there's an important point for us all to consider here.

We may not be able to change the Anglo Saxon or European mindset to embrace the same 'jam tomorrow' philosophy as speakers of futureless languages, but we would do well to consider the paradox that while futureless languages actually encourage forward planning, our 'futured' language seems to make us want to live for today

So perhaps in the future (if you'll pardon the expression), the 'What Do We Want Our Audience To Think' section of creative briefs for pension products shouldn’t say "I need to start planning for the future", it should instead say: "I don't want to be poor."

Only the future will tell if I'm right or not, but you have to admit, it's a pretty arresting thought.

Jessica Ellis - Business Development Director 

This post was originally posted on LinkedIn's Pulse.