How code switching can help your business on social media and elsewhere

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Language…we use it every day. Language allows us to communicate ideas, information, feelings and stories, however, language varies from country to country and even across regions. With over seven thousand languages spoken across the planet today, not counting regional dialects, it is important that we’re communicating our message in the right language.

A bread roll by any other name would smell as sweet

Let’s imagine that we are successful bakers. We’ve been supplying farmhouse loaves, French sticks and our famous giant breakfast roll to the residents of Bristol for the last few years, but now we want to branch out across the country. Though bread rolls are eaten throughout the English-speaking world, they have many names. People from Leicester might call our breakfast roll “A breakfast cob”, in Sheffield it might be called “A Breakfast batch” whilst in Plymouth it will be referred to as “A breakfast bap”. 

Now, on the surface this isn’t really a problem, most people will know what we’re talking about when we advertise our famous breakfast roll, however, giving our delicious creation its regional name may well make locals more receptive to our newly opened shops. 

Regional differences can often lead to confusion, and the last thing we want is to confuse our customers. For this reason, it is important to research and understand the language to use when advertising and selling our product.

The right tone for the right setting

Across the road from our newly opened bakery in Plymouth is a coffin maker and though our bakery and the solemn business across the road both sell products, us bread, and them coffins, the tone which is used, quite rightly, differs greatly.

“Fill your belly with our big breakfast bap, NOW!” instructs a sign in garish yellow that hangs in our shop window.

“Williams and Sons, providing a fitting final resting place for your loved ones.” Reads the embossed sign that hangs neatly over the coffin maker’s door.

Now imagine these signs were reversed …

“Bury your loved one in a William’s walnut casket now!!!” 

Or …

“Smith&Smith bakers – Crafting you big breakfast baps for this difficult time”

Tone is important. It lets the customer know that we understand how they feel. We can show respect with the language we use, we can instil a feeling of anticipation or excitement, or the tone can be informative and direct, a tone often used by institutions.

Another example:

Our bakery business is going from strength to strength and we’ve opened a new location in the finance district of London. We still want to sell our big breakfast roll here but men and women in this area are busy, focused on their work and less likely to take well to a light tone. They want the facts, but they also want to know the quality of the product, so we tell them about the high quality ingredient we use.

“Free-range eggs, Wiltshire bacon and Lincolnshire sausage on fresh baked wholemeal roll” 

Thinking about the emotional state of our customers at the point of sale, whether it is online or on the high-street, allows us to tailor the language we use to show that we understand them and are working to meet their needs.

It’s what you say and how you say it

After a long day in the bakery, filling and emptying ovens, joking and teasing the other staff whilst being friendly yet polite to the stream of customers flowing through our door, it’s time to head home.

Now, our gran is getting on a bit and isn’t great with technology. We stop in on the way home to give her a hand with her new TV. We find her leafing through the user manual and looking confused. Luckily, we’ve got a similar TV at home so, taking care to use simple, non-technical words, we tell her how to turn the TV on and off, bring up the list of channels and how to select what she wants to watch.

Jargon confuses our gran. Simple and straight forward language is the best way to explain how to use her new TV. Consider the way in which we speak to our elderly relatives. We avoid slang. We avoid referencing popular culture which they haven’t seen. We keep our language squeaky clean. We are direct, clear and respectful. 

The way we speak with one another will vary. From joking and teasing amongst colleagues, speaking courteously with our customers to explaining something complicated to our gran, without knowing it, we’re tailoring our own language to find the best way of communicating with our audience.

When we consider our audience, we need to consider the sort of language that they use and are comfortable with. Factors such as age, income, gender, education level, nationality, and all the other aspects that make people individual, tell us the sort of language that they use and therefore the language that we should use to speak with them.

Other languages

Many people across the world are non-English speakers and yet they can still be customers. Understanding this and working out how to turn that language gap from a problem into a benefit will allow us to tap into even larger markets.

Due to the worldwide popularity of The Great British Bakeoff and our soaring success, we’ve identified a gap in the market, a bakery school for international students to come and learn how to bake like the pros.

We’ve decided to start advertising our school in Germany to potential students but, we’ve hit a problem. What language do we advertise in?

Code switching is a phenomenon used by bilingual individuals who share the same languages. It’s used by people learning a new language and who may not be able to remember the correct terminology. It’s used for privacy by people who don’t wish to be overheard in social settings where the language they’ve code switched to is not commonly spoken. 

Though many of our potential customers in Germany will speak English, it is important to understand that they may be more comfortable reading our advertising copy in German, and we want our potential customers to feel comfortable. 

By combining German and English in our advertising materials we can give a taster of the environment in which our students will be learning and the language that they are learning it in, English, whilst making the experience as a whole feel more welcoming and appealing by using German.

We decide to include quotes from current students in English describing their experience of the course, the area local to the school and a little about themselves, whilst providing the course details such as an overview, the syllabus, term times, requirements, and costs in German. 

There are many bilingual speakers in the world and many businesses that cater for them such as language schools, hotels, universities and tourist attractions. Code switchers might include international business people and students, immigrants or even online shoppers who wish to buy a service or product from a different country. By providing a choice in language for the customer, we are deepening that sense of understanding them and their needs which will help to translate into sales and, hopefully, loyalty.

Of course, there is little point using code switching when the majority of our customers only speak one language. We can assume that, when advertising our Big Breakfast Roll in Bristol, that code switching would most likely confuse customers rather than put them at ease. 

Furthermore, if we begin including alternative pages on our website listing our offerings in different languages, this might not only be expensive, seldom used and a waste of time, it might also make our website difficult to navigate. As with any copy, we need to identify our customers first before considering how we speak to them. Trying to speak to everyone will only dilute the potency of our message and result in poor engagement.

Getting social

Social networks, such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, have become huge forces in advertising services and products. They provide powerful tools to advertisers such as the ability to pin point certain demographics, understand which adverts work and which don’t, as well as offering high levels of automation.

Though it would seem that the same advert for our Big Breakfast Roll would work on any of these platforms without any changes, this is a case where form follows function.

With varying character limits (consider Twitter’s former 140 character limit), it is important to use the language that is appropriate for the platform. For example, our advert on Twitter would previously have been restricted to 140 characters. As all advertising copy should be, it would be direct, to the point, stating what we’re selling, how much it is, where it can be bought and any unique selling point. Until the introduction of Tweet threads, these were isolated one shots in a fast-moving sea of information.

Now, with Tweet threads, it is possible to continue the story with progressive posts. This allows us to evolve our voice, our story, or our pitch over several hours or days whilst maintaining a coherent narrative for our customers. 

When developing standalone Tweets or Tweet threads, the language that we use must be bold and lack ambiguity. It also has to have an impact within the first few words otherwise readers will simply move on.

 “We are bakers who make delicious breakfast rolls for fast breakfast on the go…”

Lacks punch. The language needs to be more direct.

“Delicious Breakfast Rolls for on-the-go people…just £2.99 from Smith&Smith bakers” 

Which says exactly what we’re selling, how much it is and where they can get it, all without using too many words.

Our Facebook campaign will be different. With more space for copy we can afford to be expressive and include more sensory descriptions:

“Big Breakfast Roll for people on-the-go, crispy Wiltshire bacon, meaty Lincolnshire sausage, rich free-range egg all on a freshly baked, warm wholemeal roll.”

In this way we can be more indulgent with language. Knowing the platform before writing any advert is essential. We need to look at copy advertising similar products to our own. What language do they use, simple and direct? Sensational and exciting? Formal and respectful? What do we think works and what don’t we like? 

It’s all very well changing the way we speak and communicate in an attempt to increase custom, but we should never forget the central message. We want you, the customer, to buy our big breakfast roll.

We need to translate this message into the language of our customers, whether it is using a different term for a roll, changing the tone of the message, using words and descriptions appropriate to certain demographics to including non-English language in the copy, the way we communicate our message is important.

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Oliver Kennett is an author and freelance copywriter living in Bristol. A graduate in both law and engineering, he enjoys exploring science, technology and social impact through his writing. As well as clients in the technology, tourism, legal and lifestyle sectors, he has written extensively for charity. In his spare time he writes short stories and novels for children and adults in the horror, sci-fi, fantasy and humour genres.

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