The notion of a shibboleth goes back to Biblical times; in the wake of a battle, the pronunciation of a single word could distinguish between the defeated people of Ephraim and the conquerors from Gilead. The particulars of speech separated members of the in-group and the out-group.
Today, though, shibboleths serve a slightly different function, typically related to class or education. As Megan Garber wrote in The Atlantic, some mispronunciations “are not mistakes (“noo-cular” instead of “nuclear,” “mis-chee-vee-ous” instead of “mischievous”) so much as they are keys: They afford a kind of aural entry into arbitrary echelons.” And when it comes to marketing, the ability to pronounce product names or differentiate between similar goods can determine who feels comfortable buying niche goods, limiting your sales.
As a sales professional, your role is to help consumers feel comfortable with your goods – and by doing so, expand your potential audience. These simple measures can enhance buyer confidence and bring new consumers into the fold. Though not everyone wants or can afford the latest fashions, there are plenty of superficially intimidating products that a broader group of buyers is sure to enjoy.
One of the simplest ways to make a complex product more relatable is to develop a story, a narrative that consumers can enter into – and this can take several different forms. For example, many companies create branded content to educate and entertain buyers, as well as to promote it in a public forum. Such content may appear online or in popular publications and offers consumers a way to familiarize themselves with a product outside of the high-pressure sales environment.
Some groups take an even more aggressive approach to creating a strong marketing narrative. The International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association (IDDBA) recommends bringing in farmers or specialists to talk about new cheeses – their sources, production, how they compare to other popular products. These narratives help buyers, even those who are new to the products, feel better informed about their options and more confident about their choices.
Fleischers, a famous Brooklyn butchery, helps shoppers familiarize themselves with the goods on offer by providing introductions to each of their farm suppliers on their website. There are photos, stories, and history about each of the farms. In store, your team can also share producer write-ups on labels to fill in the gaps and help engage new buyers.
Another basic way to help new buyers familiarize themselves with your products is to simply offer them a tutorial regarding your offerings. This is absolutely vital for brands with hard to pronounce names or products because people won’t purchase things if they think they’ll embarrass themselves when trying to place an order or ask a question.
Onsite tutorials can also help people learn additional specialized vocabulary affiliated with your products, such as this glossary of cigar terms from Thompson Cigar. Cigars, like many other niche products, have a vocabulary of their own and potential buyers need a reliable way to learn more about this unfamiliar market without feeling uncomfortable asking a salesperson questions or ending up with something they don’t like.
Even high-end brands with a narrow set of consumers can broaden their scope with a brief tutorial. Many of these companies have international names with unfamiliar pronunciation – Givenchy is really “zjee-von-shee” while Marchesa is “mar-kay-sah.” As a young intern, even Cat Marnell, who later went on to be a top beauty editor, couldn’t pronounce these and other brands. It’s just added evidence that though the audience for such expensive goods is small, the barriers to entry are excessively high. Even these select buyers want to feel confident when they ask for an item at the boutique; they don’t want to be shamed for their pronunciation.
Finally, in today’s high-tech sales environment, chatbots offer a great way to engage customers while allaying their fear of embarrassment and awkwardness. You can’t mispronounce a word when typing it, and bots don’t judge the quality of buyers’ questions. Most importantly, bots are perfectly designed to serve inexperienced customers who just want basic information since they have to be pre-programmed. They may not be able to assist advanced buyers with complex orders or interests, but they can explain product categories and help buyers make decisions about where to start when they’re ready to make their first purchase.
Language – how we use it, how we name things, the explanations we give and stories we tell – have a significant impact on whom we include in our product audience. Just as certain features of language acts as a dog whistle in political debate or an indicator of educational opportunities and class status, the words we use in marketing determine whether we present an open door or a closed one. People need to feel welcome and as though they are part of the community when they make a purchase, and that starts with what we say.