I’ve never been psychoanalysed before. But upon entering the conference room with Sven Hughes, founder of strategic communications consultancy Verbalisation, he presents me with a handful of my recent articles, points out how all the introductions share similar traits, and explains what this supposedly says about me.
For instance, early in each intro, I use a “transitory hypothesis” – phrases like “isn’t normally”, “really only”, and “quite possibly” – which apparently means I’m trying to posit an idea to the reader without overcommitting or beating them over the head with rhetoric.
Hughes asks if I’ve been taught to write in this manner, or if it’s my natural style. The fact that I’m not sure – or even aware that I was doing it – is telling.
“These lexical traits are how you process or want the world served to you,” he explains. “So I know that I should put, every three-to-five words, a transitory hypothesis to be most effective to pattern-match how you code the world. Once you see it, it’s there in every article – it’s not up for negotiation. Immediately, these things are working together to give us a much clearer picture about you.”
This isn’t just an idle exercise – it’s the Verbalisation approach to advertising. By understanding how an audience thinks and talks, the firm can develop a brand’s marketing material, communications, and tone of voice to reflect what its consumers are like, and therefore create empathy and engage them.
Hughes developed this knowledge through his work in the armed forces. Alongside a career in marketing, he was a reservist in the SAS and in the British Military Psychological Operations Group, and was deployed in Afghanistan.
“What became very clear was those two worlds were actually quite similar: essentially, it’s about creating behaviour change in an audience, whether or not you’re doing that for peace or to sell a product,” he recalls.
“What’s also clear is that neither world was working as effectively as it could or should be.”
Words, words, words
In Hughes’ view, marketers have become too focused on creating visuals, to the point that television, the internet and even train billboards are oversaturated with images and video ads. As a result, the industry is neglecting the verbal side of advertising, even though so much of social media is text-based.
“We give away so much leakage when we talk or write or speak. If you can listen and know what you’re listening for, it leaps out, and that asks questions which will lead to a more effective way of creating empathy or communicating with that person or brand.”
With this in mind, he launched Verbalisation eight years ago, having created a system to analyse language and turn that into usable insights. Hughes dubbed this process the Rapid Audience Insights Diagnostic system.
Using this, Verbalisation’s team of psychologists and researchers can construct psychological profiles of a target audience, including their traits and the words they use, to be used as the basis for a new marketing strategy.
Talk the talk
One case study is the #NotAnotherBrother campaign for the counter-terrorism organisation Quilliam. Verbalisation created a short film aimed at Muslim youth in the UK in the hope of discouraging them from being radicalised and joining the Islamic State group. The film achieved 500m media impressions in its first week of launch.
As well as working with political organisations like the above, Nato, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the US Department of Homeland Security, Verbalisation has several big-name commercial clients, such as NewsUK, Samsung, and Diageo. It has also won a slew of industry awards, including Best Workshop at the 2018 Market Research Society Excellence Awards, and is increasingly receiving attention from businesses abroad.
“We’ve now got a lot of international clients phoning us up and saying we’ve been recommended. It’s no longer so much about us pitching out for work, as picking up the phone from people calling in. That’s lovely,” says Hughes.
He claims that critics used to think that he and his company were “bonkers” for taking language and psychology so seriously, but that those people are now realising these are important elements of communication.
Verbalisation’s analytical approach to marketing is vividly different to the rest of the industry, which seems to rely more on gut instinct. Hughes says that’s deliberate.
“Here, you can’t start a sentence with ‘I think’ or ‘I believe’, you start with ‘assess based on the evidence’. You have to demonstrate evidence to make a substantial statement about a person or audience group.”
Getting into your head
In fact, Hughes is highly critical of the wider marketing world, accusing it of “selling bulls**t” and charging vast amounts of money for strategies that do not work.
“We are coming into the marketplace and revealing that what brands have been buying isn’t robust,” he says.
“Our case studies speak for themselves. Once you do these methods, you have a huge effect on the business and its bottom line. It’s more cost-effective, more efficient, more demonstrable, and more suited to the modern, text-based online world.”
Of course, the approach might not work for everybody – some products and services may simply be more suited to focusing on their key visuals and brand image, rather than the verbal tics of a target audience. And some businesses may have qualms about trying to psychoanalyse their customers to this extent. But Hughes defends the ethics of the practice.
“You’ve got to be moral, responsible, ethical, and approach it with that hat on, otherwise you can misuse data and become the next Cambridge Analytica.
“Working with us would never be a detriment to the client. What Cambridge Analytica has taught us is anyone associated with them gets besmirched.”
And Hughes would know about that stigma. Before starting Verbalisation, he worked for SCL Group, the parent company of – yes – Cambridge Analytica. The latter’s controversial practices often come up in articles about him. Perhaps as a result of that scandal, he’s very careful about who he works with now.
“We want to work with brands that want to demonstrate a better, more effective and ethical way to build empathy with target audiences. If they want to go to the dark side and use big data without people knowing, then they’re not going to be our client.”
By the end of the interview, I’ve found Hughes to be passionate and engaging, but in the back of my mind I do wonder if he has used any other psychological tricks to win me over.
Still, while being psychoanalysed at the start of our meeting was a bit startling, speaking to Hughes is refreshing. It’s rare for someone in marketing to speak so candidly about the industry, its faults, and its future.