The other day I was talking with a friend in marketing who has been trying to convince his firm to avoid the word ‘price’ in their materials and instead use ‘value’.  My friend is aware of the power that words can have and his advice is spot on.  Here’s the nitty gritty of why.

Words don’t exist in isolation.  They’re used to communicate about all sorts of events, actions, feelings, experiences, etc.  We may not consciously realize it, but a word will become associated in our minds with the more frequent topics or scenarios we use it in, called a ‘frame’ by UC Berkeley linguist Charles Fillmore.  Take ‘apple’ – we associate this with eating, making pie, growing on trees, keeping healthy, using computers … add your own here.  Everyone has their own bundle of most frequent associations;  people with similar experiences will tend to agree on the most common ones.

Interestingly, everywhere a word travels it brings these frames, or contexts, with it, like a set of luggage.  We’re not actively aware of frames but they are there below the surface of language, ready to be called on as we interpret what we hear or read or say.

The words ‘price’ and ‘value’ differ in just this way, in the context they each will invoke for anyone who hears these words, regardless of how the speaker right now wants you to interpret them.  Each word brings its own baggage.  ‘Price’ talk is used when people care about keeping costs low.  If you don’t care about the cost of something, you won’t use the word price.  Low price good.   High price bad.  There’s a price to be paid.  Haggling over the price.  Price talk is associated with getting a bargain, a good deal, but at the same time price talk has negative associations – for example not having enough money to pay more,  sacrificing quality for price, being limited in one’s options, being cheap.   A firm should think carefully whether it wants its brand to invoke all of this unavoidable baggage by using ‘price’.  ‘Price’ talk baggage becomes YOUR baggage.

‘Value’ is used when people talk about benefits, for example of a service or product they’ve purchased.  Value talk is about things like better than average, pleased with the result, exceeded expectations.  Valuable is worth having.  Valuable friendships, valuable experiences.  And, importantly for my friend’s firm to realize, people worry less about cost when they perceive they are receiving an exceptional value.

Moral of the story:  choose your words carefully in describing your brand – and name.  No matter how beautiful your prose around these words, you can’t change their baggage.