How Coining a New Term Can Encourage Specific Behaviors

While we introduce “behavioral labeling” and provide initial evidence for its effectiveness, we have only just begun to scratch the surface of this interesting new area. We hope that our findings spark additional research and new marketing practices in this intriguing domain.

Martin P. Fritze is Professor of Marketing, Zeppelin University, Germany.

We find that behavioral labels like “up-smiling” (cheering others up by using encouraging smiley faces in online chats) can induce more supportive and constructive behavior in online classrooms, consumer discussion groups, or forums. Relatedly, behavioral labels like “trollspotting” (spotting online “trolls” and ignoring their reviews) may help consumers become more resistant to information coming from internet trolls. At a more general level, such labels may have a potential to break a “negativity spiral” on social media and contribute to making the online world a better place.

Franziska Völckner is Professor of Marketing, University of Cologne, Germany.

The term “plogging” is a combination of the Swedish verbs plocka upp (pick up) and jogga (jog) and it refers to the activity of picking up trash while jogging to reduce litter. According to Wikipedia, plogging started as an organized activity in Sweden around 2016 and spread to other countries following increased concern about plastic pollution. An estimated two million people plog daily in over 100 countries, and some plogging events have attracted over three million participants.

Linguistic relativity theory shows that language is not just an expression of thought—it also channels how people think and act. Marketing literature suggests consumers adjust their behaviors in response to words that evoke certain images, such as brand and company labels. In a new Journal of Marketing study, we find that naming or tagging an activity with a special word can make people want to do that activity, which we call “behavioral labeling.”

Using a behavioral label can create a commercial advantage for one brand compared to a competitor that does not use a behavioral label. For example, we analyze Google Trends data for two comparable grocery delivery services, “Flink” and “Gorillas,” that entered the German market at around the same time. Both had nearly identical offerings and advertised delivering groceries at retail prices within 10 minutes of ordering. However, after a certain time, Flink started to communicate a behavioral label translated as “Flinking” (or expressed as “Flink it!”) while Gorillas did not introduce any behavioral label. Results showed that Flink had more Google search inquiries than Gorillas after the behavioral label was launched.

Valentyna Melnyk is Professor of Marketing, University of New South Wales, Australia.


Go to the Journal of Marketing

Our study shows that we can use behavioral labels to encourage people do all sorts of different things, even if the connection between the label and the action seems random. This happens because when we give something a name, it can create pictures in our minds of what we are talking about. In other words, behavioral labels help to connect different behavioral sequences, making them easier to imagine. Consequently, these mental images make it more likely that people will actually do the action that is named. In five different studies measuring actual behaviors, we see that behavioral labels can encourage positive new behaviors and discourage negative existing ones. Creating mental pictures in people’s minds might be why this works, but more research is needed to fully understand the connection.

Behavioral Labeling as a Marketing Advantage

Understanding the behavioral labeling phenomenon and its related effects offers marketers an alternative and complementary perspective on branding in general and a fresh way of designing advertising campaigns for products and services that revolve around a specific behavior or novel types of required actions. For example, Ariel, a P&G brand, introduced its “All-in-1 PODS” laundry detergent where a single “pod” can be dropped into the washing machine before clothes are added. To market the product, Ariel introduced the verb “to pod” (or “podding”), representing a behavioral label, to encourage the behavior of using Ariel pods.

Public policymakers can use behavioral labels to promote certain behaviors to enhance sustainability, prosocial goals, or consumer well-being and safety. For example, “Bob” is a word the Belgium Road Safety Institute used to describe a designated non-drinking driver. Anecdotal evidence suggests the campaign was effective in changing consumers’ attitudes and reducing drunk driving. The European Commission funded the campaign in other European Union countries, and the word “Bob” has been added to the Dutch and Flemish dictionaries. The verb “bobben” (or “to bob,” in English) describes the act of appointing someone or volunteering as a designated sober driver.

Read the Full Study for Complete Details

Flink started to communicate a behavioral label translated as “Flinking” (or expressed as “Flink it!”), while Gorillas did not introduce any behavioral label. Results showed that Flink had more Google search inquiries than Gorillas after the behavioral label was launched.

A Chance to Change Public Behavior

From: Martin P. Fritze, Franziska Völckner, and Valentyna Melnyk, “Behavioral Labeling: Prompting Consumer Behavior Through Activity Tags,” Journal of Marketing.