Framing Your Subcategory: Lessons from a Linguist

We choose language to fit our worldview. That’s why “climate change” is different than “global warming.” 

Don’t Think of an Elephant!,” by UC Berkeley linguist Goerge Lakoff, is important to every brand strategist. One of its most powerful points is that it explains how, within a political setting, Republicans so often win policy arguments. The answer is in the framing. Republicans are just very good at it.

Lakoff’s insights directly apply to branding. Framing dictates the discussion and the decision. It affects how we see the world, how we process information, whether that information is distorted, how we interpret it, what behavior occurs, and whether attitude and behavior change is even possible.

It matters whether the frame is tax relief (taxes are an affliction and heroes remove them), paying your share (just as you pay dues at a club, you should pay for education, libraries, roads etc.), or investing for the future (building infrastructure or educating will help future generations).

It matters if the frame is pro-abortion or even partial-birth abortion (who is for abortion?) vs pro-choice (who wouldn’t want choice?). It matters if you think of climate change (climate has a nice connotation, so what if weather changes?) vs global warming (which suggests a real danger).

It matters if you think of patient protection or affordable care (both of which are widely supported) or Obamacare (which suggests Obama and the government are overreaching).

Framing is about choosing language that fits your worldview. Some implications for brand strategists: Pay attention to framing subcategories rather than brands. Notice what people are buying and why. Move from positioning the brand and engaging in “my brand is better than your brand” marketing to framing the subcategory (or category) and thereby changing the way people perceive, discuss and feel about your brand.

Importantly, this changes which brands are relevant. So instead of how a brand is perceived, we consider how a person looks at brands and decisions regarding subcategories like compact hybrids, rental cars, organic milk, online banking or urgent care centers. Be disciplined and persistent in using the language and symbols that represent your frame. Some people are locked into a frame, but many are susceptible to alternative frames and will gravitate to the one that is simply used the most.

When opponents or competitors start using your frame, the battle is over. When Democrats start using terms like tax relief, abortion rights, climate change and Obamacare they have lost the fight. Frustratingly, even an attempt to negate a frame actually strengthens it.

When people are told to not think of an elephant, they can’t get the image out of their minds. When Richard Nixon said he was “not a crook” what emerged was a reaffirmation that he was a crook. So it is necessary to be disciplined to consistently use the language of your frame and never accept the alternative. Know that facts don’t really matter.

“It is a myth that people are rational and that some well-presented facts will change their frame-anchored view.”


It is a myth that people are rational and that some well-presented facts will change their frame-anchored view. Facts are difficult to process, hard to remember and are rarely capable of changing attitudes or behavior. Frames dominate facts, particularly when there are multiple facts in a complex system.

A systematic effort to explain that the affordable care act has increased the number of insured Americans, slowed rising costs, eliminated prior condition screens and more simply does not get through to those that have accepted the Republican frame that Obamacare is a disaster. A phrase that captures the frame is helpful, just as it is for a brand. However, that label cannot be an empty slogan but needs to be supported by an idea that has logic and substance behind it. So the framing phrase has to mean something substantial that makes sense.

And a frame can exist without a phrase to label it. In that case, the label might be the brand that became the exemplar of the subcategory. That is the case for Prius, Tesla, Uber, Whole Foods Market, Subway, Zappos, and In each case, their subcategory is defined by several characteristics. When a brand sees a big growth spurt, it usually happens because of new framing for a subcategory. Those who control frames control the marketplace.