Some shoppers spend hours reading consumer reports to choose the right brand of a product. But could something as simple as the letters in its name bias their decision?
Finding yourself in brand names. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.
When they’re thirsty, Connies commonly crave Coke, while Pierres primarily prefer Pepsi. This according to consumer psychologist Miguel Brendl of the INSEAD Social Science Research Center in France.
He and his colleagues asked people to choose between two kinds of tea. They found that people preferred brands that shared three letters with their own name.
When we asked them why they chose the tea, not a single person mentioned anything having to do with that kind of a naming issue; they said reasonable things like taste, color, strength of brew, and so on.
In reality, though, the teas were virtually identical. And although the effect is small, statistics show that we’re also more likely to choose hometowns, spouses, and even careers that share our initials. I'm Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.
Making Sense of the Research
You might ask how Brendl got the idea to even study this. As the report suggests, the “name letter effect” is something that’s been observed for years, although relatively little research or press has been devoted to it. But it turns out that across the board, people have a small but consistent bias toward the letters in their own names, especially their initials. We tend to like these letters better than other letters, even if it’s not something we think about very much. And surprisingly, if you look at a large enough group of people, you’ll find that there are a disproportionately high number of Louises living in Lousiana, or Dennises who are dentists, or spouses who share name letters and initials – more than you would expect to see by random chance.
Does that mean that we decide, at an early age, to structure our entire lives around our name letters? Of course not. There are plenty of Louises who live in Alabama, or Dennises who are lawyers, or spouses with very different names. Many, many factors weigh in on those decisions. But the persistence of the name letter effect does suggest that there may be a slight, unconscious tug toward things that remind us of our names.
Brendl decided to see if this could be applied to marketing. The subjects in his experiment were asked to taste two different teas from India, and then were asked to pick one brand to take home. The teas were actually the same, except one of them had a drop of lemon in it: just enough to suggest some kind of difference in flavor. What really varied were the brand names. Brendl’s team made up dozens of different Indian-sounding brand names, and each subject was given one brand that shared three letters with his or her name, and another brand name that didn’t share any letters.
The result? The drop of lemon didn’t make any difference, but the name of the brand did: people picked the brand that matched their names by a margin of 62-38. However, this happened only under certain key conditions. One of the conditions was that the subjects had to be thirsty. Brendl calls this a “product-relevant need;” it motivated the subjects to be more interested in the product. Second, the name letter effect showed up only when the subjects were asked to go with their gut reaction. When they were asked to make their decision based on fact, the effect disappeared. Both of these requirements imply that the name letter effect applies only when your unconscious instinct, not your conscious mind, takes the lead.
So, does this mean that advertisers should target-market their products to people with certain names, or avoid using brand names with unusual letters like Q, X, and Z? For an effect this small and condition-dependent, it may not be worth the effort. But Brendl says the name effect is just one of countless unconscious, automatic reactions that we have to a consumer product, and many of these may be tied to our sense of identity: our gender, nationality, ethnicity, and so on. By taking a more personalized approach to marketing on a number of fronts, a company could make their product more universally successful.
Now try and answer these questions:
- What is the name letter effect?
- Under what conditions did it apply in this experiment?
- Why do you think Brendl’s team made up exotic, Indian-sounding names for their fictional teas? Why not use English-language brand names?
- Brendl found that he could strengthen the name letter effect if he subtly threatened his subjects’ self-esteem before the test (by asking them to write about something they don’t like about themselves). Why do you think this happened?
In the lesson Brain Brands, from the New York Times Learning Network, students learn about the advent of neuromarketing as a means to assess the effects of certain brands on the brain activity of prospective buyers. They then design their own experiments that test the power of certain brands on a sample population.
The Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University conducts research into why consumers buy what they buy and eat what they eat.
For a specific case study of branding, the NPR Marketplace feature Has America Become a NASCAR Nation? offers a unique examination of how the second biggest sport in America tightly controls its brand and, in turn, the culture of NASCAR fandom, even as it aggressively expands its national profile.