Name-Letter Branding
Skip to content
Marketing Nov 1, 2009

Name-Letter Branding

How your name can influence your choices

Based on the research of

Miguel Brendl

Amitava Chattopadhyay

Brett W. Pelham

Mauricio Carvallo

How would you react if someone told you that your name can influence your everyday choices as well as life-shaping decisions? Would you smile at the idea that Craigs crave a Coke while Peters long for a Pepsi when they are thirsty? Would you say it is just mere coincidence that Lawrence became a lawyer and Judy a judge?

Add Insight
to your inbox.

Most people indeed consider it ludicrous to think that their name could influence their choices, especially when dealing with major decisions such as selecting a career, a home, or even a partner. Archival data, however, clearly shows that men named Dennis are overrepresented among dentists, and women named Louise are disproportionately likely to move to Louisiana.

Intrigued by the complex relationship people seem to have with their names, Miguel Brendl (Professor of Marketing at the Kellogg School of Management) collaborated with Amitava Chattopadhyay (Professor of Marketing at INSEAD), Brett W. Pelham (Associate Professor of Psychology at the State University of New York at Buffalo), and Mauricio Carvallo (Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Oklahoma) to describe this phenomenon. “It’s a bizarre idea,” admits Brendl, “but your liking for the letters of your name, which is really driven by your liking for yourself, might spill over to objects and influence your choices.”

A series of four studies suggests it is not mere coincidence that Marks and Marshas prefer a Mars bar to a Snickers bar when stressed or hungry. “Put simply, if a brand name shares our initials, we tend to like it more,” says Brendl. His research elucidates how and under what conditions this curious phenomenon, which Brendl calls “name-letter branding,” can be expected to appear, influencing consumers’ consumption choices. In particular, name-letter branding influences choices through two stages based on processes known as implicit egotism and attribute-specific valence transfer. “We propose,” explains Brendl, “that during a first stage, a liking for oneself increases the positive valence attached to letters contained in people’s names. Subsequently, this positive valence transfers to product-specific attributes—for example, the taste of a beverage—and increases the attractiveness of the product.”

Implicit Egotism and Valence Transfer
In the first stage, implicit egotism—which refers to people’s motive to self-enhance—endows name letters with positive valence, or an intrinsic attractiveness. According to social psychologists, because most people hold positive views of themselves, they unconsciously tend to prefer things that can be easily associated with their individual selves. Indeed, research shows that because they like themselves, most people tend to attach favorable associations to their names—so much so that they prefer the letters in their names to other letters. When asked to rate their liking for letters of the alphabet, people consistently chose letters in their own names more than other letters and more than other people chose these same letters. This is commonly referred to as the “name-letter effect” and scientists argue that it can be significant enough to induce people to choose name-resembling objects, life outcomes, and partners.

In the second stage, the positive valence attached to letters a brand name shares with people’s names is transferred to some specific attribute of the product. In other words, objects that include letters from people’s names absorb some of the positive valence associated with these letters. People then transfer this positive feeling to some specific attribute of the product, which they subconsciously find more attractive.

“It’s a bizarre idea,” admits Brendl, “but your liking for the letters of your name, which is really driven by your liking for yourself, might spill over to objects and influence your choices.”

In particular, this process emerges under two main conditions: when people experience a strong need for the product, or when they need to boost their self-esteem. For example, respondents preferred cracker brands that contained letters in their own names when they were hungry or when their self-esteem was threatened. “In some fancy restaurants, the staff acts in an extraordinarily sophisticated way, which often makes customers feel a little uncomfortable,” Brendl says. “In such a situation, people would be more vulnerable to name-letter branding, as they would feel the need to boost their self-esteem in order to regain confidence and feel more comfortable.” People would therefore be more likely to choose an entrée or wine that matches their names. “It’s like being cheered up by seeing yourself celebrated on the menu.”

(Unconscious) Processes Influence Decision Making
In one of the experiments, people’s self-esteem was threatened by having to write about an aspect of themselves they would like to change. Research shows most people react to this kind of threat by feeling more positive about themselves. These positive feelings transfer to the letters in their name and, ultimately, to products that share these letters. It is not a coincidence, then, that after such treatment, 64 percent of testers preferred a tea whose name shared the first three letters of their name; for instance, Jonathans liked a tea named Jonoki better than a tea named Elioki. When asked to justify their choice, people attributed the preference to taste, color, and strength of the tea. The alternatives, however, were actually identical, suggesting a significant influence of unconscious processes on decision making.

A further experiment revealed that preferences for the name-letter brand were boosted only when respondents based their choice on feelings rather than reasons. Respondents—who were recruited when they were hungry—were shown eighteen existing brands of chocolate candies (e.g., Mars, Twix, Snickers, and Kit Kat) and asked to rank them. Name-letter branding was identified when the first letter of respondents’ names matched the first letter of one of the brands (e.g., Tonya and Twix). A preference score was created comparing the rank given to the name-letter brand with the mean rank the rest of the respondents had given to that same brand. For example, if Twix was ranked 3 out of 18 by Tonya and 5.4 by the rest of the group, her name-letter brand preference score would be calculated thus: 5.4 – 3 = +2.4. Results showed that participants who were instructed to base their choice on feelings—“trust your intuitions about each individual candy, focusing on the taste and how it makes you feel”—ranked name-letter brands significantly higher than other brands.

“Even though, as you can imagine, the name-letter effect is not very strong and only works when people trust their feelings,” says Brendl, “it can have interesting implications for managers. For instance, it can be applied when choosing a name for a product aimed at a well-defined segment of customers, such as early adopters. It could also be useful for direct mailers, who can use different names to sign their sales pitches.”

And of course, Brendle points out, “name-letter branding should be particularly relevant when dealing with business categories related to ego, such as beauty, sports, and luxury products.”

About the Writer
Andrea Bonezzi is a doctoral student at the Kellogg School of Management.
About the Research

Brendl, C. Miguel, Amitava Chattopadhyay, Brett W. Pelham, and Mauricio Carvallo. 2005. “Name-Letter Branding: Valence Transfer When Product Specific Needs Are Active.” Journal of Consumer Research, 32: 405-415.

Read the original

Most Popular This Week
  1. Will AI Eventually Replace Doctors?
    Maybe not entirely. But the doctor–patient relationship is likely to change dramatically.
    doctors offices in small nodules
  2. 3 Tips for Reinventing Your Career After a Layoff
    It’s crucial to reassess what you want to be doing instead of jumping at the first opportunity.
    woman standing confidently
  3. What Happens to Worker Productivity after a Minimum Wage Increase?
    A pay raise boosts productivity for some—but the impact on the bottom line is more complicated.
    employees unload pallets from a truck using hand carts
  4. 6 Takeaways on Inflation and the Economy Right Now
    Are we headed into a recession? Kellogg’s Sergio Rebelo breaks down the latest trends.
    inflatable dollar sign tied down with mountains in background
  5. What Is the Purpose of a Corporation Today?
    Has anything changed in the three years since the Business Roundtable declared firms should prioritize more than shareholders?
    A city's skyscrapers interspersed with trees and rooftop gardens
  6. How to Get the Ear of Your CEO—And What to Say When You Have It
    Every interaction with the top boss is an audition for senior leadership.
    employee presents to CEO in elevator
  7. Why We Can’t All Get Away with Wearing Designer Clothes
    In certain professions, luxury goods can send the wrong signal.​
    Man wearing luxury-brand clothes walks with a cold wind behind him, chilling three people he passes.
  8. Why You Should Skip the Easy Wins and Tackle the Hard Task First
    New research shows that you and your organization lose out when you procrastinate on the difficult stuff.
    A to-do list with easy and hard tasks
  9. How Are Black–White Biracial People Perceived in Terms of Race?
    Understanding the answer—and why black and white Americans may percieve biracial people differently—is increasingly important in a multiracial society.
    How are biracial people perceived in terms of race
  10. Which Form of Government Is Best?
    Democracies may not outlast dictatorships, but they adapt better.
    Is democracy the best form of government?
  11. When Do Open Borders Make Economic Sense?
    A new study provides a window into the logic behind various immigration policies.
    How immigration affects the economy depends on taxation and worker skills.
  12. Why Do Some People Succeed after Failing, While Others Continue to Flounder?
    A new study dispels some of the mystery behind success after failure.
    Scientists build a staircase from paper
  13. How Has Marketing Changed over the Past Half-Century?
    Phil Kotler’s groundbreaking textbook came out 55 years ago. Sixteen editions later, he and coauthor Alexander Chernev discuss how big data, social media, and purpose-driven branding are moving the field forward.
    people in 1967 and 2022 react to advertising
  14. How Old Are Successful Tech Entrepreneurs?
    A definitive new study dispels the myth of the Silicon Valley wunderkind.
    successful entrepreneurs are most often middle aged
  15. How Offering a Product for Free Can Backfire
    It seems counterintuitive, but there are times customers would rather pay a small amount than get something for free.
    people in grocery store aisle choosing cheap over free option of same product.
  16. Immigrants to the U.S. Create More Jobs than They Take
    A new study finds that immigrants are far more likely to found companies—both large and small—than native-born Americans.
    Immigrant CEO welcomes new hires
  17. College Campuses Are Becoming More Diverse. But How Much Do Students from Different Backgrounds Actually Interact?
    Increasing diversity has been a key goal, “but far less attention is paid to what happens after we get people in the door.”
    College quad with students walking away from the center
  18. How Peer Pressure Can Lead Teens to Underachieve—Even in Schools Where It’s “Cool to Be Smart”
    New research offers lessons for administrators hoping to improve student performance.
    Eager student raises hand while other student hesitates.
More in Marketing