Name-Letter Branding
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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?

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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: 5.43 = +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.”

Featured Faculty

Miguel Brendl

Member of the Department of Marketing faculty until 2017

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.

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