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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