Researchers from University of Calgary, University of Montana, HEC Paris, and University of Cincinnati published a new paper in the Journal of Marketing that explores the linguistic aspects of a name that can influence brand perceptions without people even realizing it.
The study, forthcoming in the Journal of Marketing, is titled “Is Nestlé a Lady? The Feminine Brand Name Advantage” and is authored by Ruth Pogacar, Justin Angle, Tina Lowrey, L. J. Shrum, and Frank Kardes.
What do iconic brands Nike, Coca-Cola, and Disney have in common? They all have linguistically feminine names. In fact, the highest-ranking companies on Interbrand’s Global Top Brands list for the past twenty years have, on average, more feminine names than lower-ranked companies. How can you tell if a name is linguistically feminine? Easy — does it have two or more syllables and stress on the second or later syllable? Does it end in a vowel? If so, then it is a feminine name. Linguistically feminine names convey “warmth” (good-natured sincerity), which makes people like them better than less feminine names.
A brand’s name is incredibly important. In most cases, the name is the first thing consumers learn about a brand. And a brand’s name does the work of communicating what the brand represents. For instance, Lean Cuisine conveys the product’s purpose. Others, like Reese’s’ Pieces, have rhyming names that promise whimsy and fun. Making a good first impression is critical, so it is not surprising that the market for brand naming services is booming. Boutique naming fees can run as much as $5,000 — $10,000 per letter for brand names in high-stakes product categories like automobiles and technology.
Specifically, the number of syllables in a name, which syllable is stressed, and the ending sound, all convey masculine or feminine gender. People automatically associate name length, stress, and ending sound with men’s or women’s names because most people’s names follow certain rules. Women’s names tend to be longer, have more syllables, have stress on the second or later syllable, and end with a vowel (e.g., Amánda). Men’s names tend to be shorter with one stressed syllable, or with stress on the first of two syllables, and end in a consonant (e.g., Éd or Édward).
We often relate to brands like people — we love them, we hate them, we are loyal to certain brands but sometimes we cheat. We associate brands with masculine or feminine traits based on the linguistic cues in the name. So, attributes associated with gender — like warmth — become attached to a brand because of its name. “Warmth” is the quality of being good-natured, tolerant, and sincere. Researchers believe that warmth is incredibly important because deep in our evolutionary past, primitive people had to make a quick, critical judgment whenever they encountered someone new — is this stranger a threat or not? In other words — is this stranger dangerous or warm? If the newcomer was not warm, then a fight or flight decision might be called for. People still rely on warmth judgments every day to decide whether someone will be a good partner, employee, or friend.
So, it is no surprise that warmth is an important characteristic of brand personality. And because linguistically feminine names convey warmth, features like ending in a vowel are advantageous for brand names. As Pogacar explains, “We find that linguistically feminine brand names are perceived as warmer and are therefore better liked and more frequently chosen, an effect we term the Feminine Brand Name Advantage.”
But does all this matter in terms of dollars and cents? Yes, according to the Interbrand Global Top Brand rankings, which is based on brand performance and strength. Angle says that “By analyzing the linguistic properties of each name on Interbrand’s lists for the past twenty years, we find that brands with linguistically feminine names are more likely to make the list. And even more, the higher ranked a brand is, the more likely it is to have a linguistically feminine name.”
After observing this feminine brand name advantage, the researchers conducted a series of experiments to better understand what is happening. Participants reported that brands with linguistically feminine names seemed warmer and this increased their purchase intentions. This pattern occurred with well-known brands and made-up brands that study participants had no prior experience with.
There are limitations to the feminine brand name advantage. When a product is specifically targeted to a male audience (e.g., men’s sneakers), masculine and feminine brand names are equally well-liked. Furthermore, people like linguistically feminine names for hedonic products, like chocolate, but may prefer masculine names for strictly functional products like bathroom scales.
It is important to note that results may vary based on the linguistic patterns of name gender in the target market country. Lowrey summarizes the study’s insights by saying “We suggest that brand managers consider linguistically feminine names when designing new brand names, particularly for hedonic products.”
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