How names impact behaviour

DimensionSix. That’s the name founder Phil Knight was pushing before “Nike” was chosen at the last minute1. “Nike” had come to one of his team in a dream, and in considering its merit, Knight recalled an observation one of his team had made.

“…Johnson had pointed out that seemingly all iconic brands – Clorox, Kleenex, Xerox-have short names. Two syllables or less. And they always have a strong sound in the name, a letter like “K” or “X”, that sticks in the mind.”

Name tag

What we call something, or someone, matters

Labels matter. Whether they are brand names, product names or first names, the label we give to something will have a bearing on how it’s perceived.

Taking first names as an example, some recent research (PDF) delved into the associations we make between someone’s name and how they look.

Building on past research that has found appearance can shape expectations of intelligence, trustworthiness, warmth, and dominance, researchers from the University of Jerusalem wanted to know whether it worked the other way. In other words, can expectations impact appearance? Do people grow into their name?

To test this the researchers had participants look at unfamiliar headshots and guess the name of the person from a list of options.

Their hypothesis was that first names are a form of social label, given to babies before their facial appearance is even defined. As such, first names come with expectations, and these expectations can influence what we end up looking like. If true, that means a stranger should be able to have a better than chance probability of guessing a name on the basis of how someone looks.

Across eight studies and two countries, the researchers indeed found that people were better at matching names to faces than can be explained by pure chance.

For instance, if four names were presented as options participants had a 25% chance of guessing correctly.  On average, people chose correctly between 29-40% of the time – a statistically significant improvement.

So why is this important?

Mental shortcuts

People make most decisions using their System 1, fast-thinking, heuristic-loving brain. Rightly or wrongly, one of our favourite mental short cuts is stereotyping; assuming something or someone will be a certain way on the basis of a characteristic.

In this case, people were using stereotypes about the name to match it to a face. Over time a name develops associations and these associations are used as a mental shortcut. We kind of guess what Rose will look like because “all Rose’s look the same”.

Of course that means for a name to be matched to a face, people have to be familiar with the stereotype. In the study, for example, French participants were better than chance at matching names to French photos but not Israeli, and Israeli participants better at matching names to Israeli faces than French. As soon as the stereotype was removed, people were back to guesswork.

Aside from stereotyping, another mental shortcut we rely on is the sound a word makes. Does it sound good or bad, light or heavy, slow or fast, small or big? Phil Knight’s offsider was onto something when he suggested that particular letters or sounds have impact.

study from 2007 tested “phonetic symbolism” and found “the sounds of words can convey meaning apart from their actual definitions, and this meaning can systematically bias perceptions and judgments.”

The researchers found that brand names that matched the attributes of the sound with attributes of the product were preferred. For instance, sounds that signaled sharp were preferred for a knife, where dull sounds were preferred for a hammer. 

In other research, whether the vowels in a word come from the back of the tongue (e.g. “toot”) or front (e.g. “tin”) impacted associations. Beer was rated as darker, stronger and heavier when it’s brand used vowels that came from the back, and “Frosh” rather than “Frish” was a more effective ice-cream brand because it signalled a smoother, richer and creamier experience. A table was deemed small when called “mil”, and large when called “mal”.

Where does that leave us?

What we call something (or someone) is important. Not only do names create associations, but these associations can in turn shape the very thing carrying the name.

Calling a product “basic” as opposed to “standard” will influence your customer (and your product development) differently. Knowing which is right will depend on the circumstances. Trying to signal cheap or limited? Then basic will be best. Signalling the default or adequate option? Go for standard.

Asking your customer for their “consent” rather than “agreement”, telling them an entitlement will “cease” rather than “be replaced by”, or calling something a “penalty” rather than “fee” will change the response you receive, mark my words!

This article also appeared in Smartcompany.

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