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.

How you ask is as important as what you ask

A friend recently shared with me a clip from the classic UK comedy, Yes Prime Minister.

Two bureaucrats, Sir Humphrey Appleby and Bernard Woolley are discussing the results of an opinion survey. Bernard is concerned that the survey showed people to be in favour of reintroducing National Service (Military Conscription), and that the Prime Minister thinks such a policy would win him votes. Sir Humphrey is alarmed.

But not to worry. Sir Humphrey then demonstrates to Bernard the ease with which opinion polls can be manipulated to derive the opposite result.

All you have to do is frame the question in a different way.

There are some big questions being asked

Questions have been in the spotlight recently.

We are right in the midst of the fallout from Britain’s “Brexit” referendum where people voted to leave rather than stay in the European Union.

Earlier this year New Zealand voted to retain its existing flag rather than adopt a new design.

The Republic of Ireland voted for Marriage Equality, with 62% of voters answering yes to the question about whether to add to the Constitution “marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex”.

It’s a big year in electoral questions too, with voters in Australia and the US being asked who they want to run their country.

How you ask the question is as important as what the question is

As Sir Humphrey demonstrated, how you ask a question is as important as what the question is. In behavioural terms we’re talking about the “framing effect”.

In public policy the rate of acceptance can depend on whether something is called “Marriage Equality’ or “Gay Marriage”, or a “Carbon tax” rather than “Polluter’s tax”.

Here’s an example from the business world. Imagine you are an employer who is facing a bleak prospect. You may have to retrench as many as 600 staff.  However there are still two options you can try.

  • If you adopt Option A, 200 jobs will be saved.
  • If you adopt Option B there’s a 33% chance all jobs will be saved and a 67% chance that no jobs will be saved.

Which option do you take?

Does it surprise you that when I’ve asked workshop participants this very question as many as 75% have opted for Option A, and only 25% Option B?

Well, I should say half the group have answered 75%/25% because unbeknownst to them, the other half got the same question but it was framed slightly differently.

The scenario is the same. You are still an employer who is facing a bleak prospect and may have to retrench as many as 600 staff.  There are still two options you can try.

However this time the wording is slightly different.

  • If you adopt Option A, 400 jobs will be lost.
  • If you adopt Option B there’s a 33% chance that no jobs will be lost and a 67% chance that all jobs will be lost.

Does that change your answer?

It shouldn’t. The scenario is exactly the same and the results are too.

Option A means 200 jobs saved and 400 jobs lost, and Option B, a 33% chance of 600 saved/none lost and 67% chance of none saved/all lost.

But when the question was put to the other half of participants, this time the result was 40% Option A and 60% Option B.  A 40/60 split rather than 75/25. 

Here’s another example from market researcher Ipsos-Mori who was surveying people on whether to change the voting age.

How will you ask your customer to take action?

The impact of how you phrase a question means you need to be very careful when putting it to your customer.

Market research

Framing means that if you commission market research (and assuming you want the truth rather than evidence to support your decision), you should ask reverse question too e.g. I believe in fairies, I do not believe in fairies.  The same goes for staff satisfaction surveys.

Better yet, rather than relying self-reported answers, set up experiments and observe how your customers react (more on why you shouldn’t rely on what customers tell you here).


Framing is critical to your marketing effectiveness, for instance:

  • telling customers they can ‘save’ will have less impact than telling them to ‘stop wasting’ (Loss Aversion)
  • a marked down price that appears after the original will seem better than vice versa (Anchoring)
  • whether your price is rounded or not will impact perceptions of value

This article also appeared in Smartcompany.