Phoebe O'Connell

16 April 2021

Strategist’s Digest: Do people prefer feminine brand names? 

Contagious digests the most interesting and relevant research from the world of advertising and beyond, because there’s just too much to read and too little time

Is Nestlé a Lady? The Feminine Brand Name Advantage 

Ruth Pogacar, Justin Angle, Tina M. Lowrey, L. J. Shrum, and Frank R. Kardes, Journal of Marketing

Give it to me in one sentence.

People are more likely to buy, choose and recommend brands with feminine names because they sound warmer.

Give me a little more detail.

People evaluate individuals and groups by ‘warmth’ and ‘competence’, and these evaluations drive emotional and behavioral reactions.

The researchers wanted to find out if linguistically feminine brand names (those with more syllables, front vowels, and a stress on the second or later syllable) conveyed more warmth than male ones (think Nestlé, versus Gap), and whether this influenced customer attitudes and behaviours.

Through six different experiments the researchers concluded that feminine brand names increase perceived warmth, ‘which is associated with more favourable attitudes and increased choice’.

First, they looked at real brands on the Interbrand Global Top Brands list and established a positive correlation between feminine brand names and higher rankings. 

They also tested hypothetical brand names, to rule out people’s pre-existing perceptions of brands. Again, the experiments suggested that feminine brand names offer an advantage when it comes to purchase intent, with 49% of participants choosing a feminine-named product over a masculine-named product (15%) or $0.50 in cash (36%) when offered a ‘thank you’ gift for participating.

The researchers discovered that the advantage of feminine names is weaker in ‘utilitarian’ products (batteries, tools) compared with hedonic ones (music, chocolate). Also they found that people showed no preference for feminine names in men’s products (though no preference for male names, either).

Why is this interesting?

Often people’s first contact with a brand is its name, and it can influence initial impressions, associations and expectations. ‘Just as with people, making a good first impression is important, and can have cumulative, lasting benefits,’ write the researchers. 

People love to remind you that IBM (International Business Machines) has done just fine with its rather literal and uninspiring initialism, but the pressure to come up with a name that is desirable, memorable and unique is real – as evidenced by the lucrative business of brand-naming consultancy mentioned in the study. 

This paper points out the benefits of warm brand names for hedonic products, and points out that although it would be ‘ill-advised’ for well-established brands to discard an existing masculine name, they could leverage the feminine advantage by ‘imbuing masculine brand names with warmth via feminine sub-brands, brand extensions, or logos’ instead (like Ford and its Fiesta model).

Any weaknesses?

The study was limited to English-speaking participants, and while some linguistic effects ‘are robust across languages’, cultural and linguistic differences mean the study’s conclusions cannot be applied as a blanket rule in non-English speaking markets. For similar reasons, the authors warn brand managers to pay close attention to translation.

Where can I find the whole report?

Here, and it’s free (it’s the first study listed).

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