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By any name

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Consumer choice leaves much to the imagination

Photo by Gary Wayne Gilbert

Photo by Gary Wayne Gilbert

At academic and professional conferences, Elizabeth Miller, an assistant professor of marketing at Boston College, often begins her lectures by showing the audience a black-and-white image of a nail polish bottle and posing a simple question: What color is the polish?

Though the label on the bottle is legible, audiences, without exception, stare back at her, stumped. Then they begin to guess.

For the past six years Miller has been exploring how language affects consumer choice. In her lectures, the nail polish bottles she shows—actual retail products—have names like Sex Pistol, Hot Rod, Shag, or Vice, so the audience's chances of guessing correctly are near random. But just by participating, the guessers have proved her point: Unusual color names grab consumers' attention—in fact, the more atypical and unspecific they are, the more attention they attract. And as marketers have long known, that's good for sales. Alpine Snow will outsell White; Razzmatazz will outdo Purple. To probe exactly how—and why—consumers respond this way Miller, working with Barbara Kahn, a professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, conducted experiments using jelly beans and virtual sweaters. The findings were reported in the June issue of Journal of Consumer Research.

In the first experiment, participants were led to believe they were taking part in a study on an entirely different topic as they filled out an unrelated computer survey. As a thank-you, they were told they could help themselves to some candy. The jelly beans were sorted into six cups, each with a different flavor name; half the participants were shown ambiguous flavor names (Moody Blue, Mississippi Brown, White Ireland), while the other half saw the same jelly beans labeled with more conventional descriptives (Blueberry Blue, Chocolate Brown, Marshmallow White). As the researchers predicted, participants who were offered the ambiguously named jelly beans took more—in fact, nearly twice as much.

In this first portion of the jelly bean study, the researchers had simply stood back and allowed participants to choose their candy in peace. Another set of similarly divided participants were tested more severely. While they selected their beans, researchers distracted them with logistical questions ("What was your ID number?" "Which computer were you using?"). Within this multitasked set, there was no difference in the number of jelly beans taken. For unconventional names to work their magic, concluded Miller and Kahn, people have to be able to think about them—if only for a subconscious millisecond.

"Essentially, people fill in the blanks when they see an unexpected or illogical name," says Miller. The thought process goes like this: There must be some reason for this name. And since companies sell their goods by touting their best qualities, the reason must be positive. In this way, an unconventional name predisposes consumers favorably toward a product.

To further explore this theory, Miller and Kahn conducted another study. This time, subjects sat in front of computer screens and were told to imagine they were ordering sweaters from a catalogue. Each was to assume the sweater style, size, and material were acceptable; he or she need only select a favorite color. Miller and Kahn then displayed seven choices on each monitor; half of the group was shown the color names first (color swatches would appear adjacent 30 seconds later), while the other half saw the colors themselves first (this time, names appeared on the half-minute delay).

As in the jelly bean experiment, novel names proved more popular than common ones. Yet within that novel-name category, Miller and Kahn found two different name types vying for favorite: Ambiguous names (Antique Red, Millennium Orange, Passion Blue) were most popular with those who saw the names first, while unexpected descriptives (Coke Red, Florida Orange, Cookie Monster Blue) appealed to those who first saw the pictures. The type of information available to the consumer, Miller and Kahn concluded, directs the type of elaboration people construe from a name.

"Basically, two theories of mental processing are at work here," says Miller. "When people see unexpected descriptive names, they are usually able to make use of them, and may feel good about having figured out the 'puzzle.' With more logic-defying, ambiguous names, unless we can see otherwise, we just assume there's a good reason for them."

Miller is quick to point out that while names often influence low-stakes purchases, there are limits to their power. No degree of fancy language will convince people to buy something they hate, or to spend huge sums of money on something they haven't seen. But as consumers increasingly turn to shopping in front of their computer screens—where colors aren't true and products must be bought on the word of the seller—descriptive names will carry ever-greater weight, she says. "What you can't see and you can't taste can be very appealing," says Miller, "whether you know it or not."

Cara Feinberg

 


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