Researchers from University of Notre Dame and The Ohio State University published a new Journal of Marketing study that examines how the use of unconventional spellings of a brand name impacts consumers’ inferences about and willingness to support the brand.
The study, forthcoming in the Journal of Marketing, is titled “‘Choozing’ the Best Spelling: Consumer Response to Unconventionally Spelled Brand Names” and is authored by John P. Costello, Jesse Walker, and Rebecca Walker Reczek.
Choosing a brand name for a new product or service is one of the most important marketing decisions for a company. This decision has short- and long-term consequences that impact consumers’ initial impressions of the brand and the likelihood that they will ultimately make a purchase.
One increasingly common strategy when naming a new brand is to use an unconventional spelling of an otherwise familiar word. For example, the brand name “Lyft” is easily recognized as an unconventional spelling of “Lift.” However, despite the prevalence of unconventionally spelled brand names, little is known about how this strategy impacts consumers’ inferences about and willingness to support a brand.
This new study finds that use of an unconventional spelling may backfire, reducing consumers’ likelihood to support the brand. The research suggests that firms launching new brands and the growing number of marketing agencies that specialize in brand naming should be cautious when deciding how to spell their brands. Costello explains that “consumers can infer unconventional spellings as a deliberate persuasion tactic to influence their beliefs about the brand, which in turn can damage perceptions of the brand’s sincerity and ultimately reduce consumers’ support for the brand.”
Why Companies Choose Unconventional Spellings
There are some advantages that come from using an unconventionally spelled brand name. For example, it is easier to trademark and find related domain names for an unconventionally spelled brand name because of its distinctiveness. Prior research has shown that unconventionally spelled brand names are more memorable. Some observers have also proposed that brands use unconventional spellings to convey an image of being trendy, cool, or young—traits associated with an exciting brand personality.
However, the researchers argue that despite these potential advantages, the use of an unconventional spelling may backfire. Across eight experimental studies, they demonstrate that consumers perceive the choice of an unconventional spelling for a brand name as an overt persuasion attempt. That is, consumers recognize that the brand name looks like a real word they are familiar with, but they are also left to make inferences about why the brand’s spelling deviates from the original word. “We argue that consumers infer that an unconventionally spelled brand name was chosen as a marketing gimmick or persuasion tactic, perhaps as a way to stand out from competitors or as an overt attempt to appear trendy, hip, or cool to certain segments of consumers. We find that viewing a brand’s name as a persuasion tactic leads to decreased perceptions of the brand’s sincerity and ultimately reduces consumers’ support for the brand,” explains Walker. As a result, consumers support these brands less than if the brands used conventional spellings of the same words.
However, unconventionally spelled brand names are less likely to reduce support when consumers do not have the cognitive resources to think about the brand’s motives in choosing its name. Additionally, consumers do not respond negatively to unconventionally spelled brand names when they are told that the brand had a sincere motive for selecting the name (e.g., the unconventional spelling was the last name of the brand’s founder). Finally, the researchers identify a context in which unconventionally spelled names have positive effects relative to their conventional counterparts. “Consumers who are seeking a particularly memorable consumption experience are more likely to support a brand when it has an unconventionally spelled name than a conventional spelling, perhaps because the unconventional spelling itself can act as a memory marker for the event,” says Reczek.
Lessons for Chief Marketing Officers
From a practical perspective, the research provides valuable insights to marketers:
- Managers may want to avoid unconventional spellings when naming new brands, as doing so can decrease choice, purchase likelihood, and willingness-to-pay.
- Brands using unconventionally spelled names for new brands should clearly communicate a sincere naming origin story during their introductory marketing campaigns.
- Brands could also communicate this sincere motive when designing brand elements such as logos, packaging, or slogans.
- However, the need to do the above is dependent on whether the brand is operating in a context where consumers are likely to be seeking memorable experiences (e.g., destinations like Las Vegas).
- Finally, given the memory advantages of unconventional spellings, managers should also consider the cost-benefit trade-off between memory and perceptions of sincerity. Given that sincerity is a particularly important driver of many desirable brand outcomes, the increase in memorability that comes with an unconventional spelling may not be worth the accompanying decrease in perceptions of brand sincerity outside of consumption contexts where consumers are seeking a memorable experience.
Full article and author contact information available at: https://doi.org/10.1177/00222429231162367
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The Journal of Marketing develops and disseminates knowledge about real-world marketing questions useful to scholars, educators, managers, policy makers, consumers, and other societal stakeholders around the world. Published by the American Marketing Association since its founding in 1936, JM has played a significant role in shaping the content and boundaries of the marketing discipline. Shrihari (Hari) Sridhar (Joe Foster ’56 Chair in Business Leadership, Professor of Marketing at Mays Business School, Texas A&M University) serves as the current Editor in Chief.
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