July 12, 2021

Feminine names help brands be likeable

Haskayne researcher explores how linguistics influence brand perception

Customers tend to favour brand names that are more feminine — that is, generally, names that are longer, with stress on the second or later syllable, and ending with a vowel sound. As examples, look at massively successful companies Coca Cola, an invented name; Disney, a surname; or Nike, named for a Greek goddess — brands that tend to do better in the marketplace over those like Ford or Kraft that are shorter and end in a consonant.

“At a general level, brands with more linguistically feminine names are perceived as warmer,” says Dr. Ruth Pogacar, assistant professor in marketing at the Haskayne School of Business, and one of the authors of Is Nestlé a Lady? The Feminine Brand Name Advantage, in the Journal of Marketing.

“Warm is good,” she says. “It's really sort of fundamental, that human judgment. We like people who are warm and it's a really important quality. And so, if the linguistically feminine name conveys warmth, then it's not at all surprising that those names would be appealing to people and maybe even more successful in the marketplace.”

20-year perspective

Pogacar and colleagues at the University of Montana, HEC Paris and University of Cincinnati analyzed the linguistic properties of every single brand name listed over 20 years in an annual ranking of international brands. The Global Top Brands ranking is published by the influential international marketing consultancy, Interbrand.

The researchers initially looked at the length of brand names, hypothesizing that longer names would “metaphorically represent success.” As their research continued, they realized longer names tend to be feminine. “What's happening isn't a metaphorical association with more letters equaling more success. It seemed to be related to the warmth perception,” says Pogacar, who studies the hidden influences of language on consumers.

“It was actually very, very hard for us to find circumstances in which people did not prefer a linguistically feminine name. That was most surprising,” she says. “It was just incredibly hard to find a context where participants in our experiments did not prefer the feminine names.”

However, the researchers did run across a few situations where a feminine name had little or no effect on the brand’s likeability. “We did eventually find that for a strictly functional product, like a bathroom scale, that seems to be a boundary condition,” she says. “And when the product is specifically designed for men, like a men's sneaker, then the linguistically masculine brand name was just as good as the linguistically feminine brand name.”

Valuable information for companies

This sort of information is incredibly valuable for companies as they name brands. Some very successful products have straightforward names that convey a simple meaning, such as floor cleaner Mop & Glo.

“It tells you exactly what it does,” she says. “You don't need to read any more about that product. So the name itself gives you the information you need to know. And that's a valuable quality.”

But there are only so many words in the dictionary that brands can apply to products, and many of them are already being used by other companies. “So, it's sometimes necessary to look outside the known lexicon and look for made-up words in order to be able to trademark your unique brand name,” says Pogacar.  

Other research has shown that consumers have preferences for certain sounds. For example, people tend to like ‘m’ sounds and dislike ‘uh’ sounds. Now, marketers have more information to use as they come up with names for products and brands.

“I would argue the length of the name and the stress pattern and that ending sound, which all influence the linguistics gender perception of the name, are important things to consider as well,” says Pogacar. “Previously this wasn't entirely well established.”