NOTRE DAME, Ind. — Choosing the right name for a new brand is incredibly important. While some companies like ride-sharing app Lyft find success by adopting unconventional spellings — something many brand strategists actually recommend — researchers from the University of Notre Dame are offering up a different perspective. Study authors say consumers are less likely to support unfamiliar brands with unique spellings, especially when they have the option to go with products that use the conventional spelling of the same word.
One recent article from Crunchbase even named odd spelling as the most popular brand naming trend for recent startups. While there are some likely advantages to using an unusual name for companies, such as memorability, there are few facts showing how this strategy impacts consumers’ beliefs about brands and their willingness to support them.
“Consumers perceive unconventionally spelled names as a persuasion tactic or a marketing gimmick, leading them to view the brand as less sincere,” says lead author John Costello, assistant professor of marketing at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, who researches consumer behavior with a focus on psychological response to marketing communications and prosocial behaviors, in a university release. “Our studies suggest that, while marketers may choose unconventional spellings for new brands with the goal of positively influencing consumers’ perceptions, doing so may backfire.”
Misspelled names can cut into your profits
The study also found no such backfire effect when a company’s motive for selecting a uniquely spelled name was perceived as genuinely sincere.
“When a brand name is crowdsourced by consumers rather than chosen by the company, the backfire effect is eliminated,” Prof. Costello adds. “We also find unconventionally spelled brand names may even be preferable when consumers want an especially memorable experience, for example, visiting a bar made entirely of ice at a vacation destination like Las Vegas.”
Close to 3,000 people participated in eight experimental studies, including several measuring both real and incentive-compatible consumption behavior. Researchers made use of various brand names across studies (both real and fictional) and examined all unconventional brand naming varieties found to be common in the marketplace.
Among several of the studies featuring real choices made by consumers, the team found that simply using an unconventional spelling of a real word (substituting a “k” for a “c”, for instance) actually decreased its selection by 12 to 14 percent. Another study conducted on a “Football Friday” at Notre Dame, in which research assistants posed as brand ambassadors distributing free samples of new-to-market nonalcoholic seltzers, produced the same results.
“We discreetly observed and recorded participants’ seltzer sampling choices to measure the impact of an unconventionally spelled brand name on real product choice,” Prof. Costello explains. “Consistent with our predictions, participants were almost 14 percent less likely to choose the focal seltzer when the brand was spelled unconventionally.”
Select Examples of Established Brands That Utilize the Most Common Unconventional Spelling Strategies:
|Unconventional Spelling Strategy||Real Examples of Brands with Unconventional Spelling||Conventional Version of Brand Name||Product/Service Category|
|Substitution: One or more of the letters in a conventional word are replaced||Starz||Stars||TV/Entertainment|
|Shortening: Letters are removed from a typical word||Tumblr||Tumbler||Technology|
|Tru by Hilton||True by Hilton||Hotels|
|Lengthening: Letters are added to a typical word (sometimes via substituting two different letters for a similar sounding letter)||Pheelings||Feelings||Clothing|
|Phat Buddha||Fat Buddha||Clothing|
So, why do so many companies choose intentionally misspelled brand names?
Prior research shows they are more memorable and often make it easier to trademark and find related domain names. Odd spellings may also help convey the brand is trendy, cool, or young.
“A pilot study we conducted with 100 marketing managers found support for all three of these beliefs,” Prof. Costello comments. “So, it’s a bit surprising to find that the use of an unconventional spelling often backfires, reducing consumers’ likelihood to support the brand.”
All in all, this work shows there are positives and negatives associated with using unique spellings, including the risk of alienating certain consumers. The study also offers important insights for firms looking to launch new brands and marketing agencies that specialize in brand naming.
“If companies choose to use unconventional spellings for new brands, they should clearly communicate a sincere naming origin story during introductory marketing campaigns to avoid the backfire effect,” the researcher suggests. “They could also communicate this sincerity when designing different brand elements, such as logos, packaging or slogans.”
The study appears in the Journal of Marketing.