No one ever pretended that shopping for anything is a rational experience. If it were, would there be Fluffernutter? Laceless sneakers? Porkpie hats? Would the Chia Pet even exist? To the list of ridiculous reasons we often buy ridiculous things things, add one more: sometimes we just like the sound of a product’s name — particularly if it contains repetitive syllables.
Marketers have long known that a name can make all the difference when you’re trying to move the merch. The kiwifruit was once the Chinese gooseberry, after all — at least until the produce peddlers wised up — and the Chilean sea bass was once the singularly unappetizing Patagonian toothfish. Drugs companies learned the moniker trick long ago, which is how we wound up with so many drunkenly happy-sounding prescription meds like Wellbutrin, Lunesta and Celebrex. (More on Time.com: Top 10 Product Recalls)
But sometimes the appeal of a name is found in something more primal than the imagery it conjures up; sometimes it’s just in the way our brains respond to rhythm. In a new study in the Journal of Marketing, Jennifer Argo, a marketing professor at the University of Alberta, sought to test the appeal of repetitive sounds in brand names and came up with an inventive method.
She and her colleagues gave a group of volunteers two samples of what they said were two different brands of ice cream but which were actually the same. The researchers made up similar brand names for each, taking care to include repetitive syllables in one but not the other — “Zanozan” and “Zanovum,” for example. The researchers repeated the experiment with five other types of similarly named products, including cell phone plans.
Repeatedly, the subjects in the study chose the products with the repetitive rhythm in their names — but there were exceptions to the rule. If the name included unnatural or uncommon linguistic sounds — “Ranthfanth,” for example — people rejected it. “You can’t deviate too much from our language,” says Argo, “otherwise it will backfire on you.” (More on Time.com: Photo Gallery: Mancessories)
Similarly, the rhythm rule worked much less reliably if neither the experimenters nor the subjects said the name out loud, but instead just read it silently. Clearly, there is auditory input at play in how the brain reacts, though Argo has not yet studied that aspect of the phenomenon specifically. Even before she does, however, she believes the lesson for marketers is simple: pick the right name and say it a lot.
“I would say that TV and radio advertisements are critical to this strategy,” she says. “But the employees are also crucial. Before customers order, a server can remind them of the name of the restaurant. Sales people can talk with customers and mention the brand name.”
If you think company reps are doing that already, you’re right. The fact that you hear “Welcome to Applebee’s” and “Thank you for choosing Continental,” over and over again is no accident; nor are on-screen ads for, say, AMC Loews Theater when you’re in your seat, eating your popcorn and have clearly made your ticket-buying decision already. (More on Time.com: The ‘Other’ Salt: 5 Foods Rich in Potassium)
Studies like Argo’s will likely make this drumbeat of brand names only louder and steadier. The upside: if marketers heed her advice about rhythm, the beat will at least have more bounce.
More on Time.com: