What It All Adds Up To: Culture and Alpha-Numeric Brand Names

Janeen Arnold Costa, University of Utah
Teresa M. Pavia, University of Utah
[ to cite ]:
Janeen Arnold Costa and Teresa M. Pavia (1992) ,"What It All Adds Up To: Culture and Alpha-Numeric Brand Names", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, eds. John F. Sherry, Jr. and Brian Sternthal, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 39-45.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, 1992      Pages 39-45


Janeen Arnold Costa, University of Utah

Teresa M. Pavia, University of Utah

The majority of human behavior, including consumer behavior, is learned. Acquired solely through social contact with other human beings, this enormously complex system of learned ideas, beliefs, norms, values and behaviors is referred to as "culture." This paper explores culture in the context of a specific set of learned attitudes regarding the use of numbers and letters in brand names. Focusing on American society, the authors delineate and analyze patterns of learned associations and multiple meanings associated with alpha-numeric brand names and brand name components. Our data suggest that brand names send powerful, sometimes unintended messages to the consumer, thereby affecting perceptions and behavior.

At birth, the human animal is virtually a tabula rasa, waiting for that learned complex of behaviors called culture to provide understanding, sustenance and meaning. Among the messages to be socially inscribed are the interpretation of otherwise arbitrary symbols connected with the act of consumption. This paper explores the meaning of alpha-numeric brand names in American culture. The authors contend that, like other symbolic representations, brand names carry with them covert meanings. The American consumer receives powerful cues from the specific type of brand name under consideration here, alpha-numeric brand names. These cues are learned through experience with other products, gender constructs within the society, and other patterns of behavior and interpretation in American society.


Culture remains an underexplored topic in the field of consumer behavior. Although many theorists implicitly assume that culture affects consumer behavior, most scholars are either unaware of their own assumptions or choose not to explore fully the concept of culture. When culture is brought to the forefront of an analysis, it is often in the form of cross-cultural comparisons, a procedure which highlights differences among cultures but frequently fails to bring out the depth to which culture itself influences all human behavior. Prime examples of full, in-depth analyses of cultural effects on consumer behavior are few; Costa and Belk (1990), McCracken (1988, 1989) and Sherry (1990), for instance, represent exceptions rather than the rule.

Enculturation, Systems, and Cross-Cultural Comparisons

The influence of culture on the growing human being begins prior to birth through the eating, sleeping and other behavioral patterns of the pregnant mother. In the first few years of life, the human child is exposed to an elaborate system of shared understandings, "culture," which imparts meaning to actions, behavior, objects and existence. This process of acquiring culture is referred to as enculturation (Durkheim 1895). Through both overt and covert means, the individual learns "that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, customs and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society" (Tylor 1958, p. 1). Either through internalization of norms or through social pressure, members of a society understand and enact, or choose not to enact, the socially accepted behaviors and norms (Barrett 1984). Virtually all sensory inputs pass through the cultural screen, distorting the perception process selectively and skewing the interpretation of messages accordingly. Since the systems of meaning vary from one culture to the next, messages are interpreted differently. It is the purpose of this paper to determine the nature and extent of American cultural influences on the interpretation of messages encoded in alpha-numeric brand names.

Cultural anthropologists have described broad areas of cultural systems, the structure, function, meaning and interpretation of which vary from one society to the next. Among others, these broad areas include patterns of ownership, exchange and inheritance, social organization for production, distribution and consumption, and for decision-making, influence and control, ideas and beliefs concerning the cosmos and the nature of the world, social systems involving family size, form and function, extended kin and non-kin ties, gender constructs, and material culture.

Theorists in the fields of marketing, consumer behavior and international business have focused on several specific dimensions of human behavior as manifesting critical variations cross-culturally. Hall and Hall (1987, 1990), for instance, describe differences in speed, context, space and time. Harris and Moran (1987) deal with cross-cultural variations in leadership and management styles, communication, job expectations and performance, and work culture. Within consumer behavior, Wallendorf and Arnould (1988) have looked at object attachment and the meaning of possessions; other theorists have focused on specific cultures, describing them in depth and providing a basis for further cross-cultural comparison (e.g., Arnould 1989, Costa 1989, McCracken 1988).

Cultural Learning and the Interpretation of Brand Names

The case study presented here is concerned with alpha-numeric brand names. "Alpha-numeric" refers to those brand names which are mixtures of letters and numbers, the latter of which can appear either as digits or written out in word form. Examples include combinations of letters and numbers (e.g., WD-40; V-8; 3M) or words and numbers (e.g., Alberto VO5; Saks Fifth Avenue; Colt 45 Malt Liquor). In some cases, the numeric component actually describes a model or model number used by the consumer to identify the product. For example, in the case of "Porsche 911," the "911" is the model number. However, for the consumer, the number may be an important component of the brand name, identifying the specific product and distinguishing it from other brands such as the Porsche 914. In such cases, the model number itself is considered to be part of the brand name.

Excess Meaning

In the context of alpha-numeric brand names, three general areas of culture and cultural learning are implicated. First, numbers are a special category of symbols which carry "excess meaning." That is, a number is not just a number. Rather, like other symbols, a number evokes numerous thoughts and connotes many things beyond mere quantity, a fact which has been documented in many societies. In the United States, for example, three (3) is a "sacred" number (de Lys 1957), connoting Christianity and the triple God-head, strength and power (FBI, CIA are three-letter acronyms), and business acumen or quality (IBM, RCA). Euroamericans have numerous beliefs which involve numbers; 7 and 13 are thought to be "lucky" or "unlucky," for instance (de Lys 1957; Lasne and Gaultier 1984). According to a study by Knapp and Chen (1964), American respondents feel that small numbers are "simple, complete, and weak," whereas larger numbers (above three) are "smooth, powerful, complex and masculine." Similarly, odd numbers are seen as "lucky and powerful," while even numbers in American society are thought to be "smooth and feminine" (see also Battig and Spera 1962; Cockran and Wickens 1963). In many Native American societies, four (4) is a number with special meaning related to the four directions; in Chinese culture, eight (8) signifies good fortune:

"Eight indicates prosperity: on the 8 August 1988, 8-8-88, an unprecedented number of new businesses were registered or opened in Hong Kong in the hope that they would be blessed with this prized commodity...Likewise the number 4 is associated with death because the number and word death share a phonetic similarity...In Japan too the use of the number 4 is also to be avoided since the word for it, shi, is also the word for death" (McDonald and Roberts 1990, p. 13).

The "excess meaning" of numbers may be perceived at a subconscious level, as are perceptions of personal space invasion, territoriality and other aspects of the cultural code (Barrett 1984; Hall and Hall 1987, 1990). It should not be surprising to find that "excess" meanings associated with numbers in a particular society carry over into numbers used in brand names, thereby affecting individuals' interpretations and perceptions about the named products.

Gender Constructs

A second general area of cultural influence on the interpretation of brand names in American society is gender constructs. In all societies, the basic physiological differences of male and female are elaborated into complex gender schemata whereby expected or "appropriate" modes of dressing, working, speaking and other behaviors, as well as personality characteristcs, are attributed to individuals on the basis of gender. Because the enormous cross-cultural variation extant in gender constructs is not widely known among the general populace, these gender-based systems of differences are often perceived to be biologically induced rather than culturally created. In American society, learned gender constructs have included the stereotypical beliefs that, in general, males are "better" at math, more competent in technical matters, more quantitative in orientation, more impersonal and objective, less emotional and more "balanced." American women, on the other hand, are stereotypically considered to be less competent in math, less oriented toward quantitative perspectives, less able to handle technical equipment and technical matters well, more emotional and subjective (Bellah et al. 1985, Epstein 1988, Harris 1981, Kitzinger 1980). Careful scrutiny reveals an intimate connection between learned gender constructs and learned attitudes about numbers (see Deboer 1984; Markoff 1989; Marshall 1983, 1984; Marshall and Smith 1987; Newton 1986; Sherman 1983; Tracy 1987; Ware and Lee 1988). Discussion of the nature and origin of these stereotypes is beyond the scope of this paper. What is of importance, however, is that the stereotypes exist and seem to affect perceptions about alpha-numeric brand names; this connection is explored more fully below.

Learned Associations

The third area of culture critical to the interpretation of alpha-numeric brand names is learned associations of numbers, letters and names with specific products. It is important to recognize that this again is cultural learning that may result in sub-surface or unconscious awareness and interpretation. Thus, individuals are not always certain why they associate particular number and letter combinations with certain products. Our informants felt certain brand names seem to "fit" a product; other theorists have reported similar responses. Peterson and Ross' (1972) data indicate consumers may feel a certain product name is more suited to one product class than to another; their respondents felt "Whummies" was "remindful" of cereals, whereas "Nemlads" was not, for instance. Zinkham and Martin's (1987) study concluded that brand names which seem "typical" for a product category benefit from consumers' inferential beliefs. As a result, these products may be easier to promote than those in which the given name does not seem to "fit" the product (see also Anon 1985, Boyd 1985). In some cases, this perception of "fit" may be due primarily to learned associations of given brand names with particular products, rather than to gender constructs or other learned patterns.

As might be expected, it is difficult to separate the underlying bases of such responses from one another. This is at least partially the case because components of culture are so intimately related to one another. Like a complex woven tapestry, the various parts of culture are patterned and integrated. Thus, a respondent's interpretation of a brand name may be the result of learned assumptions about certain sounds, letters or numbers, gender-based constructs, or associations with certain product categories. So, for example, the letter "X" may imply harshness and angularity, seem masculine to some informants, and remind respondents of fast, sporty cars through association with the Mazda RX-7 all at the same time (see Pavia and Costa 1991a; 1991b). We contend, in fact, that it is this patterning and integration, this mutual reinforcment of the various cultural facets, which makes some brand names seem so compellingly appropriate and others seem so dismally inappropriate.

Numerous studies indicate letters themselves may have subsurface or covert meanings to members of a particular society. For example, Dogana (1967), following Sapir (1929), found that speakers of Romance languages interpret certain vowels and consonants as "bigger." Taylor's (1963) work indicated English speakers associate G and K with largeness and T and N with smallness, while Korean speakers feel T and P imply largeness, and J and M indicate smallness. When studies such as these suggest the implied associations or meanings of the letters vary from one society/language to another, we can assume such variations are a product of learning and culture (see also Davis 1961; Heath, Chatterjee and France 1990; Schloss 1981; Schmitt, Leclerc et al. 1988).

The Enculturation Process

A final part of culture which deserves some attention here is the enculturation process itself. If, as we contend, members of American society learn that certain numbers and letters fit with certain products and that these numbers/letters/products have gender and other associations, at what point do such associations solidify in the individual? Our preliminary studies seem to indicate that these associations are largely congealed by the time American children enter adolescence.


The Investigative Process

In order to examine more fully the `excess' meaning of numbers and letters in alpha-numeric brand names, the authors used a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods. Literature searches and initial depth interviews helped define the parameters for eight focus groups of 6-10 participants each, using a total of 63 college-level informants. These qualitative methods were followed by a quantitative approach in which we administered open-ended questionnaires to 144 students. Presented with hypothetical alpha-numeric brand names, respondents were instructed to "describe the product that seems most appropriate to you to have this brand name."

In the most recent stage of the research, we attempt to determine the point at which children in American society begin to perceive and express an association between alpha-numeric brand names and particular products. To this end, the authors and student assistants conducted 28 depth interviews with children aged 4 to 12. Based on the outcome of these interviews, questionnaires were designed and administered to 24 fourth grade children, 9 and 10 years of age (5 female; 19 male). The findings from these questionnaires were consistent with those from the depth interviews. All data bases are open and available for verification and perusal by other researchers.

Cultural Interpretation of Alpha-Numeric Brand Names

A brand name provides important information to the consumer which can affect consumer interpretations and purchase decisions. The data provided in our study support the contention that brand names send important culturally-based messages to the consumer; the content of the messages is determined by and interpreted through a cultural screen; it is, therefore, intimately related to and integrated with other parts of the culture.

Marketers generally agree that a brand name should be distinctive, descriptive, short and easy-to-say and remember (Kotler 1988). For cross-cultural effectiveness, McDonald and Roberts (1990), following Collins (1977) indicate the brand name should also be "easy to read in all the countries in which the brand is to be marketed" and "of such a verbal form as to have semantic and or symbolic associations, i.e. conveys feeling" (1990, p. 10). The latter recommendation is of particular interest to us in the context of this study. Our data indicate consumers often have strong, if subsurface, feelings about the brand names they encounter. These feelings have numerous sources, learned through association with other products, through shared cultural ideas about certain sounds and figures, or through other cultural contexts.

In American society, it is apparent that a clear, strong relationship exists between gender constructs and numbers. This relationship carries over into interpretations of alpha-numeric brand names. Our data indicate American consumers tend to associate alpha-numeric brand names with complex, technical products, such as computers, radios and stereos, cars and planes. Additionally, they believe alpha-numeric brand names are appropriate to express chemical content, scientific formulae and nutrient value. Both the qualitative and quantititative data support this finding. The focus group responses presented below are representative of consumer interpretations of alpha-numeric brand names as indicative of the technical and scientific (focus group number and informant gender indicated):

(FG#3) F: I think anything scientific,something that denotes that it's higher technology is appropriate [for an alpha-numeric brand name].

(FG#5) M: Well, they use a number because of science.

(FG#5) M: ...any number denotes high-tech, in my mind, you know.

In the open-ended questionnaires, respondents were presented with hypothetical brand names and were asked to free associate, describing what types of products they felt would "go with" the presented names. The association of alpha-numeric brand names with cleaners, soaps or detergents and with cars and car-related items was strong and consistent. For example, fully 67% of the informants indicated "A 909" would be an appropriate brand name for such products. When the the "A" was changed to an "X," the underlying association of certain letters with technicality became more evident; 84% of respondents felt "X 909" would be an appropriate brand name for soaps and cleaners or car and car-related items, for example. Those responses which could not be categorized as cleaners/soaps/detergents or car and car-related items nevertheless indicated items that are technical or chemical in nature: computer, CD player, scientific calculator, high quality mountain bike, and bug spray.

Informant responses to questions concerning what type of product would have an alpha-numeric brand name reinforced the gender-based association of products and alpha-numerics:

(FG#1) M: Motorcyles or airplanes or computers or something that at least until recently were more a part of a man's domain, so therefore, more a man's product...

(FG#2) F: I think, as far as cars go, the numbers are more for the masculine, because the higher they are, the more powerful the car is. Whereas women don't care as much about how powerful it is.

The data became increasingly interesting as we began to explore the meanings associated with specific numbers and letters. In this context, it became clear that underlying, often unconscious, meanings of particular numbers and letters are intimately related to gender constructs in American society. Thus, informants said:

(FG#5) M: I don't know, a smaller number, twenties or teens, might denote a feminine number...

M: Maybe the smaller numbers denote petites...

(FG#8) M: I think larger numbers like four digit numbers, five digit numbers, seem more masculine, too, than, say, smaller numbers, like 55. And even triple digit numbers seem feminine, I don't know why. But larger, like 10,000, sound masculine, seems masculine to me.

In some cases, informants indicated the shapes and sounds of both letters and numbers are related to American gender constructs. Thus, "soft," "rounded," "flowing" numbers and letters are interpreted as feminine; while "harsh," "angular," "blunt" forms are suggestive of masculinity:

(FG#5) F: I was thinking that 36 might be feminine...I was thinking of, like, when you said 88, the shapes of the numbers, I think make a big difference...

F: Like 44, to me, seems masculine. It's very sharp, it's very cut, it's very precise, square...

M: And the numbers that seem, that are rounder and softer, it makes a difference somewhat.

(FG#6) F: I kind of think a number like 21 is kind of masculine because it's just kind of blunt, kind of like -- hard.

The association of angular form with technical, hence stereotypically male in American society, was further supported by the open-ended questionnaire data, as indicated above in the example of "A 909" versus "X 909" (see Pavia and Costa 1991a for further discussion). As number and letters are combined into brand names, the gender-related meaning is carried over into both the name and the product, then, if we accept the contention that Americans stereotype "technical," "powerful," "large" or "scientific" as more related to males than to females:

(FG#5) M: It seems that like the number/letter combination names -- and I never thought of this before -- but, it seems like the majority of them denote some masculine product, or at least some masculine image when you think of them. I'd never thought of that before, but it seems like most of them are masculine. I don't know. Is there a reason to have more products in those categories [that] have a masculine image? Do you think of males when you think of technology, or advanced features, or those kinds of things?

M: Yeah, kinda, only because I don't think women are pushed into science.

Our research with children indicated that the perceived association of alpha-numeric brand names with specific types of products is already manifest in some children by the age of 5 or 6. By 9 years of age, the associations are even more prevalent and predominate the fourth grade sample. Thus, "A 2" consistently suggested the technical; responses included "robot," "scientific calling of something," "computer" and "plane," for example. On the other hand, "Whummies" was suggestive of softness, animals, candy and toys: "gross squishey things," "little animals," "toys that are soft to hit people with," and "a good!! food." While the alpha-numeric brand names were consistently identified with `technical' products, however, the association of this type of products with masculinity is emerging, but not solidified by this age. For example, while some informants indicated "XV75" would be an appropriate name for "airplane, new and improved robot, car, a secret submarine, tank, a code word, VCR," and that such products are "boy" products; others felt "XV75" would suggest "car motor, car (2 responses), jet, robot (2 responses), computer, B-1 bomber, missle, radio station, explosive, code, license plate," but that these products had no gender distinction, being neither consistently "boy" or "girl" products. It appears that such gender associations, perhaps not surprisingly, may solidify during adolescence. By the time respondents reach college age, the age of the majority of those in our combined samples, gender-based interpretations were definitely forthcoming. It is important to recognize, as well, that American culture changes rapidly and that, despite a mere 10 years' difference in age between our college-level informants and the fourth grade sample, quite different gender stereotypes may be developing.


It has been possible here only to consider briefly the numerous culturally derived connotations and interpretations associated with brand names. Our data indicate that alpha-numeric brand names carry "excess" meaning. A consumer in American society, confronted with an alpha-numeric brand name, is thus likely to receive messages about the product which go beyond the manifest, surface content and evoke underlying cultural constructs related to gender and product type. While we have focused on alpha-numeric brand names, our adjunct data and the studies of numerous other theorists indicate brand names in general carry meanings and evoke interpretations beyond those immediately evident.

Specifically, as the American consumer matures, he or she is exposed to numerous messages which indicate that gender and numbers are related in very specific ways. These messages are derived from past association of certain types of names with certain products, through cultural stereotypes regarding male and female expertise in science and math, or through other learned beliefs and attitudes about gender-based personality structures and behavioral patterns. In any and all of these cases, the gender-based meaning is transferred to various components of the alpha-numeric brand names, resulting in the phenomenon of "excess" or covert cultural meanings attributed to the brand/product.

In order to understand the full impact of culture on consumer behavior, it is appropriate to focus on very specific, context-bound examples. In this paper, we have attempted to provide a brief illustration, elaborated upon elsewhere, of the ways in which culture is manifest in and affects consumer interpretation of brand names. Our analysis points to the complexity of culture and its effects, specifically delineating the patterned and integrated interactions of various cultural components and systems. Thus, in the case presented here, we have illustrated the interwoven nature of product category, cultural expressions of masculinity and femininity, and arbitrarily assigned symbols in the form of alpha-numeric brand names. It is clear that culture influences interpretation and behavior in numerous and varied ways. We conclude that culture as a construct is critical in understanding consumer behavior in general and that culture must be incorporated more fully into analyses by consumer behavior theorists. As meaning is created and shared by members of a society, they encode that meaning in and through various objects, persons and symbols. We have tried to show here that the components of alpha-numeric brand names are culturally encoded in this way.

Through the alpha-numeric brand name case presented, we believe we have shown both the analytical and theoretical importance of utilizing the concept of culture in consumer behavior studies. The way in which alpha-numeric brand names capture cultural themes has managerial implications as well; appropriate branding strategies can be undertaken only when the marketing manager understands the culturally derived meanings of the specific numbers, letters or other symbols utilized in the brand name. Given the cultural basis of the interpretation, the work presented here suggests that a thorough investigation of the covert or "excess" meanings of given characters is particularly important in the context of developing international brand names or brands for diverse ethnic groups, where products are expected to cross cultural boundaries.


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