Brand Names and Consumer Inference: the Effect of Adding a Numeric Component to a Brand Name

Teresa Pavia, University of Utah
[ to cite ]:
Teresa Pavia (1994) ,"Brand Names and Consumer Inference: the Effect of Adding a Numeric Component to a Brand Name", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, eds. Chris T. Allen and Deborah Roedder John, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 195-200.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, 1994      Pages 195-200

BRAND NAMES AND CONSUMER INFERENCE: THE EFFECT OF ADDING A NUMERIC COMPONENT TO A BRAND NAME

Teresa Pavia, University of Utah

Although approximately 10,000 of the 1.35 million Federally Registered trademarks are comprised in part or in whole of a number, the role of numbers in brand names is poorly understood. The different ways manufacturers use numbers in a brand name to communicate explicitly with consumers are discussed. However, in many instances the precise meaning of a number may be opaque to consumers. The effect of a non-explicit, numeric component on consumer inferences is explored with a survey which presented respondents with either a unknown brand with a numeric component or the same unknown brand without a numeric component and asked the respondent to associate a product with the name. The data suggest the addition of a numeric component to a brand name increases the number of technical product associations that consumers make with the name. It appears it may do so by increasing the number of associations made to a particular product (e.g., computers) rather than by significantly increasing the range of product that were evoked.

Firms spend a considerable amount of time and energy developing and protecting their brand names. Consumers rely on brand names to identify products and, in settings where it is difficult to evaluate the intrinsic attributes of a product, may rely on extrinsic attributes such as the brand name for pre-purchase product evaluation (Mazursky and Jacoby 1986).

Research has been conducted on inferential notions drawn from brand names (Chisnall 1974; Peterson and Ross 1972), attitudes towards products attributable to the brand name (Heath, Chatterjee and France 1990; Pavia and Costa 1991; Zinkhan and Martin 1987), and the perceived personalities of various brand names (Alt and Griggs 1988). One branding issue that has received less attention is the use of numbers in the formation of a brand name. A brand name that contains one or more numbers in either written form (e.g., Ten) or digit form (e.g., 10) is referred to as an alpha-numeric brand name. Alpha-numeric brand names may be composed of numbers alone (e.g., 7-Eleven), words and a number (e.g., Hang Ten or Chanel No. 5), letters and numbers (e.g., K2r or A Two Z), or a combination of words, letters and numbers (Formula 44-D). This definition of alpha-numeric brand names includes non-numeric contexts for numerals as well as brand names with explicit numeric meaning.

The role of numbers in brand names is a topical issue for several reasons. First, as of December 1991 there were 1.35 million Federally Registered Trademarks (FRT). Of these, approximately 10,000 are composed in part of a number (see the discussion of FRT and Table 1 for more detail). Second, a review of FRT over the past two years shows the number of such marks is increasing. Third, if the manufacturer intends number in the name to describe some product feature to the consumer it is important to understand if consumers interpret the number as intended. And fourth, if the number does not describe a product feature, but is used symbolically, what sorts of inferences do consumers draw from the number and is the symbolic meaning shared between consumer and manufacturer?

The goal of this paper is twofold. It will provide a taxonomy of explicit uses of numbers in brand names. However, many names were unclassifiable since the number has no apparent meaning. The associations that consumers make in the case of non-explicit numeric meaning were explored with a survey. This survey differed from almost all existing research in this area (the exception is Chisnall 1974) in that it allowed the consumer to identify products that go with various brand names rather than rating the brand name with a preselected product. The survey and its subsequent discussion address the different patterns of associations evoked by the addition of a numeric component to a non-numeric brand name and identify questions remaining in this area.

THE "EXCESS" MEANING OF NUMBERS

Outside of the context of branding, researchers have considered the latent or "excess" meaning that people associate with different numbers. Battig and Spera (1962) and Cochran and Wickens (1963) investigated how many free associations subjects could make with the numbers between zero and one hundred. Not surprisingly, 100, 0, 1, 2, and 13 elicited significantly more associations than did other numbers. Knapp and Chen (1964) restricted their investigation to the numbers between one and nine. They found significant correlation of adjectives such as feminine, smooth and powerful with specific digits. Additional support for the deep cultural associations evoked by numbers is found in Menninger (1977) who provided an extensive exploration of number meaning, with special emphasis on how language referring to numbers reflects, and is driven by, the meaning of the number. More recently Schimmel (1993) discussed the history and meaning of various numbers within and across cultures.

Hull (1975) reported that random codes constructed of both numbers and letters were recalled with greater accuracy than codes composed exclusively of random letters. These findings may be related to the cognitive processing of brands. Meyers-Levy (1989) reported that brands formed of words with a high number of associations tend to elicit nondistinctive processing and are somewhat less memorable. This effect was attributed to competing associations triggered during brand name retrieval. Hulls' work suggests the recall of a brand composed in part of a number with a lot of associations may not be predictable.

A PRODUCT BY ANY OTHER NAME

Many studies have shown that, in the absence of other information, consumers may draw inferences about product features or uses from the brand name (Heath Chatterjee and France 1990; Leclerc, Schmitt and Dube-Rioux 1989; Pavia and Costa 1991; Zeithaml 1988; Zinkhan and Martin 1981). For example, new products with brand names judged to be more typical of the product category, such as Polar Bear for ice cream, appear to elicit more favorable attitudes than do new products with atypical names (Zinkhan and Martin 1987).

At a more basic level, researchers have investigated why certain brand names are judged "typical" of a particular product category even though the name itself may not be a word in the consumer's lexicon (Chisnall 1974; Dogana 1967; Peterson and Ross 1972; Sapir 1929). As part of a discussion of the application of these studies to marketing Collins (1977) concluded that "names - even newly invented ones - are never, or rarely, neutral labels" (pg 358). He goes on to suggest that names be selected to "convey the intended 'feeling tone' to the consumer, and so elicit a consumer response in line with the marketing objectives of the brand" (pg. 361).

If brand names are not neutral labels, one may ask what message a particular name is sending to consumers and whether this is an accurate representation of the product. Although alpha-numeric brand names are given high ratings for "going with" preselected chemical, technical or formulated products (Pavia and Costa 1993), the question of what products consumers are inclined to associate with an alpha-numeric name when left to their own devices remains open. If a consumer's "natural" association with a particular name is wildly variant from the association a manufacturer wishes to establish, it suggests a vigorous and focused marketing campaign may be needed to position the product.

TABLE 1

REGISTERED TRADEMARKS THAT CONTAIN AT LEAST ONE DIGIT IN WHICH "*" DENOTES ANY CHARACTER STRING

This paper will proceed as follows: first, the actual appearance of numbers in existing trademarks will be examined by looking at Federally Registered Trademarks with the intent to identifying the obvious roles that the numbers play. The discussion will then turn to symbolic roles for numeric components of brand names. Finally, the results of a survey designed to capture the product associations evoked by the addition of a number to a non-numeric, nonsense brand are reported and discussed.

A Review of Federally Registered Alpha-Numeric Trademarks

Table 1 presents the findings from a search of the Registered Federal Trademarks as of December 1991 for all trademarks comprised in part, or in whole, of a digit (this database excludes trademarks registered at only the state level). Table 1 uses standard computer search notation and shows a "*" to indicate "any character string." That is, *1 means a name in which the digit "1" is preceded by any character string, but is not followed by any additional characters. So, *1 includes the names "CENTURY 21," but not the trademark "PRODUCT 19." The names identified by 1* are composed in part of a 1 followed by any character string; these include " PRODUCT 19" and "8 1/2," but not the trademark "501." Names with more than one digit are double counted; however, over 4600 of the trademarks consist of numbers that are single digits suggesting the number of unique marks is about 10,000.

A review of all of the trademarks containing the single digit 2, or the written word two, was conducted to evaluate the roles that numbers play in a brand name. Seven overlapping roles were identified: an explicit indicator of numeric meaning, an indicator of line extension, an indicator of a sequence of products, a homophone, a part of common speech, an indicator of time or place, and a symbolic rather than literal marker.

The most obvious use for a number in a brand name is for the manufacturer to reinforce a numerically measurable product feature. For examples, consumers may use the brands EYE-PRO 2 HR. GUARANTEE (vision care), and TWO FEET TALL (children's clothing), to understand something about the product, the intended user, or the usage situation. Another common use of a number is to communicate to the consumer that the product is a line extension such as CLOROX 2 (all fabric bleach). Numbers can also be used to indicate the placement of a product within a product line or to indicate product evolution, for example MERCEDES 240SL (automobile).

A homophonic (spelled differently than another word but sounding the same) digit may be used not for its numeric content, but for its aural contribution, although other features may also be relevant. Use of a digit as a homophone may be intended to increase interest, novelty, or recall as in I.C.U.2 (fleecewear), 2-CUTE (girl's clothing), 2-X-S (apparel), and TWO-RIFIC (pizzas).

Sometimes numbers seem to appear in a name simply because they are part of commonly used English phrases or culturally ingrained notions. For example, it is possible that the numeric content of KNIT ONE PURL TWO (sweaters) is less important than the fact that the trademark as a whole is closely associated with knitting. Similarly, when the number indicates time or place, as in 2:7 (religious books), the number appears to be a form of jointly understood shorthand between the producer and the consumer.

In many instances, however, the precise meaning of a number may be opaque to consumers. This may occur when the consumer does not understand the meaning that the manufacturer ascribed to the numeric part of the brand name (e.g., Boeing 747), or it may occur because the numeric part of the brand name was selected to convey a symbolic rather than a literal meaning. To some extent the meaning of the number is irrelevant if the meaning the the producer was trying to convey with the brand name is understood. This leads to the question of what consumers infer from a number in a brand name.

To avoid promotional effects for existing products, the following research presented respondents with either a unknown brand with a numeric component or the same unknown brand without a numeric component and asked the respondent to associate a product with the name. By using an open ended format the survey provided an opportunity to look in detail at the type of associations that were made. It also provided an opportunity to reaffirm existing findings which suggest:

H1: The presence of a numeric component in a brand name will increase the number of technical, formulated or chemical associations that are made with the name.

METHODS

Respondents were presented with two hypothetical brand names and asked to provide, in an open-ended format, "the product that you think would go best with this made up brand name." Half of the respondents were presented with the two brand names Alustar and Dehax 3000; the other half were presented with the names Dehax and Alustar 4000. This design was selected to provide a contrast between the sorts of products that may be associated with a non-numeric brand name and the same name augmented with a relatively large numeric component. Existing studies suggest that alpha-numeric brand names are accepted for technical, chemical or formulated products (Pavia and Costa 1993), the name Dehax is accepted as a brand name for a laundry detergent (Peterson and Ross 1972), and the name Alustar is accepted as a name for aluminum foil (Chisnall 1974). However, by using an open ended format this study allowed the respondents to identify the product out of all possible products that they felt was most appropriate for this brand name rather than simply rating a the acceptability of a given name for one preselected product.

This study used two different forms of stimuli: a random sample of adults in a populous western county were contacted by mail and exposed to the name in writing, while another sample was contacted by phone and exposed to the name aurally. The telephone portion of the survey was conducted by an independent research organization in which the interviewers were trained for consistent pronunciation of the brand names. The response rate was higher for the telephone portion of the survey, 92%, than it was for the mail portion, 43%. The verbatim open-ended responses from the mail and phone survey were pooled, coded, and like responses were grouped together. The criteria for grouping the answers were to identify 1) groups which permitted unambiguous assignment of responses and 2) groups which would contain no less than 10% of the associations within at least one brand. The assignment to the a posteriori groups was performed independently by the author and a trained student auditor. Disagreements were resolved by discussion; there were disagreements on fewer than one percent of the responses. The response groups and the number of responses for each brand may be seen in Table 2.

A group of 43 MBA students unassociated with this research ranked the randomly presented categories as described in Table 2 by level of "technicality." The meaning of "technicality" was left purposefully vague, to allow for the variety of meanings covered in the statement that alpha-numeric brand names are associated with "technical" goods. The presentation of the eight categories in Table 2 appears in the order of least to most technical as rated by this group. With a ranking of 1 indicating the most technical product and a ranking of 8 the least technical, the average rankings were medication 2.2, electronics 2.3, vehicle related 3.2, agriculture 3.4, cleaner/ polish 5.1, personal products 6.1, entertainment/etc. 6.6, and foods 7.0. Although this ranking does not indicate how technical a group is, it provides some indication of the the relative technicality of the groups.

RESULTS

Based on the survey reported above, the first three categories in Table 2 were classified as less technical items from a consumer perspective. Medications, electronics, vehicles or pest control products were clustered together and seen as relatively technical goods. The classification of cleaners is not as obvious. Neither is it clustered with the first four groups, nor is it clustered with personal products, entertainment/clothes/etc. or food. Cleaners will therefore be treated as a somewhat special case.

If cleaners are considered technical products, when the free associations that were evoked by Alustar are compared to those evoked by Alustar 4000 (recall that these names were presented to different respondents), the associations made with Alustar 4000 were more likely to be in technical categories. The increase of technical associations from 74 out of 131 (56%), to 109 out of 130 (84%) is significant at p <0.01. In the case of Dehax and Dehax 3000, the technical associations increased from 97 out of 117 (83%) to 131 out of 141 (93%) which is significant at p<0.025.

If cleaners are considered an ambigious category and are dropped from the analysis, the effect of adding a numeric component to Alustar still leads to a significant increase in technical associations (from 42% to 67% p<.01). The effect on Dehax is significant at p<.03 (from 73% to 88%).

Hypothesis 1 appears to be supported by the data. The net effect of the inclusion of 4000 with the brand Alustar was to move associations away from the less technical food, clothing or personal products and into more technical areas; the inclusion of 3000 with the brand name Dehax decreased the already low numbers of associations with food, clothing and personal products.

Beyond the simple assessment of technical vs. non-technical, these data permit an evaluation of how the flavor, or the nature, of the responses within a category changes with the addition of a numeric component to the name. Table 3 presents the verbatim data to see if the types of associations within a category were different when a number was included in the brand name. The following analysis looks at electronics and vehicles since the net effect of including a number in the brand name was an increase in these categories for both brands.

As Table 3 demonstrates, in the category of electronics the effect of adding the number 4000 to the name Alustar was to increase the number of associations with computers, industrial goods, home electronics and home appliances. With the exception of the industrial carpet cleaner and the satellite equipment, all of these items were mentioned at least once for the name Alustar alone. The net effect of adding 3000 to the brand name Dehax in the category of electronics was similar: the number of computer and home sight/sound systems increased, but no new categories were evoked. In the category of vehicles/vehicle related items, the inclusion of a number in the brand name increased the number of car associations, but did not have any overall effect of changing the sorts of associations that were made. In short, at least within these categories, the net effect of adding a number to a name appears to increase the number of technical associations. It appears to do so by increasing the number of associations made to a particular product rather than by significantly increasing the range of product that were evoked.

TABLE 2

OPEN ENDED RESPONSES FOR EACH BRAND IN THE GIVEN CATEGORY

DISCUSSION

Alpha-numeric brand names are an important branding option and are currently used by many different firms. There is a considerable number of alpha-numeric brand names currently in use and the understanding that consumers have based on the use of numbers in brand names is just beginning to be understood. The review of the Federally Registered Trademarks suggests that numbers may play a variety of explicit, descriptive roles. For example, numbers may describe the numericity of something in the product (e.g., Product 19 uses 19 to describe the number of different nutrients provided by the cereal). However, when the meaning of the number is not immediately apparent to the consumer, the question of what the consumer thinks the number suggests is open.

The data presented here suggest that when the product feature referred to by the numeric component of the brand name is not readily accessible, consumers are inclined to associate the name with technical goods. This is consistent with other studies, but has provided supporting evidence using a different methodology. The approach of asking for free associations was useful in evaluating the types of associations that were evoked. These data suggest that while the number of associations with technical goods increases when a numeric component is added to the brand name, the types of associations did not change in a readily detectable manner.

One implication of this research for consumer research is that the inclusion of a numeric component in a brand name is an option open to managers, but is not an option without repercussions. This fact appears to be of some concern to manufacturers using alpha-numeric brand names in both explicit and implicit settings. For example, although Product 19 is using the number 19 in a fairly explicit manner, the strong cultural association of numbers with science and technicality, and perhaps practicality over pleasure, led Kellogg's to devote the entire back of the the Product 19 box at one point to the following discussion. "Okay, so we didn't give it the most appetizing name in the world. But you didn't let that fool you. You know these flakes have a terrific taste ... Think of it as your reward for looking past our name."

TABLE 3

OPEN ENDED RESPONSES FOR ELECTRONICS AND VEHICLE RELATED CATEGORIES

With regard to the work of Hull (1975) and Meyers-Levy (1989) cited above, the findings here are insufficient to speak to the advantages or disadvantages of alpha-numeric brand names with respect to recall. However, it is interesting to note that in both pairs, respondents were more likely to leave the non-numeric brand name question blank than the alpha-numeric brand name. That is, respondents appeared more likely to associate a product with an unknown alpha-numeric brand name; of the 141 respondents presented with Alustar and Dehax 3000 the responses were 131 and 141, respectively and for Dehax and Alustar 4000 they were 117 and 130, respectively.

At the policy level an additional concern may be that the symbolism and shared cultural meaning of numbers provides an avenue for misrepresentation of one's product. If a number is widely believed to indicate technology, a newer version, an improvement, a longer lasting product, or more power, the brand name may mislead the consumer. It may be difficult to prosecute a producer for a brand name that leads to inappropriate consumer inference if the inference itself is never alluded to in any promotional material. However, it is possible given this and other studies that, even in the absence of a promotional scheme, a consistent strong misconception may be resident in the population based on the brand name alone.

Prior research has demonstrated that consumer may accept certain names with certain types of products. This research extended this work and demonstrated that certain names, particularly those with numeric components, evoke consistent images in consumer's minds. If the product is a technical good it is likely that the images evoked by the brand name will "convey the intended 'feeling tone' to the consumer" (Collins 1977). If the product is not a technical good, a manufacturer should proceed with caution.

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