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"“No Risk, No Innovation?” - The Effects of the Fluency of Brand Names on Consumers’ Responses to Innovations"

Final Report Summary - FLUENTBRAND (“No Risk, No Innovation?” - The Effects of the Fluency of Brand Names on Consumers’ Responses to Innovations)

In today’s marketplace, consumers are confronted with a multitude of brands to choose from. The name of the brand plays a significant role in helping consumers’ decision-making processes. Brand names can be considered the centerpiece of any marketing campaign (Aaker, 2007) and represent a “potential starting point for creating brand personality” (Klink & Athaide, 2012, p. 109). Companies, therefore, need to carefully consider how to name new products and services when introducing them to the market. Extant research has primarily focused on understanding word brand names or semantically meaningful names (e.g. Keller, Heckler, & Houston, 1998; Klink, 2001; Kohli, Harich, & Leuthesser, 2005). However, recent research on sound symbolism has pointed out that there is meaning beyond semantics. Findings suggest that the mere sound of a name can convey meaning (e.g. Klink, 2003; Klink & Athaide, 2012; Klink & Wu, 2014; Lowrey & Shrum, 2007; Yorkston & Menon, 2004).

The research project FLUENTBRAND extends on the notion that there is meaning beyond semantics and aims at systematically investigating the category of non-word brand names, i.e. names that are not in the dictionary and are artificial, entailing no semantic meaning, such as ‘Kodak’ or ‘Tesa’. The research project thereby builds on fluency theory (for a summary, see Alter & Oppenheimer, 2009) and investigates whether and how phonological fluency, i.e. the ease or difficulty with which a non-word brand name is pronounced, affects consumer preferences and memory. Three guiding research questions were addressed in this project:

1) How does the fluency of brand names affect judgments (e.g. about risk) and preferences?
2) How does the fluency of brand names affect memory, i.e. recognition and free recall?
3) How does the fluency of both brand names and logos affect judgments (e.g. about product effectiveness and risk) and preferences?

The research questions were investigated experimentally, enabling the research to investigate a cause-effect-relationship between the ease of pronunciation of non-word brand names and variables that may be affected, including preferences, recognition and recall. From the start of the project, experiments were conducted in the lab and online, with students as participants. The stimuli, 30 different non-word brand names, were created and pretested at the beginning of the project to ensure high quality of the results, i.e. enabling the researchers to exclude any other variables that might explain the effects (e.g. the familiarity of existing and well-known brand names). Additionally, an eye-tracking test was performed, which demonstrated that easy-to-pronounce – and, therefore, fluent names – required less effort from the participants than difficult-to-pronounce names. To test the main hypotheses, a range of experiments was conducted, including tests for preferences for, recognition and free recall of differently composed brand names (i.e. three groups of more or less easy-to-pronounce brand names). Whereas the focal point was on brand names alone throughout the majority of tests, another factor and its interplay with the name are currently under investigation: the brand logo. Although the project has been finalized, experiments in order to investigate the interplay of brand name and brand logo are currently being conducted.

In sum, the research project produced results that provide a more complete and fine-grained idea of fluency effects on consumer preferences and memory of non-word brand names. First, we found throughout the studies that easy to pronounce names were preferred. These results generally support existing findings that have demonstrated a superiority of high fluency, that is, the easier a name is to process, the more one likes it. At the same time, the results also suggest this may only be true for products with which consumers associate an everyday, usual use. This project’s findings show that a small increase in difficulty-of-pronunciation increases preferences when applied to brand names for exclusive products, partly supporting work on a preference reversal in different consumption contexts. However, the ‘goodness’ of a brand name is not only defined by whether it is liked or not, but also whether it aids recognition and recall. Not surprisingly, but not yet fully understood, the effect of fluency on recognition changed with product context and when compared to a competing name (e.g. imagine yourself in a supermarket where you have to choose from a wealth of products). Fluency increased correct memory only when fluent non-words were presented without a consumption context, when non-word brand names had to be recognized in comparison to competing names, or when they had to be freely recalled. However, some results, where disfluent stimuli were recognized equally well, give reason to assume that a superiority of fluency is not always given in a brand name context. Furthermore, we included moderately fluent items, since to many brand managers, these kinds of names might present the middle way in fulfilling the requirements of a good brand name (i.e. easy-to-say but distinct enough to be recognized). However, our studies show that particularly this sub-category is prone to nuisances and at disadvantage when it comes to recognition and recall – although they displayed higher liking under some conditions. Particularly in a context, where consumers are presented with many competing brands to choose from (e.g. at the point-of-sale), a brand name displaying moderate fluency might lose out against more fluent names.

Since non-word brand names offer several advantages, such as being more flexible when positioning a brand, being easier to legally protect, or bearing less risks when introducing them globally, these findings have several societal implications. First of all, established companies as well as start-ups are in need to find brand names that attract consumers’ attention. They need to stand out from the wealth of products, and, at the same time, need to cater a globalized world. Non-word brand names might offer a promising path to create names that are distinct and can be protected globally. However, managers have to consider that the level of pronunciation ease or difficulty has to match the product context regarding the product that is sold (e.g. a luxurious or technological product versus a commodity) and the level of involvement consumers have with the product in a certain situation (e.g. shopping in the supermarket versus seeking information in the course of buying a technological product). Second, this research also informs consumers about their own behavior. On a more general level, consumers might come up with (false) judgments because some product information is easier to process than other. More specifically, some brand names may feel familiar although they are not in reality and might elicit trust where consumers should be more critical.