Last Name Effect

WARNING: If your last name starts with a letter from R to Z, you may be more susceptible to urgent-sounding sales pitches.

As a direct marketer, I tried all manners of segmenting my mailing lists. Some of the best ways to slice and dice names were buying behavior – recency of last order, number of orders, order size, and so on. Demographics were useful, too – zip code, gender, affluence, etc. One thing I NEVER tested, though, was the letter of the alphabet at the beginning of the customer’s name. It turns out I probably should have – new research shows that people whose names begin with letters late in the alphabet are more responsive to immediate calls to action.

Kurt A. Carlson, of Georgetown McDonough School of Business, and Jacqueline M. Conard, Belmont University Massey Graduate School of Business, performed a series of experiments to look at the effect of surname initials:

In addition to deciding whether to buy an item, consumers can often decide when they buy an item. This article links the speed with which adults acquire items to the first letter of their childhood surname. We find that the later in the alphabet the first letter of one’s childhood surname is, the faster the person acquires items as an adult. We dub this the last name effect, and we propose that it stems from childhood ordering structures that put children with different names in different positions in lines. For example, since those late in the alphabet are typically at the end of lines, they compensate by responding quickly to acquisition opportunities. In addition to responding quicker, we find that those with late alphabet names are more likely to acquire an item when response time is restricted and they find limited time offers more appealing than their early alphabet counterparts. [Emphasis added. From Journal of Consumer Research – The Last Name Effect: How Last Name Influences Acquisition Timing.]

Apparently, a lifetime of being last in line (and getting the least-desirable slice of pizza or piece of cake) conditions these late-alphabet people to act quickly when they have the opportunity. While I wouldn’t expect the last name effect to overwhelm all other factors involved in a purchase decision, marketers should be aware that individuals whose names begin with a letter late in the alphabet (R to Z, according to the authors) may be a bit more impatient. They will be a little more likely to respond to a time sensitive offer, or perhaps one involving scarcity.

This isn’t a small group to target – some of the most common US surnames are from the end of the alphabet – Williams, Wilson, Taylor, Thomas, and White, to name a few. As with all other applications of general research, marketers need to test this theory to see if it works in their specific environment.

And, of course, if YOUR name falls into the late-in-the-alphabet category, you may want to be aware of your possible susceptibility to time-sensitive pitches. Think twice before you drop that item flagged as “only one left in stock” into your online shopping cart.

Name-Changers

One caution: I’d guess that someone whose surname was acquired later in life, like a woman born an Adams but who became a Wilson via marriage, would not exhibit the same behavior. She wouldn’t have had the lifetime of conditioning that comes from always being last. In the U.S., since it’s common for women to adopt their husband’s name after marriage, a marketer targeting married women might find this strategy ineffective.

Other Weird Name Effects

Name effects have been a staple here at Neuromarketing, like the finding that students whose names begin with A or B get better grades than those starting with C or D, or that baseball players with “K” names strike out more (see Weird News: Names Affect Outcomes). We also know that due to implicit egotism, people respond more positively to names like their own; in What’s in a Name? Lots!, I suggested that gift cataloger Harry & David might see a higher response rate from people named Harry or David. Even cow names matter.

For an excellent discussion of the recent research findings as well as other last name effects (did you know professors early in the alphabet are more likely to get tenure?), read Tyranny of the Alphabet by Slate’s Timothy Noah (via @KevinBrandall).

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