This seems too odd to be true, but researchers at Yale and UCSD have found statistically significant differences in outcomes for individuals with names that start with different letters. Students whose names start with A or B earn higher grades than those with C or D names. Baseball players whose names start with K strike out slightly more often than the rest of the player population (a strikeout is marked as a “K”). Is this effect real? And should marketers care?

Is the name effect real? Newsweek reports that Leif Nelson of the University of California, San Diego, and Joseph Simmons of Yale University will publish their findings next month in the journal Psychological Science.

Using 15 years (1990-2004) of grade point averages for business school grads, they found that students whose names began with C or D earned lower GPAs than those whose names began with A or B. The Carters and Dorns performed worse than average (based on students with grade-neutral initials such as M and N); the Ashes and Bakers didn’t do significantly better than the norm…

The eerie coincidences also held for law schools. Scrutinizing data on 170 law schools and 392,458 lawyers, the researchers found that the higher the school’s ranking (by U.S. News & World Report), the higher the proportion of lawyers with the initials A or B. Adlai and Bill are more likely to go to Stanford than Chester and Dwight. [From A, My Name is Alice: Moniker Madness by Sharon Begley.]

Is this subtle effect real? Or is it one of those odd correllations with no actual cause and effect, like the old “stocks will go up when dresses get shorter” maxim? It looks real, and the authors suggest that the explanation is everyone’s natural affinity for their on name, but it will be interesting to see commentary once the paper is published.

Should marketers care? I don’t think the neuromarketing implications are huge, even if the effect does exist. Should Microsoft change the name of its Zune music player so that it would appeal to people other than Zeke and Zelda? I doubt it. These effects, even if real, are subtle, and the overall impact of the initial will no doubt be greatly outweighed by the product, its price, its brand positioning, etc. A distinctive name is more important than a tiny initial impact. After all, there aren’t many Isabels or Iggies, but the iPod has sold millions of units.

Direct marketers could experiment with this quite easily if they are set up for personalization, selective binding, etc. “R” names could get a catalog with a headline starting with R and perhaps an R product on the cover. Even here, though, I don’t predict success. I think real personalization - using the customer’s first or last name, and perhaps showing a product based on past buying preferences – would be many times as powerful.

Still, this “initial effect” is an interesting find, and it may help show the importance of using the customer’s name in the sales and marketing process.

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