The Last Name Effect: Why Zimmerman is Impatient

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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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8 Comments

  1. Rasmus Sørensen
    Twitter: rumbas
    says

    Wow, that’s amazing! If you just would state that people with last names with letters in the ending of the alphabet would be quicker to push the buy button, I would have thought you where crazy Roger, but reading about the study, I’m stunned.

    However it actually makes sense to me as my sir name also starts in the low end and in school I was usually at the end of the line. I’m also pretty quick to push the button if an offer arise.

    Interesting stuff. Thanks 🙂

  2. Gabor Wolf says

    There’s been an interesting and similar study I found in “The Survivors Club” (by Ben Sherwood). University of California prof Nicholas Sherwood analyzed the effect of your initials on your fate, and found that if your initials spell out a positive word, eg ACE, GOD, VIP, it can add 4 years to your life expectancy – while if your initials spell out a negative word APE, ASS, DIE, RAT etc – it can subtract as much as 3 years from you life expectancy.

    This proves that the letters in your name play a significant psychological role that should not be ignored in marketing.

    Very, very interesting stuff!

    1. Roger Dooley
      Twitter: rogerdooley
      says

      Wasn’t aware of that study at the time, but we avoided “A” in choosing a middle name for our son – would have spelled “BAD.” Good thing, apparently.

      Roger

  3. Paul R. Syms says

    Interesting, but not astonishing: there are many other effects like this. Politicians and military commanders, for example, are more likely to have names in the first half of the alphabet (about 2/3 do) compared with the population as a whole (almost exactly 50% in the UK). Presidents and prime ministers are even more likely to begin with early letters – e.g. Ahern, Ashdown, Blair, Bush (x2), Campbell, Carter, Cameron, Clegg, Clinton (x2), Duncan-Smith – Obama’s election was the first of about ten for party leaders in the last decade that I failed to predict alphabetically. (I’d put my money on Hilary Clinton.) Conversely, about 2/3 of male scientists come from the back half of the alphabet.

    There’s also a theory that women try to marry up the alphabet, and looking at my Christmas list (as a random sample) this was the case for 16/23, so again, about 2/3. I suspect the result is a lot of unmarried scientists with names like Smith and Williams, and a lot of unmarried women with names like Allen and Baker …

    Paul Syms, scientist. (Not that a sample of one is significant …)

  4. MainSpring Video says

    Early conditioning and early-life experiences – as in, being picked last in school due to your name starting with Z – can stick with you and unconsciously influence lifelong behavior, if not made conscious. So yeah, this makes sense to a point. I do wonder how many people were involved in these studies. No doubt, words and names are very powerful.

  5. Trollhare says

    Very interesting. I wonder specifically how that could affect people whose names are spelled differently in different cultures? In Swedish, there are three more letters after Z in the alphabet (å, ä and ö) and a number of people have last names beginning with those letters, especially å and ö, and that’s at the very end of the alphabetö. But when they come to an English-speaking culture, their names are interpreted as beginning with a or o….

    1. Roger Dooley
      Twitter: rogerdooley
      says

      Interesting point, Trollhare. I would suppose that it is the repeated childhood exposure that makes a difference, and being transplanted later might not be too important. If it happens early enough, no doubt the different approaches might cancel each other out. Just guessing, though.

      Roger

  6. Kristi says

    Name anagrams are very interesting and that makes sense about the negative connotation of initials. My married last name, Colvin, has “oil” in it which is what my husband does for a living, and even what my father did when I was growing up so I have always been impacted by the oil industry. In fact when I went into business as a designer I had several oil companies as clients (I did not have this last name then however.) There are all sorts of influences in the full or partial combinations of your names (first/middle/last). Google an anagram site or just handwrite your name out and see what is in there and how it pertains to your life.

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