What’s in a Name? Lots!


Dale Carnegie once said, “Remember that a man’s name is to him the sweetest and most important sound in the English language.” It’s a good bet that even Carnegie would be surprised at how true that statement is, even at the unconscious level.

Let’s start with a quick experiment. Take the first letter of your first name. Now, do you like that letter? While you might say it’s just a letter and you don’t like or dislike it, research across many cultures has shown that people like their initial letters better than other letters. This preference can be overt, but it also has some strange and unexpected effects on our behavior. In Weird News: Names Affect Outcomes, I wrote about students whose names began with “A” and “B” getting better grades (and being more likely to attend an elite law school) than those whose names began with “C” and “D.” The weirdness doesn’t stop there. Other research shows that people are more likely to live in cities which resemble their names, and choose careers which do the same.

The concept is called “implicit egotism.” SUNYAB researchers put it succinctly:

Because most people possess positive associations about themselves, most people prefer things that are
connected to the self
(e.g., the letters in one’s name)…

Ten studies assessed the role of implicit egotism in 2 major life decisions: where people choose to live and what people choose to do for a living. Studies 1–5 showed that people are disproportionately likely to live in places whose names resemble their own first or last names (e.g., people named Louis are disproportionately likely to live in St. Louis). Study 6 extended this finding to birthday number preferences. People were disproportionately likely to live in cities whose names began with their birthday numbers (e.g., Two Harbors, MN). Studies 7–10 suggested that people disproportionately choose careers whose labels resemble their names (e.g., people named Dennis or Denise are overrepresented among dentists). Implicit egotism appears to influence major life decisions. This idea stands in sharp contrast to many models of rational choice and attests to the importance of understanding implicit beliefs. [Emphasis added. From Why Susie Sells Seashells by the Seashore: Implicit Egotism and Major Life Decisions by Brett W. Pelham, Matthew C. Mirenberg, and John T. Jones of the State University of New York at Buffalo]

Other research has shown related effects, including the “ownership effect,” a preference for an item that one owns to one that belongs to someone else.

This research is weirdly fascinating – I’m sure lawyers named Lawrence would argue that their name had absolutely nothing to do with their career choice. But what can marketers do with this information?

Beyond Simple Personalization

Direct marketers know that personalized mailers or emails almost always outperform generic versions. But how do they build on these findings to further enhance their offerings? Here are a few thoughts:

List Segmentation. Direct marketers still mail catalogs and other marketing pitches, despite the ever-increasing cost of doing so. Mailing lists can be rented and enhanced. For example, a mailer might take a large list of magazine subscribers and try to improve the response rate by mailing only to those in specific zip codes which had in the past had been shown to respond well. Thus, a list that might have been unprofitable to mail to can now produce a positive return. (List enhancement gets a lot more sophisticated than that.) But, I wonder if Harry and David ever tested how their gift catalog performed when mailed to people named Harry, Harriet, David, Davey, and other variations? The research would predict a better response for those names than names like Sam, Zeke, or Susan. Similarly, Frontgate might see a small improvement when mailing to people named Frank Smith or Susan Fremont.

Enhanced Personalization. We know that personalization works, but what if a marketing pitch personalized some other elements. For example, a database of customer testimonials could be developed, and a testimonial selected that matched the initial or name of the prospect. Would I respond better to a marketing piece that featured a satisfied customer named “Roger Jones” vs. one that used “Miranda Smith?” I’d like to think not, but the research shows I probably would. Similarly, a featured product might be chosen based on the name of the prospect. A gift catalog might put a Cuisinart product on pitches to prospects whose names started with “C,” and a Kitchenaid item to those whose names began with “K.”

Birthday Fun. If people are attracted by their own birthday numbers, what if one incorporated a seemingly random but prominent number on a mailing? Perhaps an address on an illustration? If you knew the prospect’s birthday was December 14, the number could be “1214.” Building this in subtly but visibly would be a challenge, but could be done.

These are, of course, weak effects. In many cases, employing an “implicit egotism” strategy would likely not be effective enough to justify its cost. Still, marketers could test the concept, or even look at past sales data. Direct marketers in particular are great at data analysis, and it wouldn’t be difficult for a sophisticated marketer to see if people named “Harry” outperformed those with other names in their last big mailing.

What are YOUR creative ideas for a name-based marketing strategy?

  1. David Clay says

    That’s really interesting Roger.
    Hmmm…some ideas, could we do something related to a cellphone number or Social Security number? These numbers basically represent us these days(a cellphone number, even more so, than most of us think).
    I will say though that this process will not work in e-mail, with the spam filters we have in place these days. I know I personally have received junk mail that’s similar to in name to my email accounts that I simply delete and think nothing of.

  2. Roger Dooley says

    Interesting idea, David. I guess it would depend on how much you feel you “own” those numbers. If you’ve had the same cell number for many years, it might work. I’d be a bit creeped out if I spotted part of my SS# in a marketing piece, though.


  3. Linda Jackson says

    I wonder Roger, if for names, it isn’t so much a preference as it is an awareness. We are more aware of the first letters of our names, so they grab our attention when we see them in other places and contexts.

    I fully agree with the birthday concept – my lucky number is definitely my birthday. It must be or I wouldn’t select it every time I play Powerball.

  4. Gabriele Maidecchi says

    That’s a pretty surprising finding. I knew Carnegie’s quote already but these “applications” of it are very interesting. Probably, as you mention, they aren’t really worth the cost, yet, but with the socialization of every business going on all around us, it might soon become very cost-effective and common practice.
    Actually, thinking about a colossus like Facebook using all its data do leverage on this theory makes me shiver a bit inside.

  5. Brendon B Clark says

    Hi Roger

    Thanks for this. I’m involved with a magazine, which is customised around a particular life event, and then fully personalised front to back. Where we have a letterbox image, we use your number, our advertisers use your name in their ads and content, we use suburb, street, town, region and images as a way of making it feel like a local publication.

    Feedback is excellent, and once people have seen their name on the cover, they report that they read the content more closely looking for themselves elsewhere, including in the ads!


  6. Uri Simonsohn says

    Only problem is that the results are spurious.

    See following paper, forthcoming in the same psychology journal publishing the original studies.


    1. Roger Dooley says

      Interesting analysis, Uri. So, in your opinion, would a marketing pitch that used a name similar to your be no more effective than one using any other name? Or might it work better, but for reasons other than implicit egotism?

      Thanks very much for stopping by and sharing your research, Uri!


  7. C. Lozano says

    Are you saying that because my name is Carmel and I live in the Carmel Mountain area of San Diego near Carmel Valley, Mt. Carmel High School and Carmel Drive – that this is somehow more than coincidence?

  8. Roger Dooley says

    There was probably something about that area that appealed to you, CL!


  9. Владимир says

    Fiction or another article for the yellow press. Research concocted from the air. More reminiscent of the film “number 23” where there is a fine-tuning of facts for theory

  10. Владимир says

    how can people take such statements seriously? How do such conclusions generally differ from fortune-telling on coffee grounds or predictions by the zodiac sign?

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