The Power of Positive Names


Carrot Cake, er, Muffins

Most of us don’t give much thought to what we call our product, at least in terms of category. Toothpaste is toothpaste. Cars are cars. Perhaps it’s time that other businesses learn what many restaurants already know: what you call a product affects its appeal and sales. In particular, unhealthy dishes that consumers might avoid can be made more appealing. Potato chips can be relabeled as “veggie chips,” while a pasta/vegetable combination will appear more healthy if it is called a “salad.” My personal favorite is the re-branding of “cake” as a “muffin.” None of us would order carrot cake for breakfast, but what about a nice carrot muffin? It sounds like health food, even with the layer of cream cheese frosting!

A study that will appear later this year in the Journal of Consumer Research shows that individuals who are dieting or trying to eat healthy foods have learned to avoid some foods by name. So, they will skip a milkshake, but might still order a healthier-sounding “smoothie.”

In fact, the researchers found that the same dish containing vegetables, pasta, meat, and cheese was rated as healthier when it was called a salad instead of “pasta.” Another test showed that subjects ate more “fruit chews” than “candy chews,” even though the product was the same.

Beyond Food

I’m sure that every industry has some examples of transformative naming. “Liquid soap” was around for years before “shower gel” transformed how we bathe. In some cases, like the food examples, the name is a means to shed a negative image for a product that people enjoy. Potato chips taste great, but are loaded with carbs and fat. Veggie chips taste great, have plenty of carbs and fat, but sound so much more virtuous! (In each case, product and package adjustments accompanied the renaming.)

If your sales are stalled, it may be time to think outside the box – that is, your product’s current box! If your product has any negative connotations, or even some aspect of it, like an ingredient, is problematic, renaming (and changing it a little) could be part of the solution to increasing sales. It may be difficult – if you are in the candy business, your first thought isn’t to label a product as something other than candy, or to reformulate and repackage to make the product less candy-like. Nevertheless, some creative reflection may give you a “new” product that is closer to what your customers are looking for. (It goes without saying that creativity is good, but not so much creativity that you misrepresent the underlying product!)

What examples of creative renaming have YOU encountered?

  1. Claudia Maurer says

    My husband & I work together in the home mortgage/real estate business….ours is an industry that immediately brings to mind foreclosures, unethical people, etc. How do we put a positive label on what use to be a joyous occasion? Not everyone in our business is bad…as in all businesses and life, there are both types..good & bad. We ARE one the good guys! How do we covey that in a positive label to really help people towards homeownership being a joyous occasion again? Thank you for any feedback.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      You could be “home enablers.” 😉 You are in a tough area that likely needs more than a name change. You should back up all your marketing with testimonials, years in business, association memberships, etc. – anything that builds credibility and sets you apart from the fast buck artists. Try working your existing and past clients to find new ones – you’ll be off to a great start with those who come via a personal recommendation. Good luck!


  2. Alain Nonyme says

    ” What examples of creative renaming have YOU encountered? ”

    Labelling regular marketing as “neuromarketing”. For instance, publishing, in the neuromarketing section of a blog, summaries of trivial research, like that study that reveals appealing names are more appealing to consumers than non-appealing names. You know, the oldest trick in the business : the good old tell-them-what-they-want-to-hear- and-they-will-be-more-likely-to-buy-your-stuff trick.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Haha, Alain, good one! The study goes beyond “appealing,” though, by showing how re-categorizing the same product chances its


  3. Katie Weedman says

    Claudia – In addition to incorporating testimonials, I’d try a nostalgic marketing approach that plays off of the idea of the American dream, e.g., apple pie, white picket fences, etc. But make sure to talk the talk AND walk the walk. Promise to cut the mortgage legalese/real estate schtick, and then deliver. When you speak frankly to hardworking folks who take pride in home ownership, you’ll not only remind them of simpler times — you’ll be a breath of fresh air!

  4. Straight Talker says

    Don’t hate the player (Roger), hate the game (capitalism), Alain!

  5. alan donahue says

    trying to find a name for a new social network is challenging since most descriptive names are taken. seemes like random names are now the norm (noodle, yelp, even amazon) , much like musical band names, which would seem to be irrelevant. As a result, selecting a name that would appeal to and attract a general adult target market for social interaction is very difficult.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Alan, finding a trademark name is a bit of a different issue than renaming a category, but can be just as challenging. I’d suggest looking for a nonsense word that is easy to say. This seems to be a common approach (Bebo, Zynga, Gowalla, and countless others). I don’t recall the URL, but a while back I saw a site that was selling pre-branded Web 2.0 domains like that. Finding one that has some subtle implied meaning (e.g., Meritus) would be a plus. Good luck!


  6. Denise says


    I can appreciate your challenge. My comments are beyond the scope of neuromarketing (or at least the article) although can be indirectly related to it.

    My initial thoughts is to clearly communicate not only what your business stands for (ie., values such as integrity) but also what your business is against (eg., lying, deceiving consumers, putting consumers in mortgage packages they truly can’t afford, etc.). In fact I would go as far as saying (assuming it’s true) you are angry/upset/some other label how the big financial institutions brought down the economy and gave a bad name to industry. Or something like that. The key is not to deny what consumers are feeling right now about buying a house or mistrusting who they give their business to. Consumers want to know you understand their pain and frustration.

    Communicating your values won’t be enough though. You will need (in order to regain trust) articulate what practices, behaviors, actions, etc. demonstrate those values. And then walk your talk about what you promise. Show testimonies that speak to those values.

    There was just a great article by Suzie Orman on about current home buying. One of the things she mentioned is that banks pre-qualifying loans was misleading and often buyers, even with prequalifying, cannot really afford that loan amount. She gave a link for a mortgage calculator where consumers can figure out their own loan affordability. A tool like could also be helpful to help consumers become self-educated about what they can buy.

    Given what happened in the industry, I would stick to the “truth” and say in your case a reframing of what you do may backfire. I think there is a place for that but not given the mistrust in your industry.


  7. alan donahue says

    I would generally agree, but my company is a bit different than social networks where the main objective is to make $$. We are building niche social networks for celebrities to raise / increase donations to their charitable causes (which are all good). We propose that 80% of all revenue generated via user events and purchases are donated to the celebrity foundation.
    Secondly, if/when the economy changes, the negative aspect or the implications of the name appeal is not relevant anymore. I want a happy name.
    Unfortuneatley they are all taken as far as I can tell. If you can find one let me know!!@!

  8. andrew says

    I spent some time working on magazines and websites in the custom home industry and this research finding is absolutely aligned with what I learned there.

    It was amazing how much more people were willing to pay for a “log home” versus a “log cabin.” It could be the same floor plan, but the shift in nomenclature was enough to up the cost ante.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      “Log home” vs. “log cabin” is a great example of what this article is about, Andrew, particularly when relabeling led to higher revenue. Thanks for sharing that!


  9. Myles says

    @Claudia Maurer – What makes you the good guys?
    The worst habits were selling homes to people with mortgages they couldn’t afford long-term. So if you ensured all your clients didn’t belong in that category and advised people to buy homes within their means and not what the banks would lend them; then you have something tangible to hang your coat on based around that. If not, then you don’t. Personally, I don’t see there were any ‘bad guys’, just a lending bubble and lack of discipline on the part of the majority of people.

  10. Alain Nonyme says

    @Straight Talker
    ” Don’t hate the player (Roger), hate the game (capitalism), Alain! ”

    Roger does a fine job of getting us informed about the wonderful world of neuromarketing. I have nothing to say against him. Thank you Roger.

    However, trivial study do appear, here and there, saying what everybody knows already, adding nothing to the pool of knowledge, except it puts it in scientific jargon. For instance, agitated heaps of string will eventually tangle themselves up in knots ( ) or rats cannot tell the difference between a person speaking Japanese backwards and a person speaking Dutch backwards ( ). And now, this study that says “s*** wipes” (or any product with a non appealing name) would sell better if you re-categorizing them as “hygienic paper”.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Alain, the point is a bit more subtle. The choice isn’t between an unappealing name and an appealing one. Rather, it is about two potentially appealing names , like “pasta” and “salad,” that convey different product characteristics/attributes.


  11. Alain Nonyme says

    This study has found out the use of connotations and euphemisms also applies to marketing. It’s common sense disguised as a scientific discovery.

    Wikipedia :
    —- A connotation is a commonly understood, subjective cultural and/or emotional association that some word or phrase carries, in addition to the word or phrase’s explicit or literal meaning. A connotation is frequently described as either positive or negative, with regards to its pleasing or displeasing emotional connection. For example, a stubborn person may be described as being either strong-willed or pig-headed; although these have the same literal meaning (i.e. stubborn), strong-willed connotes admiration for the level of someone’s will (a positive connotation), while pig-headed connotes frustration in dealing with someone (a negative connotation). The connotation essentially relates to how anything may be associated with a word or phrase, for example, an implied value judgment or feelings. It is often useful to avoid words with strong connotations (especially disparaging ones) when striving to achieve a neutral point of view. A desire for more positive connotations, or fewer negative ones, is one of the main reasons for using euphemisms. —-

    If you want to sell meat, it’s better to use names like “steak” instead of “slice of slaughtered cow”. If you want to sell “fresh chicken eggs”, it’s better not to call them “raw bird ovaries”. Etc.

    “Salad” has a dietetic connotation “pasta” doesn’t have. This connotation appeals to people watching their weight. That’s not a scientific discovery. It’s common knowledge passed as one. It’s three researchers getting paid for what everybody already know.

  12. Great post!

    One of my favorite examples is how sales of “prunes” shot up when they were relabeled “dried plums”!

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Great example, Marc. I’d forgotten about that one!


  13. Maybe, that’s why Apple is loved by millions customers.
    Apple name is so refreshing.

  14. Carrie Gippo says

    Please I need help for naming my new yoga, massage and wellness center! I want a positive message with health, healing or wellness involved. I can not think of any good names that would catch a consumers eye with all of the competition out there for yoga, massage and overall wellness. Please help!
    any input is truly appreciated.

  15. HIlke says

    Maybe I’m missing something here but what has this to do with neuroscience? Interesting article though.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      We talk about marketing hacks based on a range of sciences here, Hilke, including neuroscience, behavior research, psychology, etc.

  16. Katja says

    Hi Roger,
    i’m in the process of writing my thesis in psychology, and it is about using nicknames as a therapeutic tool. It is difficult to find literature about nicknames and its influence on identity, personality, reality, etc. Do you know about any studies that relate nicknames and neuroscience?

    Thank you!
    An optimist

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.