Dawn Lerman, Ph.D., is studying how language can be used strategically to build brands.
An associate professor of marketing and chair of marketing in the Fordham business schools, Lerman is an expert on consumer behavior, communications with multicultural markets, consumer memory for brand names and the effect of language on consumer socialization and behavior.
With a colleague from Baruch College, she is working on a book about consumer linguistics, or using language strategically to build brands.
“It’s an area that’s really been understudied,” Lerman said. “If you think about marketing and communications, whether it be advertising or packaging or even the conversations a customer may have with a salesperson or another customer within a store, so much of communications depends on language.”
Whether it is the brand names they choose, the advertising copy, or even how salespeople speak to consumers, marketers put a lot of language out into the marketplace, Lerman said. These days, with software brands such as Joomla! and social media brands like Twitter and Tumblr, it would behoove marketers to understand the names they choose.
“The fact is, we know very little about the effect of language on consumers,” she added.
To find out, Lerman has investigated how consumers remember brand names and what types of brand names they remember.
“Some brand names are words in our language, like ‘Tide.’ But we also ‘FedEx’ things,” she said. “When a company comes out with a new brand, there are advantages to using names that are made of words that a consumer would find in the dictionary. There also are advantages to using a word that is entirely new.”
Consider the popular ice cream brand, Häagen-Dazs.
“When it came on the market, it really stood out because nothing looked like that,” Lerman said. “And we didn’t know how to pronounce it. Nothing sounded like that. The name violates English language rules.”
At the time, ice cream brand names were more mundane, such as Dolly Madison or even Breyers.
“Even if you had never seen it before, you knew how to pronounce Breyers,” Lerman said. “But Häagen-Dazs really stood out. And there’s a benefit to using something that’s truly novel, especially in consumer packaged goods where brands are merchandised side by side. The novel name really pops out. At the same time, the novelty can make the name hard for consumers to remember.”
Häagen-Dazs had staying power, thanks to its catchy name and, of course, to the product itself. When creating a brand, marketers must realize that sounds play a role, Lerman said. While most brand name research focuses on visual name processing, it’s just as important for marketers to understand auditory processing, particularly as many consumers are introduced to brands via word-of-mouth or radio advertising.
To examine the effect of brand spelling and how it influences memory, Lerman and her colleague conducted a series of experiments in which respondents were exposed to non-word brand names that were either relatively easy or relatively difficult to spell based on the sounds in the name.
“It is always quite an effort to come up with enough non-word brand names to draw conclusions, particularly when comparing language processing in different languages as I often do,” she said.
What they found was that a consumer’s attempt to spell an auditorily presented brand name and the spelling of the name itself can have a significant effect on consumer response, particularly the ability to recall the name.
Psycholinguistic research has highlighted two main routes to spelling:
Through the lexical (or direct) route, a “top-down” process occurs as individuals access the spelling of a word by retrieving its lexical representation from long-term memory. The sublexical route is used when a hearer encounters an unfamiliar word or a non-word. In this case, the lexical route will not reliably produce the intended spelling because, by definition, such stimuli lack an exact lexical representation.
In one study, subjects compared brands that can only be spelled one way (consistent), such as the word “tag,” versus brands that can be spelled in multiple ways (inconsistent), such as the fictitious name, Paugh, which can be spelled “palf,” “paff,” “paph” and “paugh.”
She found “consistent” brand names resulted in more accurate spelling of the name. Tag will likely be recalled by the consumer as “tag.”
“Inconsistent” brand names, on the other hand, curtail the sublexical route to spelling, so priming, or using a real word that sounds and is spelled like the non-word before the non-word, helps to offset that handicap. So the phony brand, Paugh, has a better chance of being recalled that way if the word “laugh” is presented beforehand.
“We typically think of ads, packaging, publicity and other types of promotions as the key tools for communicating a brand’s identity and developing its image. Even the language that is chosen for the ads or packaging, including the brand names themselves, represent relevant sources of information and can serve to differentiate a brand,” Lerman said.