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The feminine brand name advantage

Feminine brand names (e.g. Nivea) tend to perform better than masculine ones. 55% of the top-ranked brands had feminine names (36% were masculine).

Topics: Brand & Strategy | Messaging & Copy
For: B2C, B2B Friendly
Research date: May 2021
Universities: Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary; University of Montana; HEC Paris; and Lindner College of Business, University of Cincinnati.

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📝 Intro

A brand name is often the first point of contact with a brand.

This makes it a strong source of initial impressions, mental associations, and expectations.

Get it right and you will have a subtle advantage over your competitors.

📈 Recommendation

Use a feminine brand name to increase the chance that customers like you and choose you.

A masculine name is alright if your products are mainly used by men or are utilitarian (e.g. garden tools, accounting services).

Feminine names typically:

  • Have more syllables than masculine ones (e.g. Joanna vs John)

  • End with a vowel sound, particularly schwa (e.g. Sarah; here’s what schwa sounds like) - rather than a consonant (e.g. David)

  • Stress the second (e.g. Ro-ber-ta) or multiple syllables. Masculine names stress the first (e.g. Thom-as) or tend to only have one (e.g. John)

Quick quiz: Nestlé vs Gap. Which is feminine and which is masculine? Even though they aren’t people’s names, there is a clear answer (Answer at the end of the tip).

🎓 Findings

  • Past research has found that many factors affect how we perceive brand or product names. For example, an ice cream called Frosh is more appealing than one called Frish, because the sound of the name suggests creaminess - which is something we want in ice cream.

  • A name’s characteristics (from how it sounds to how many syllables it has) also suggest whether a name is male or female.

  • This study found that brands with female names perform better because people have more positive attitudes towards them and are more likely to choose them.

  • 55% of brands ranked in the Interbrand Global Top Brands list were feminine (36% masculine, 9% neutral), and they were more likely to be ranked higher. Interbrand ranks brands based on criteria like their financial performance (e.g. profits, market share) and strength (e.g. how well recognized a brand is).

  • In experiments:

    • People chose to watch a “Nimilia” brand (a made-up feminine name) YouTube video 43% of the time (vs a random video), but only 32% of the time when the brand name was a masculine “Nimeld”

    • Between a small bottle of hand sanitizer and $0.50 cash, students chose: The “Nimilia” hand sanitizer 49.3% of the time, followed by $0.50 (36.0%), and the “Nimeld” hand sanitizer (14.7%) (note: this experiment was done before the Covid-19 pandemic, so hand sanitizer was a neutral product)

  • The effect is weaker or disappears when:

    • The typical user is male, because brand names that reflect the typical user’s gender are evaluated better

    • Products are utilitarian (e.g. batteries, tools), because warmth is an emotion while we tend to evaluate these products rationally

Feminine brand names are correlated with a higher Interbrand ranking

🧠 Why it works

  • We immediately judge whether a person is warm or cold towards us. This is a survival mechanism to identify friend or foe - because someone who isn’t warm to us is likely an enemy.

  • Warmth is associated with positive traits such as trustworthiness and friendliness.

  • When we judge someone as warm, we also see them as more trustworthy, sincere, and friendly.

  • We perceive women as warmer than men, so we stereotype female = warm.

  • At the same time, we often interact with and judge brands as if they were people.

  • Names are a strong part of how we judge brands or persons.

  • So when a brand has a feminine name, we project our stereotype of female warmth on the brand.

  • When we perceive a brand as warm (i.e. trustworthy, sincere, friendly), we’re more likely to like it, choose it, and stick with it.

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  • This study focused on American English. Names in other languages may have different characteristics that define them as feminine or masculine. The stereotype of females being warmer may also not exist.

  • The effect likely doesn’t apply to brands where warmth is not a desirable trait. For example, brands of products that are designed to destroy (e.g. pests, weeds).

🏢 Companies using this

  • Examples of feminine brand names:

    • Nivea

    • Bacardi

    • BMW (pronounced in English)

    • Coca-Cola

  • Examples of masculine brand names:

    • Apple

    • Uber

    • Panasonic

    • Nissan

  • Examples of neutral brand names:

    • Rolex

    • Colgate

    • Ford

    • Facebook

⚡ Steps to implement

  • If you are naming (or renaming) a brand or product follow the steps in the “Recommendation” section to come up with name options that are feminine.

  • Test your shortlisted names with potential customers to understand if a name sounds warm, trustworthy, sincere, and friendly - as it should.

  • If you already have a strong brand that’s masculine, it’s unlikely to be worth rebranding just to have a feminine name.

🔍 Study type

Lab and online experiments, and market observation (analysis of 171 brands in the Interbrand Global Top Brands between 2010 and 2019).

📖 Research

Pogacar, R., Angle, J., Lowrey, T. M., Shrum, L. J., & Kardes, F. R. Is Nestlé Lady? The Feminine Brand Name Advantage. Journal of Marketing (May 2021).

🏫 Affiliations

Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary; University of Montana; HEC Paris; and Lindner College of Business, University of Cincinnati. Canada, United States, and France.

Remember: Because of the groundbreaking nature of this paper, it could be disproven in the future (although this is rare). It also may not be generalizable to your situation. If it’s a risky change, always test it on a small scale before rolling it out widely.

Quiz answer: Nestlé is feminine because it has more syllables, stresses two different syllables, and ends with a vowel sound. Gap has a single syllable and ends with a consonant.

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