Tuesday, July 05, 2005

The Power of Ambiguity

Yahoo is an effective brand name.

How do I know? Professors Barbara Kahn and Elizabeth Miller explained it to me in a paper entitled “Shades of Meaning: The Effect of Color and Flavor Names on Consumer Choice” published in the Journal of Consumer Research, where they concluded “consumers react positively to imaginative names even if they are not particularly descriptive.”

The research suggests that consumers give marketers the benefit of the doubt when product names or descriptions are vague. “People jumped to the conclusion that marketers must be telling this information for some reason and that it has to be good because marketers wouldn’t tell me something that isn’t good.” Understanding marketers’ self-interest, consumers seem to be willing to do the math for us interpreting names like “Millenium orange” “Gunpowder” or “Snuggly white” as positive attributes.

And although these names make me crazy, especially in catalogues where I cannot figure out if “riptide” is the blue one or the green one, this convention of ambiguity seems to please consumers who respond to names that suggest edginess, revolution or fun.

In a series of controlled experiments, these professors found that the use of these names invokes a psychological behavior known as “conversational implicature” wherein people essentially want to cooperate and adhere to certain unspoken rules in conversation. According to this theory, developed by British philosopher Paul Grice, when things are vague, people attempt to fill in the blanks to smooth conversation.

Similarly when people encounter unknown terms, they process the new data by comparing new information with past experience and existing expectations. This “incongruency theory” suggests that when you encounter a new, vague name you work overtime to figure it out. In fact when our professors showed subjects the color first and then the name, they were less happy than when the encountered a non descriptive name first. Perhaps the uncertainty triggers fantasy and imagination that cuts in favor of the brands using them.

What’s not clear is how elastic this incongruent goodwill is. If you see a name like “Yahoo” which isn’t descriptive but is vaguely familiar you think its cool. If you see a name that is equally vague but more foreign or unpronounce-able will you also give us the benefit of the doubt?

Kahn (Wharton) and Miller (Boston College) think this works best for products that rely on the senses like food or fashion and they doubt it might fly for healthcare or financial services, but I’d be willing to try it because a name like Yahoo would bust through the boredom and the clutter and possibly inject some life and real-person credibility in these commodity categories.

It is ironic but life affirming that in a world of savvy, time sensitive consumers who are quick to filter out, click away and eliminate choices, that there is a tolerance for creativity and a willingness to play along with and buy into the imaginative thinking of creative marketers.


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