Consumers prefer ‘feminine’ over ‘masculine’ brand names

Last modified January 28, 2021. Published January 26, 2021.
Ford, perceived as masculine, is in the less-preferred group.(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Ford, perceived as masculine, is in the less-preferred group.(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Consumers prefer “feminine” brand names like Nike and Coca-Cola to “masculine” ones like Gap and Ford, according to a series of studies just published in the world’s highest-ranked marketing journal.

By analyzing real-life market data and conducting experiments using fictional brand names, five researchers in the U.S., France and Canada found that consumers consistently prefer feminine brand names. The effect is stronger for “hedonic” goods designed for pleasure and fun, rather than “utilitarian” goods, which are purchased for practical uses. The effect is also less pronounced among products specifically targeted toward men. 

“Gender is such an influential cue. People respond to that so instinctively,” said Ruth Pogacar, a professor of marketing at the University of Calgary and the lead author of the paper. 

Pogacar wrote the paper, which is forthcoming in the Journal of Marketing, alongside Justin Angle of the University of Montana, Tina M. Lowrey and L.J. Shrum of HEC Paris and Frank R. Kardes of the University of Cincinnati. 

The findings have implications for virtually anyone looking to sell a product, according to the researchers. 

“A brand with no inherent gender can be imbued with masculine or feminine stereotype traits (like warmth) via its name — which managers can leverage to influence brand outcomes,” the researchers wrote. “Feminine brand names enhance attitudes and choice share — both hypothetically and consequentially — and are associated with better brand performance.”

To measure the masculinity or femininity of a particular name, the researchers examined the placement of vowels and considered which syllables received stress when read aloud. 

Women’s names are generally longer than men’s names, and are more likely to be stressed on the second or later syllable, the researchers said. Women’s names are also more likely to end with a vowel.

For example, Ford — with its single syllable and consonant ending — is considered masculine. By contrast, Nestlé’s length and vowel ending make it feminine. 

The linguistic gender technique came from a 1995 paper by University of Pittsburgh researcher Herbert Barry Jr. and clinical psychologist Aylene S. Harper. 

In the paper, titled “Is Nestlé a lady? The Feminine Brand Name Advantage,” the researchers conducted six individual studies designed to approach the question from different angles.

First, the researchers examined the top 100 brands from 2000 to 2019 using the Interbrand Global Top Brands list, an industry-standard yearly ranking of top-performing brands based on factors including market share and brand strength. 

The researchers found that on average 55% of the 100 top brands each year had feminine names, while 36% had masculine names and 9% had no gender association. 

“There is an association we can observe in the real world,” said Pogacar, though she added that the result of the Interbrand analysis was “completely correlational.” 

The researchers also found an association between consumer interest and real-world feminine brand names using a survey on Amazon Mechanical Turk. 

However, real-world brand names come with consumer associations outside researchers’ control, preventing experiments using these brands from showing causality. 

To address that issue, the researchers created the feminine brand name “Nimilia” and masculine name “Nimeld.” 

Then, they created two online experiments using the Amazon Turk alternative Prolific Academic. In one, users could choose to watch a random YouTube channel or “Nimilia YouTube Channel.” In the other, users chose between a random channel and “Nimeld YouTube Channel.” In the first group, 43% of subjects chose Nimilia over the random channel, while in the second, just 32% opted for the Nimeld channel. 

In a similar experiment conducted in-person, 150 university students were offered a free gift of $.50, a Nimilia-branded hand sanitizer bottle or a Nimeld-branded hand sanitizer bottle. 

A whopping 49% of students chose the Nimilia-branded bottle, compared to just 14% who chose Nimeld and 36% who chose the $.50. 

The researchers conducted two additional experiments designed to measure the difference between gendered names’ effects on “utilitarian” and “hedonistic” products. They also tested additional gendered brand names  — such as “Tilna,” “Telric,” “Nemri” and “Nelmin” —  in order to ensure that the effect was not limited to any particular brand. 

All six studies indicated that gendered brand names do indeed have an effect on consumer attitudes. 

Pogacar said she first conceptualized the paper in 2014 through conversations with Angle. However, the pair were initially interested in studying the length of brand names on consumer attitudes. 

As the researchers reviewed the literature in 2015 and 2016, they switched their focus to masculine and feminine names. They started presenting their findings in 2017, then did more experiments in response to feedback from other academics. 

 “We added so many studies as feedback came in,” said Pogacar. 

They submitted the paper to journals in 2018, then went through two rounds of revisions. The paper was finally published online in the Journal of Marketing on Jan. 21, and is forthcoming in print. 

Pogacar said her interest in studying language began when she moved to Russia with her parents at 4 years old. She quickly picked up speaking Russian, but when the family moved away a year later, she forgot it. 

Thinking about that loss helped spark Pogacar’s academic enthusiasm for language.  

“I’ve been interested in language for a really long time,” she said. 

Pogacar added that brands make interesting subjects for linguistic research because they’re easily quantifiable through sales data, making the effects of brand names much easier to measure than, say, people’s names. 

“Brand names to me are the most fascinating cultural artifact for studying some of these linguistic effects,” said Pogacar. “We interact with brand names all the time, and they come with all these interesting metrics for reaction.” 

The paper, titled “Is Nestlé a lady? The Feminine Brand Name Advantage,” was published online on Jan. 21 in the Journal of Marketing. The co-authors are Ruth Pogacar of the University of Calgary, Justin Angle of the University of Montana, Tina M. Lowrey and L.J. Shrum of HEC Paris and Frank R. Kardes of the University of Cincinnati. Pogacar is lead author. 

This story has been updated to clarify a description of one of the findings from the study. 

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