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Oct. 14, 2005 • Volume 14 Number 4

Asst. Prof. Elizabeth Miller (CSOM): "I have always found language interesting, particularly in terms of the Wharf hypothesis which says that the language we speak influences the way that we think." (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

The Game of the Name

'Party yellow?' Miller studies impact of color, flavor names on public

Would you prefer a chocolate ice cream cone - or a scoop of "Double Fudge Devil's Delight"?

You'll probably get the same thing either way, but if you choose the latter it's likely a matter of moniker, not flavor, says Asst. Prof. Elizabeth Miller (CSOM), a marketing analyst who recently co-authored a study on the effect of color and flavor names on consumer choice.

Miller and Barbara Kahn, a faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, conducted a research study on colors and names of various consumer products - from jellybeans to sweaters - and the results appeared in the June issue of The Journal of Consumer Research.

Since the study's publication, Miller and Kahn's work has received wide spread media and marketing industry interest. The study has been featured in numerous publications, including The New York Times Magazine's "Consumed" column, Economic Times, Knight-Ridder news service, the Grocery Manufacturers of America newsletter, and several trade-name blog sites.

"We started out by noticing that some jelly beans had really interesting names," Miller says, "some of which were ambiguous. I have always found language interesting, particularly in terms of the Wharf hypothesis which says that the language we speak influences the way that we think."

The researchers broke down the names and colors of products into various categories: ambiguous (e.g. "party yellow"); unexpected descriptive ("rainslicker yellow"); common ("light yellow"); and common descriptive ("lemon yellow"). Their study suggests that unusual or unexpected names were more attractive to the consumer - even if the products were essentially the same color or flavor.

"The unspecific, non-typical names often are favored," Miller says.

In one of the studies, Miller and Kahn distracted subjects while they made their jelly bean selections. "People who were distracted didn't show a preference for the ambiguous names, but people who weren't distracted did. This suggests that the process consumers are using is cognitive in nature. That is, they need to be able to think about the names in order for them [the names] to be effective."

"Our results support the notion that when consumers encounter a surprising name...they engage in additional elaboration about the name and try to understand why it was provided," Miller and Kahn reported.

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