Fancy some Cheez-It? How about Chik’n Nuggets, Wyngz, Froot Loops, or Kool-Aid? Products with alternative spellings have become fairly commonplace, with brands seeing them as a way to stand out or appeal to certain audiences. But according to a new study, they’d be wise to revisit that strategy: consumers are often less likely to support brands with alternative spellings and can perceive them as untrustworthy or as a gimmick.
Choosing a brand name is one of the most important decisions a company can make. In a world with so many competing companies and so much advertising and branding, it’s hard to stand out though. So companies seem to be increasingly reliables to use unconventional spellings for common words — take Lyft, the ride-sharing app, for example.
The study was carried out by John Costello, assistant professor of marketing at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, along with Jesse Walker and Rebecca Walker Reczek from Ohio State University. The researchers recruited 3,000 participants and carried out eight experimental studies, including several that focused on unconventional brand names.
“Consumers perceive unconventionally spelled names as a persuasion tactic or a marketing gimmick, leading them to view the brand as less sincere,” said Costello, who researches consumer behavior with a focus on psychological response to marketing communications and prosocial behaviors. “Our studies suggest that while marketers may choose unconventional spellings for new brands with the goal of positively influencing consumers’ perceptions, doing so may backfire.”
For instance, the study found that the unconventional spelling of a real word (for instance by substituting a “k” for a “c”) decreased its selection by 12-14%. But there was a way to bypass this: if the company’s motive for selecting the spelling was perceived as transparent and sincere, the customers don’t mind it.
“When a brand name is crowdsourced by consumers rather than chosen by the company, the backfire effect is eliminated,” Costello said. “We also find unconventionally spelled brand names may even be preferable when consumers want an especially memorable experience, for example, visiting a bar made entirely of ice at a vacation destination like Las Vegas.”
The practice of choosing unique spellings seems to be favored among marketing managers which, according to a previous study by Notre Dame University, perceive it as a way to make the brand seem trendy or cool. But less research has been carried out about the effects of these branding choices and their impact on consumers — at least academic research. Companies probably carry out their own personalized research but don’t publish it openly and possibly don’t look at the general context.
These advantages may be real, but the potential risk is also very real. “Our studies suggest that, while marketers may choose unconventional spellings for new-to-the-world brands with the goal of positively influencing consumers’ perceptions, doing so may backfire,” the study reads.
In light of these findings, the researchers advise companies to be open about what they do and communicate it clearly to their audience. In a world where it’s increasingly harder to stand out and where companies are resorting to increasingly unconventional tactics, it would be wise to appeal to good old-fashioned honesty, the researchers conclude.
“If companies choose to use unconventional spellings for new brands, they should clearly communicate a sincere naming origin story during introductory marketing campaigns to avoid the backfire effect,” Costello suggested. “They could also communicate this sincerity when designing different brand elements, such as logos, packaging or slogans.”
Journal Reference: John P. Costello et al, EXPRESS: “Choozing” the Best Spelling: Consumer Response to Unconventionally Spelled Brand Names, Journal of Marketing (2023). DOI: 10.1177/00222429231162367