A Rose By Any Other Name Should Be Capitalized


Have you ever wondered what it would be like to work in an industry that never has a problem with demand? What would happen to your state of mind, currently shocked into submission by your on-paper worth, if you only had to be concerned with making customers happy and finding more of them, rather than wondering where all the customers went and if they’ll come back? These are remarkably different business problems. Some people thought they lived in the happy “more orders than I can handle” place just a few years ago*, but we all know how that story panned out, we just don’t know yet what kind of ending we’ll get.

Part of the problem is that America’s marketing engine doesn’t slow down in a poor economy – it accelerates. You get more spam, not less, as people work with smaller marketing budgets. Companies are afraid to not market, clinging to hope that the next campaign will benefit from the eventual recovery, regardless of poor returns from other recent efforts. Those lucky companies big enough in the wallet to weather downturns pump up their advertising, taking advantage of lowered rates for primetime placements. People try things they wouldn’t ordinarily, like telemarketing or door-to-door cold calling, simply because they’ve either exhausted or lost faith in their normal channels. Of course, the person who loses is the consumer, already barraged and overmarketed to with messages that are confusing enough on their own, yet reduce to noise when lumped with all the other too-similar voices.

Now* comes a piece of dangerous research that hopefully won’t compound this problem.

UCLA psychologist Possidonia Gontijo has conducted a study that concludes that brand names affect the brain in ways that specifically differ from other types of written language. Not only that, but capitalized brand names surpass upper and lower-case names in eliciting neural response on research subjects. Gontijo and her crew figured this out by taking 48 people and flashing words at them on the left and right sides of a screen to measure their effect on the left (analytical) and right (emotional) hemispheres of the brain. From this, Gontijo concluded that people recognize brand names faster than other words and with more emotion, and that this is accelerated further when the names are printed in all capital letters.

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but now we know the reverse may also be true. One doesn’t have to stretch far to hypothesize why Gontijo achieved these results in her tests. Once you experience the product that lives behind the brand, you form a relationship with that identity. That identity is symbolized by the brand. When you see that brand’s logo or name, your brain connects you to the experience and emotion of the relationship. This is why test subjects did not recognize static words like “house” or nonsense words like “noerds” with the same effect. Why things like this must be presented as fodder for peer-reviewed journals in order for people to get it is beyond me. My theory is that the brand name evolves to become more like a picture than a contextual word.

We all want to get a HARLEY-DAVIDSON and NIKE type of reaction from our customers, it’s kind of like the holy grail of marketing. But if news of this study reaches too many senior executives, a lot of people will be trying to do it with their “caps lock” key, instead of the customer value key. They’ll try it because its new and sounds like magic. Millions of dollars are already spent to come up with names like “LUCENT,” “AGILENT,” and “ACCENTURE,” but these investments have certainly not panned out on their bottom lines, and I’m not sure you can blame the fact that they’re not in all caps. Then again, there is the DELL and SONY examples (length of the word must also be a factor).

If lemming history is correct, we’ll not only see more and more in your face advertising, but it’ll now be even louder as well. Capitalization on the Internet has long been considered the text equivalent of shouting. If this is true, then many spammers have been the lead users ahead of this capital brand word game for a long time now. Do I really think this technique will proliferate? Of course not, it’s just sarcasm. But I don’t doubt that more than a few marketers will now overload the Internet looking for white papers to justify why they want to put capitalization into the corporate style sheet for communications. They’re ready to try anything with the slightest chance of solving the demand problem.

Let me take back something I said. Demand is NOT a problem everywhere. It was recently* reported that sales of water-based recreational vehicles (jet skis) is better than ever as folks turn to hobbies to shake them out of their economic doldrums. Whether or not they can afford the payments next year doesn’t seem to dissuade them. And what crafts are people probably buying? I’d bet they’re all riding SEA-DOOs.

Some sources used in this article include*:

* This article was originally published in The Critical Path email newsletter on August 30, 2002.  Not all links may still be valid.

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