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The Name Game: How Naming Products Increases Psychological Ownership and Subsequent Consumer Evaluations

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Abstract

Naming products is quite prevalent in American culture; however, we are not aware of any consumer research that explores the effects of this phenomenon. Across three studies, we demonstrate that when consumers name products, their evaluations of those products increase (e.g., attitudes, purchase intentions, and willingness to accept). We find that name fit and creativity as well as subsequent psychological ownership drive this effect. We also demonstrate that the naming effect is quite robust—replicating across multiple products, presentation formats, and populations as well as persisting over time. These results contribute to consumer research by opening up a new substantive line of inquiry into the effects of naming products.
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Abstract
Naming products is quite prevalent in American culture; however, we are not aware of any
consumer research that explores the effects of this phenomenon. Across three studies, we
demonstrate that when consumers name products, their evaluations of those products increase (e.g.,
attitudes, purchase intentions, willingness to accept). We find that name fit and creativity as well as
subsequent psychological ownership drive this effect. We also demonstrate that the naming effect is
quite robust—replicating across multiple products, presentation formats, and populations as well as
persisting over time. These results contribute to consumer research by opening up a new substantive
line of inquiry into the effects of naming products.
Keywords: Brand management; Consumer evaluations; Psychological ownership; Product naming
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Toyota’s “Más Que un Auto” (“More than a Car”) campaign encouraged Toyota owners to
name their cars and provided close to 100,000 name badges for owners to affix to their automobiles
(Diaz, 2015). In a recent commercial, a Liberty Mutual Insurance customer recounts a story about a
car she named “Brad.” Numerous banks allow customers to nickname accounts, and Build-A-Bear
customers register their stuffed animals by name and receive birth certificates to make it official.
But is encouraging consumers to name their products beneficial to marketers? While naming
products is a phenomenon most Americans can relate to, there is very little academic research on
names in general and even less on naming products. Therefore, we examine the effect of naming
products on consumer evaluations.
Conceptual Development
Names and Naming
Qualitative research in anthropology and sociology examines the role of names in kinship
(Finch, 2008), how parents from different backgrounds choose names to symbolize a child’s
heritage (Edwards & Caballero, 2008), and naming rituals across cultures (Kan, 2001). Both
surnames and forenames can link an individual to family members and help create familial bonds
(Finch, 2008). Similarly, nicknames can also help signify belonging (Kenny, 2014), express
affection (Degges-White, 2016; Landau, 2015), and convey an emotional connection (Steinberg,
2013). While we are not aware of any research that studies the effect of consumers naming
products, experts acknowledge that there is “great power in naming things” (Degges-White, 2016)
and others suggest that “assigning a name to a… possession is both a sign of growing affection and
a spur to further bonding” (Wattenburg, 2011). Thus, we examine whether these effects extend to
instances where firms invite consumers to name products and hypothesize that naming products
enhances consumer evaluations. In the next section, we discuss the conceptual basis for this effect.
Psychological Ownership
Naming is an activity generally performed for newborns and new pets or for nonhuman
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objects (e.g. dolls, stuffed animals, cars) that the namer believes to “be mine”—a sign of
psychological ownership. Psychological ownership refers to a state in which an individual perceives
that an object is “theirs” regardless of actual physical or legal ownership (Pierce, Kostova, & Dirks,
2003). Pierce et al. (2003) share the following anecdote to illustrate: although he did not legally
own the truck he drove for work, one driver cleaned, cared for, and even named his truck. This
example suggests that psychological ownership may play a role in naming products—even if
consumers do not legally own them. Indeed, the act of naming takes time, effort, and ideas, which
represent an investment of the self into the object that can lead to feelings of psychological
ownership (Jussila, Tarkiainen, Sarstedt, & Hair 2015; Sarstedt, Neubert, & Barth, 2017). When
consumers do take psychological ownership of an object, their evaluations of that object increase
(Jussila et al., 2015; Peck & Shu, 2009; Pierce et al., 2003, Reb & Connolly, 2007). Thus, we
hypothesize that naming a product increases psychological ownership and subsequent consumer
evaluations compared to a product with no name.
Name Features
When choosing a name for their child, parents often select one they like (Edwards &
Cabellero, 2008) and believe fits with the type of child they desire (Finch, 2008; Zittoun, 2004).
Similarly, in naming pets or objects, people often choose names they like and believe fit with their
personal representation of the particular animal or object. For instance, an individual might choose
“Spot” for a Dalmatian. Similarly, in the Toyota example, owners often chose names that fit with
their product experiences, “such as ‘El Milagroso’ (‘The Miraculous’), conceived by one owner
who couldn’t believe how many years his ancient Toyota has done right by him” (Diaz, 2015).
Consequently, we expect that when naming a product, consumers are more apt to choose a name
that fits with their personal representation of the product. We also expect names that fit to be more
well-liked, as past research shows that prototypical category members (i.e., those with high fit) tend
to be better liked (Loken, Barsalou, & Joiner, 2008). Furthermore, congruity between product
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elements, such as in product design (Veryzer & Hutchinson, 1998), product packaging (van Rompay
& Pruyn, 2008), or advertising (Lee & Labroo, 2004), can promote more favorable product
evaluations. As a result, we predict that better fitting and better liked names will enhance both
psychological ownership (via increasing consumers’ tendency to judge the product as “theirs” when
its name embodies their personal representation of it) as well as subsequent product evaluations.
We also examine two other name features that may heighten feelings of psychological
ownership: familiarity and creativity. First, when naming a child, parents may use names of family
members (Finch, 2008) or names that are popular (Zittoun, 2004)—that is, names that are more
familiar to them. Second, past research in other domains suggests that low (vs. high) levels of
consumer creativity can lead to lower levels of satisfaction with products (Hildebrand, Häubl,
Herrmann, & Landwehr, 2013). Therefore, in addition to fit and liking, we explore whether
familiarity or creativity gives certain names an advantage.
In looking at these name features—fit, liking, familiarity, and creativity—each reflects a
highly subjective judgment dependent on the idiosyncrasies of a consumer’s personal history. For
example, past research notes that judgments of name fit and creativity are a function of an
individual’s prior experiences (e.g., due to differences in culture, Paletz & Peng, 2008; occupation,
Koslow, Sasser, & Riordan, 2003; etc., Caroff & Besancon, 2008; Hood, 1973). Name familiarity,
too, is clearly based on an individual’s personal experiences with names, which vary by family,
region, or culture, among other factors. Thus, we suspect that the names consumers give products
reflect highly individualized perceptions that vary from person to person. So, although it would be
advantageous for marketers to assign names that are comparable to self-names in terms of these
name features, finding the best name may pose a challenge due to the high bar that the uniqueness
of self-names sets. Consequently, we hypothesize that self-names (provided by the consumer) will
be superior to assigned names, increasing both psychological ownership and product evaluations.
However, whether certain types of marketer assigned names are better than others remains an open
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question. For example, one might expect an assigned name that describes the product better (e.g.,
“Muggy” for a mug) to perform better than an assigned name that is not descriptive and seems more
remote from consumers’ representations of the product (e.g., “Bob” for a mug). Therefore, in
addition to self-names, we explore different types of marketer assigned names as well.
Overview of Studies
We conduct three studies to assess whether naming a product enhances consumer
evaluations. In Study 1, we examine the naming effect by comparing self-names to no name. In
Study 2, we compare self-names to assigned names and test whether psychological ownership
mediates this effect. Finally, in Study 3, we investigate how various name features affect
perceptions of psychological ownership and subsequent consumer evaluations.
Study 1: The Naming Effect
Method
Forty-eight undergraduate students received course credit for participating in two lab
sessions (four weeks apart). We randomly assigned participants to either a self-name or control (no
name) condition. During the first lab session, all participants received a plain yellow stress ball and
read that the purpose of the study was to examine whether stress balls are effective in managing
stress. Participants in the self-name (but not control) condition provided a name for the stress ball
and described why they chose that name. Participants were given instructions to squeeze the stress
ball at least once a day. In the second session, participants reported how much money (in USD) it
would take for them to sell the stress ball—that is, their willingness to accept (WTA).
Results
Eight participants from the first lab session did not return for the second session, so we
excluded them from the analysis. For the remaining 40 participants (Mage = 20, 44% female), we
log-transformed WTA values (adding .01 to zeros to facilitate transformation). As predicted, an
ANOVA on log-transformed WTA revealed that participants valued the stress ball more in the self-
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name than control condition (F(1, 38) = 4.42, p < .05, ηp2 = .10)—with original prices more than $1
higher in the self-name condition (Mself = $4.07 vs. MCG = $2.67). See Figure 1.
Discussion
These results provide preliminary evidence that naming a product leads to higher consumer
valuations even after four weeks. Although all participants in Study 1 had physical possession of the
stress ball, they may vary in the degree to which they felt that the ball was “theirs” (i.e., had
feelings of psychological ownership). Therefore, in Study 2, we examine the mediating role of
psychological ownership, compare self-names to assigned names, and explore whether names affect
purchase intentions.
Study 2: Psychological Ownership as the Underlying Process
Method
Two hundred undergraduate students received course credit for participation in this study
(Mage = 21, 46% female). We randomly assigned participants to one of four conditions: self-name,
descriptive name, non-descriptive name, or control (no name). All participants viewed a picture of a
blue stapler—a mundane, ordinary object. In the self-name condition, participants named the
stapler, while those in the two assigned name conditions read that the stapler was named “Blue”
(descriptive) or “Steve” (non-descriptive). We selected these names based on a pretest that revealed
them as the most commonly used descriptive and non-descriptive names given to the stapler.
Participants in the control did not see any name. All participants viewed five different pictures of
the stapler on a computer screen (each photo for 10 seconds) before rating the stapler. In the three
name conditions, the name of the stapler appeared above each picture. Finally, participants rated
their purchase intentions (1-item: 1 “very unlikely” to 7 “very likely”) and feelings of psychological
ownership (3-items: 1 “strongly disagree” to7 “strongly agree”, Peck & Shu, 2009, e.g., “I feel like
I own this stapler”; see Methodological Appendix [MDA] for items).
Results
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An ANOVA on purchase intentions revealed a significant main effect (F(3, 196) = 3.75, p = .
01, ηp2 = .05). As predicted, participants reported higher purchase intentions for self-name (Mself =
4.49) than the descriptive name (Mdescriptive = 3.75; F(1, 196) = 5.71, p < .05), non-descriptive name
(Mnon-descriptive = 3.74; F(1, 196) = 5.73, p < .05), or control (Mcontrol = 3.50; F(1, 196) = 9.98, p < .01).
There were no significant differences between descriptive, non-descriptive, and control conditions.
See Figure 2.
We created a psychological ownership index by averaging the means of the three individual
items (α = .95). An ANOVA on psychological ownership revealed a significant main effect (F(3,
196) = 4.37, p < .01, ηp2 = .06). Participants reported higher psychological ownership for self-name
(Mself = 2.80) than the descriptive name (Mdescriptive = 1.98; F(1, 196) = 7.23, p < .01), non-descriptive
name (Mnon-descriptive = 1.95; F(1, 196) = 7.76, p < .05), or control (Mcontrol = 1.79; F(1, 196) = 10.78, p
< .01). There were no significant differences between descriptive, non-descriptive, and control
conditions.
To assess mediation of psychological ownership, we ran a mediation analysis with a
multicategorical independent variable (Hayes & Preacher, 2014). We compared each condition to
self-name, controlling for the other two conditions (i.e., self-name vs. descriptive name controlling
for non-descriptive name and control; self-name vs. non-descriptive name controlling for
descriptive name and control; and self-name vs. control controlling for descriptive and non-
descriptive name). A bootstrap analysis (PROCESS, model 4; Hayes, 2013) supported mediation of
the effects of descriptive name (coded as 0; 95% CI of the indirect effect [.10, .75]), non-descriptive
name (coded as 0; 95% CI of the indirect effect [.10, .70]), and the control (coded as 0; 95% CI of
the indirect effect [.20, .78]) versus self-name (coded as 1) on purchase intentions. See Figure 3.
Discussion
These results provide additional support for the naming effect: self-names increased
purchase intentions compared to assigned names or no name. We also found that psychological
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ownership mediates this effect. While we did not find any significant differences between
descriptive and non-descriptive names, we questioned whether descriptive names may, in general,
lead to more favorable product evaluations. To examine this trend in more detail, we had two coders
(blind to the research hypotheses) rate each self-name generated in this study on five dimensions:
descriptiveness, fit, liking, creativity, and familiarity (1 “Not at all” to 5 “Very much”). Consistent
with our theorizing, fit, liking, creativity, and familiarity varied substantially between coders (all
Krippendorff’s α’s < .32). Only descriptiveness showed an acceptable level of reliability (α = .81).
While only one-third of the names’ mean ratings were at or above the midpoint for descriptiveness,
correlations of the raw ratings between descriptiveness and the four name features revealed that
perceptions of name fit (r = .60, p < .001) and liking (r = .48, p < .001) were significant (creativity:
r = .01, p = .93; familiarity: r = -.08, p = .45). These results support our expectation that
interpretations of meanings of names are highly subjective. Accordingly, we still expect self-names
to be superior to assigned names. These findings also suggest that when assigning names, it is worth
examining whether descriptive (vs. non-descriptive) names are more successful due to an increase
in fit and liking. In Study 3, we implement a within-subjects design to examine these results more
thoroughly as well as to identify name features that drive our self-name effect.
Study 3: What Name Features Drive Naming Success?
Method
We employed a mixed design where product was a between subjects factor and name
condition was a within subjects factor. We randomly assigned MTurk respondents (N = 121, Mage =
32, 42% female) to one of two products: a white mug or blue stapler. All participants rated self-
name, descriptive name, and non-descriptive name conditions for the product. For the self-name
condition, participants named the product. For the descriptive name condition, the object was
named “Muggy” (mug) or “Blue” (stapler). For the non-descriptive name condition, the object was
named “Bob” (mug) or “Steve” (stapler). “Muggy” and “Bob” were the most common descriptive
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and non-descriptive names (respectively) for the mug, as generated by participants in a separate
pretest. We randomized name order and to prevent fatigue, participants completed single item
ratings of attitudes (1 “Not at all” to 7 “Very much”), purchase intentions (1 “Very unlikely” to 7
“Very likely”), and psychological ownership (1 “Strongly disagree” to 7 “Strongly agree”).
Participants also rated six items that capture the name features of liking, fit, creativity, and
familiarity (1 “Not at all” to 7 “Very much”) (see MDA for items). Using these same measures in a
pretest, the results of a factor analysis revealed that fit, appropriateness, general liking of the name,
and liking of the name for the specific product loaded onto a single factor which we call the fit
index. Familiarity loaded onto a second factor, and creativity did not load highly on either factor, so
we investigate these two name features separately. (See MDA for factor loadings).
Results
A mixed ANOVA (where product was the between subjects factor and name condition was
the within subjects factor) revealed a significant main effect of name on attitudes (F(2, 238) =
59.07, p < .01, ηp2 = .33) and purchase intentions (F(2, 238) = 56.29, p < .01, ηp2 = .32); neither the
main effect of product nor the two-way interaction were significant (p’s > .05). Participants reported
higher attitudes (Mself = 5.34) and purchase intentions (Mself = 4.84) for self-names than assigned
descriptive (attitudes: Mdescriptive = 4.26, F(1, 238) = 34.60, p < .01; purchase intentions: Mdescriptive =
3.89, F(1, 238) = 29.17, p < .01) or non-descriptive (attitudes: Mnon-descriptive = 3.36, F(1, 238) =
117.87, p < .01; purchase intentions: Mnon-descriptive = 2.98, F(1, 238) = 112.57, p < .01) names.
Participants also reported higher attitudes (F(1, 238) = 24.75, p < .01) and purchase intentions (F(1,
238) = 27.13, p < .01) for descriptive versus non-descriptive names. See Figure 4.
A mixed ANOVA on psychological ownership revealed a significant main effect of name
(F(2, 238) = 88.70, p < .01, ηp2 = .43) and two-way interaction (F(2, 238) = 4.45, p = .01, ηp2 = .04);
the main effect of product was not significant (p > .10). Of interest and consistent with our attitudes
and purchase intentions results, participants reported higher psychological ownership for self-names
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(Mself = 4.98) than assigned descriptive (Mdescriptive = 3.17, F(1, 238) = 74.23, p < .01) or non-
descriptive (Mnon-descriptive = 2.22, F(1, 238) = 171.72, p < .01) names. Participants also reported higher
psychological ownership for descriptive versus non-descriptive names (F(1, 238) = 20.15, p < .01).
(This pattern replicates for means and contrasts by product; see MDA.)
To gain more insight into why certain names result in better outcomes, we examined the
impact of the fit index (αself = .86, αdescriptive = .93, αnon-descriptive =.90), creativity, and familiarity on
psychological ownership and subsequent consumer evaluations (see Table 1 for means). To assess
this within-subjects serial mediation, we ran the MEMORE macro (Montoya & Hayes, 2016).
Because the macro only allows two repeated measures conditions at a time, we ran three name
comparisons (non-descriptive vs. descriptive name, non-descriptive name vs. self-name, and
descriptive name vs. self-name). Bootstrap analyses supported serial mediation of the fit index and
creativity for all three comparisons (see Table 1 for details). As one might expect, increases in the fit
index and creativity (but not familiarity) led to increases in psychological ownership and
subsequent attitudes and purchase intentions. See Figure 5 for one example of the repeated
measures mediation model.
Discussion
Using a within-subjects approach, we replicate the superiority of self-names and find that
assigned descriptive names are also more successful than assigned non-descriptive names. In
addition, we tested several name features and found that name fit and creativity increased
psychological ownership and subsequent consumer evaluations, providing initial evidence that
certain types of names have advantages over others.
General Discussion
To our knowledge, this is the first empirical assessment of the effects of naming products.
We found that self-naming products increases consumer evaluations relative to assigned or no
names—an effect that replicated across multiple products, presentation formats, and populations,
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and persisted over time. When consumers were invited to name a product (vs. viewing a product
with an assigned name), they rated the name as better fitting and more creative, which increased
their feelings of psychological ownership of the named product. These feelings of psychological
ownership, in turn, led to more favorable product evaluations. Serial mediation analyses supported
this chain of effects. Further, although not significant in our between-subjects study, assigning a
descriptive name was more successful than assigning a non-descriptive name in a within-subjects
study. Results indicate that this effect was due to increased fit and creativity of the descriptive (vs.
non-descriptive) names. However, before drawing conceptual or managerial conclusions, further
research is needed. Results may be a function of the specific names chosen in our research.
Although we observed some benefit of descriptive assigned names, self-names were
generally superior. In other words, our participants rated both descriptive and non-descriptive
assigned names as less fitting (i.e., these names had lower fit, were less appropriate, and were less
well liked) and less creative than self-names, which led to decreased feelings of psychological
ownership and subsequent product evaluations. The question arises as to whether a marketer is ever
able to assign a name to a product that is as good of a fit and as creative as one chosen by the
consumer. More research is needed to answer this question. One possible outcome is that, assuming
a marketer could find a name that fits as well and is as creative as the name chosen by a consumer,
then assigning that name should be a good substitute for self-naming. However, because these name
features are highly individualized (i.e., perceptions vary from person to person), choosing an
assigned name for a population of consumers that matches their individualized judgments of fit and
creativity is a challenging task. Future research might examine how crowdsourcing product names
affects name fit and creativity, psychological ownership, and subsequent sales.
A second possible outcome is that there is something about the process of self-naming that
contributes to the name’s inherent superiority over and above the name’s fit/creativity. For example,
the process of self-naming may include some of the same processes as self-design, including
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mastery or involvement by the creator, that are not captured by our mediation results but result in
the perception that the self-names are better-fitting and more creative than assigned names. More
systematic research is needed to determine under what conditions alternative mediation is
supported.
Our research findings have other limitations. First, we used fictitious assigned names in our
studies that were preselected by the experimenters. While we did select assigned names that were
the most popular self-names among participants in a pretest, our results nevertheless could be
unique to the particular names selected or the particular product categories studied. Second, while
we consistently found benefits of self-naming over no names, the evidence for superiority of self-
naming over assigned names was weaker. Finally, all of our participants live in the U.S. It is unclear
whether the naming of inanimate objects extends to other cultures. Further work is needed to
substantiate our findings, using additional names and product categories, more systematically
exploring name features, and expanding to other populations of consumers.
Building on the studies we presented, future research could delve more deeply into how
branding impacts the naming effect by investigating self-naming in the presence of weak versus
strong brands. Existing product names could also be examined to try to tease out the effects of
brand versus product names (e.g., iPhone’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa). Additionally, while we
examined utilitarian goods, future work could explore the impact of naming hedonic goods or
services.
Practitioners may want to try to encourage self-names over assigning names. Future research
could incorporate real-world contexts, such as examining whether prompts to name products in
shopping baskets (or the entire basket) in physical or online stores affects sales. Some firms already
encourage naming products via name badges or through product registration (e.g., Build-A-Bear).
Storefronts or online shopping could also be conducive contexts for self-naming products. It might
also be useful to explore if the naming effect holds in a donation or non-profit context. For example,
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would animal shelters benefit if they allowed potential donors or families to name an animal before
adoption rather than donating to or adopting an animal that already has a name?
Other potential avenues for future research include exploring individual difference
characteristics (e.g., persuasion knowledge, skepticism, preference for function over form) or
examining potential floor/boomerang (e.g., poorly performing products) and ceiling effects (e.g.,
beloved dolls or stuffed animals). Naming research might also compare the naming effect before
versus after purchase, or track the effects of changes based on usage or over the life of the product
(e.g., legendary blues singer B.B. King named his guitars “Lucille” after purchase, Kerekes &
O’Neill, 1997). Finally, while we invited consumers to name products, future work could assess the
phenomenon of spontaneous naming and compare it to the results reported here. Suffice it to say,
we believe naming products is a phenomenon most U.S. consumers can relate to and presents a
substantive area rife with research opportunities.
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... In the context of work, EPO is increasingly viewed as a primary feeling concerning work that brings about behavioral outcomes, e.g., job performance (Yoo et al., 2018), as well as emotional outcomes (such as organizational commitment) for employees and organizations (Menard et al., 2018). In addition, EPO can achieve numerous advantages for customers, such as promotion of a sense of responsibility, greater willingness to pay more (Lessard-Bonaventure and Chebat, 2015), long-term loyalty (Sinclair, 2017), increased purchase intentions (Stoner et al., 2018), and word of mouth behavior (Kumar, 2019). ...
... Participants then picked up a bag of four-color premium ARTEZA watercolor paint pens from a basket located in the front end of the laboratory room. Since naming (Stoner et al., 2018) and marking (Kirk et al., 2017) are typical procedures to induce psychological ownership, participants were required to write down their nicknames (write down the word "Shared") on the white label of the bag "because they own (share) it. " ...
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... Psychological ownership has recently come into spotlight as a major factor influencing consumers' attitudes and behaviors in various research fields such as business, marketing, consumer, psychology, and information system [10][11][12]21,31]. More recently, especially, as the paradigm of ownership gradually changes from tangible objects to intangible objects with the development of IT, the role of users' psychological ownership in the cyberspace has been noted. ...
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... It may be as simple as helping design the look or feel or some other aspect of the shared product or the mediating service interface (Fuchs et al. 2010; More- au 2011), or else investing personal labour, such as by assembling a product (Norton et al. 2012). Another effective technique is to assign customers the task of naming the product or service (Stoner et al. 2018); if customers give the scooter they use a nickname, it might prompt better care. The naming technique even can be effective with public goods, such as a lake. ...
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People develop feelings of ownership for a variety of objects, material and immaterial in nature. We refer to this state as psychological ownership. Building on and extending previous scholarship, the authors offer a conceptual examination of this construct. After defining psychological ownership, they address "why" it exists and "how" it comes into being. They propose that this state finds its roots in a set of intraindividual motives (efficacy and effectance, self-identity, and having a place to dwell). In addition, they discuss the experiences that give rise to psychological ownership and propose several positive and negative consequences of this state. The authors' work provides a foundation for the development of a comprehensive theory of psychological ownership and the conceptual underpinnings for empirical testing.
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