How Baby Names Can Help Marketers Predict the Next Big Thing

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Few parents would admit to naming their baby after a hurricane. But unconsciously that might be exactly what many of us are doing — or at least appropriating the sounds of a name that, if the storm grows large enough, is uttered over and over on the news and in the course of casual conversation.

According to Wharton marketing professors Jonah Berger and Eric Bradlow, that unintended impact of such natural disasters can tell marketers a lot about how the sights and sounds that we’re exposed to every day can impact our choices and, in turn, influence the consumer goods, music, movies and even baby names that become popular. Their paper, “From Karen to Katie: Using Baby Names to Understand Cultural Evolution,” is forthcoming in the journal Psychological Science.

After using a statistical model to study more than 100 years of first names and doing a natural experiment using the names of hurricanes, the researchers found that the popularity of a particular moniker is impacted by how widely the sounds in that name were used previously. In other words, a first grade class filled with Karens is likely to be followed by a wave of six-year-olds with names that use similar sounds, or phonemes, such as “Katie” or “Karl” — or even “Darren” or “Warren.”

“But we think this is a lot bigger than baby names,” Berger says. “We were interested in whether we could predict what’s going to become popular by looking at what’s popular now, thinking about the similarities between different things — whether it’s songs, baby names or cars — and using that to understand what’s going to be popular next.”

Baby names are a good place to start because, unlike movies, cars or consumer goods, it’s a decision that is mostly driven by the individual. “Certain names don’t cost more than other names, and certain names aren’t advertised more,” Berger says. “It’s more about what people like, which makes it a good way to see how social influence drives popularity.”

More than once, Berger has heard new parents say they picked a particular name because it was unique, something nobody else would have chosen. “Then the baby goes into first grade and there are six or seven Jacks,” says Berger. “We’re all trying to be unique in our choices, we’re all trying to pick something different from each other, but somehow we all end up picking things that are the same.”

The research, co-authored by Wharton PhD student Yao Zhang and Alex Braunstein of app search engine, shows that this could be because what we’re exposed to on a daily basis changes how we feel about certain sounds and makes them unconsciously stick in our minds.

It’s true, however, that some names are consistently more popular than others — think “James” and “Michael” for boys or “Emily” and “Elizabeth” for girls. And more babies are born in some years than others. The statistical model created by the researchers controls for those factors in order to isolate the impact of hearing the sounds of a particular name. “Let’s say there are a million babies last year named Isabella because of the Twilight series,” Bradlow says. “Any effect we find for the sounds themselves already accounts for the inherent popularity of the name itself.”

In the case of hurricanes, they collected the names of all storms from 1950 to 2009, as well as the amount of damage each caused. More serious hurricanes are naturally talked about more, and according to the research, first names with similar sounds to those storms became more popular as a result.

Both the statistical model and the hurricane experiment showed that the beginning sounds of names had a greater impact than the middle or ending phonemes on the future popularity of other names. There was also a point where widely used sounds began to suffer from over-popularity.

“What makes this really interesting to people who aren’t just interested in baby names is that it helps us understand the evolution of culture,” Berger says. “Since The Tipping Point, people have been interested in how social epidemics work and why some things are more popular than others. This research gives us insight into how social influence shapes what products and ideas are going to be more popular in the future.” For example, if royal blue cars are popular one year, it’s more likely that some other shade of blue would be in style the next. “It’s the same thing across domains as well,” he adds. “We may see a certain color on a car and that may influence what color house we like or what color dress we like.”

Using a similar approach for naming a consumer product or predicting which songs will become more popular would be more difficult statistically, Bradlow says, because there are more extenuating factors involved. “People have no inherent strategy for picking a baby name,” he notes.

Berger suggests that there are conscious and unconscious factors creating such impacts, whether they are related to baby names or choosing a color for a new car. “We want to wear the right style of dress to a cocktail party, but we want ours to be better than everyone else’s. That’s a conscious part of our identity,” he says. “But unconsciously, we may just like something more or less based on what we’ve seen or heard lately, and we may not know why.”

Republished with permission from Knowledge@Wharton, the online research and business analysis journal of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.