What color is Sin? How would Riptide Rush taste? What does Ionic smell like?
If you've spent an extra moment in a store aisle wondering, that was probably good for the marketers of Nars Sin blush, Riptide Rush Gatorade and Degree Ionic antiperspirant, according to new research from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.
The researchers found that, in general, surprising or ambiguous names for colors and flavors made consumers - in this case, college students - more likely to prefer a product.
Wharton marketing Professor Barbara Kahn's theory is that when consumers spend more time thinking about a product, they form more connections to it and end up liking it better.
Trusting souls that they are, shoppers believe marketers are trying to tell them something important with a name, an assumption she traces to the way people fill in the gaps in confusing conversations. Plus, people enjoy figuring out what a name like Dublin Mudslide (Irish cream liqueur and chocolate ice cream made by Ben & Jerry's) or Gash (dark metallic red eyeshadow by Urban Decay) means.
Their positive feelings transfer to the product.
"Some of these weird names were actually little puzzles," Kahn said, "so if you thought about it, you could get it."
Evocative names, said Danny Altman, founder and chief executive of A Hundred Monkeys - a naming company in California - are often better than explicit ones.
"There definitely is a component to all of this - which I think is underrated - which is mystery," he said. "Mystery in the right dosage can be a powerful force."
Maria Forte, a makeup artist for Nars Cosmetics Inc., who works at Lord & Taylor in Philadelphia, said her company's edgy names definitely affect sales. Sin is a big seller, but not as big as another blush: Orgasm.
"We have, like, 19 in stock because we go out of it so quick," she said. "Orgasm definitely sells totally because of the name."
No doubt it helps that Orgasm is a pretty color, a surprisingly subtle mix of peach and pink with gold overtones. Sin is a neutral berry shade.
Nars spokeswoman Rachael Kelley said company creative director Francois Nars comes up with both the colors and the names.
"The names certainly get attention. But they become popular, and they stay popular, because of the color, and pigment, and texture," she said. Orgasm was launched in 1999.
Kahn launched the study after noticing more products with unexpected or even uninformative names: Ben & Jerry's Chubby Hubby ice cream, Crayola's Tropical Rain Forest crayons, Hard Candy L.L.C.'s Trailer Trash nail polish.
The one that stopped her was Gatorade Frost, which comes in Glacier Freeze, Cascade Crush and Riptide Rush flavors.
"I remember going to buy it the first time," Kahn said, "and I had no idea what flavor Frost would be."
Kahn wondered how consumers responded.
"I wanted to know what the underlying psychological process was," Kahn said.
She and Elizabeth Miller, who teaches marketing at Boston College, came up with four categories of color or flavor names: common (dark red or light blue), common descriptive (cherry red or blueberry blue), unexpected descriptive (Coke red or Cookie Monster blue), and ambiguous (antique red or passion blue).
They then devised experiments that measured how students responded to jelly beans and sweaters marked with various types of names.
When the students had time to think about it, they chose jellybeans with unusual names more often. When distracted, they didn't.
In the more complicated sweater experiment, students liked the ambiguous color names when they saw the name before the color, but preferred unexpected descriptive names when they saw the color first.
One implication is that marketers might want to print ambiguous names large enough that customers notice them before the color. And, Kahn said, catalogue designers should devise layouts that encourage customers to spend more time thinking about colors.
Kahn said she thought that surprising or confusing names were most likely to work with fun products. No one wants a medicine with an ambiguous name. And companies can go too far with the weird names, she said. People will long for old catalogue favorites, such as aubergine and celadon, if they think "you're not helping me at all."