Wednesday, March 30, 2011

What's In A Name? - Cross-Culturalism's Impact On Names In America

Any decent advertiser knows the importance of profiling their customer. Over time, this undertaking has moved away from profiling based solely on demographics, to include psychographics that detail a consumer’s attitudes, values and interests. Psychographics have been essential in following the shifts in consumers’ interests because unlike demographics, which is an outsider’s view of a consumer, psychographics inform marketers on how consumers view themselves. As the following research will demonstrate, Americans have grown less and less interested in being considered “mainstream”. This shift in self-image is well reflected in an important, once-in-a-lifetime decision. That decision is what people name their children.

With the exception of the pop stars of the world, it is a decision typically made once. It is a decision made after a sometimes agonizing effort on the part of parents. The fact that lists 1,500 results for baby books gives one a sense of the measure of that effort. Making matters worse, baby name “literature” is a genre riddled with theories on how to name. After all, every name has its own rich description of qualities.

These descriptions can lead to theories on how successful a certain name might make a child. Even the minds behind Freakenomics have made an effort to predict the impact names, explaining how whites tend to seek names popularized by affluent families in the hopes their child will have a higher chance of becoming affluent as well.

Regardless of what such analysis might proclaim, one thing is for certain: names reflect culture. America will have plenty of Johns, Sweden will have Oscars, France will have Hugos, and Spain will have Alejandros. Names are intrinsic to each national culture. Therefore, seeing how names have changed in the US could reflect the rise of cross-culturalism. And after exploring the rich data surrounding this topic it can be concluded that the general market is coming to an end.

Looking for changes in our national culture brings us to a very unlikely place, the Department of Social Security. Their website contains an incredibly rich data set of the given first names of every baby born since1880 and last names collected by the 1990 and 2000 census. Working with this data and population figures, we were able to investigate name choices over time.

This first view revealed a staggering change. From 1950 to 2009, the count of unique first names increased by 25,000. This change is made more interesting by the fact that while the population of the United States doubled in this time, the number of unique first names tripled. And over a ten-year span from 1990 to 2000, surnames doubled. While this data shows that there are thousands of additional unique names, it does not fully contextualize growing uniqueness of names in America. The next measurement accounts for that growth.

Through this second measurement, one can see the changes among the most popular names for newborn boys and girls over that same timeframe. By analyzing the top 25 names and their relevance among all babies born each year, it is clear just how diverse names have become in America today. In 1950, the top 25 male names accounted for over 50% of all males born. Today that is under 20%. Similarly, the top 25 female names have dropped from 40% in 1950 to just 15% today.

Certain names go in and out of fashion throughout time, but when observing the top 25, one can see that names today have undergone a significant dispersion from what previously was a concentration around a small set.

One final way to measure the impact of cross-culturalism on names in America is to look at names among Hispanics. Throughout this research there was an expectation that the growth of the Hispanic population would be a major factor in the dispersion of names. From 1970 alone the Hispanic population has more than tripled, presently accounting for 47 million people.

To track the Hispanic population’s impact on names on American culture we measured a list of popular Hispanic names, both first and last, and observed how they performed over time. The two charts presented here tell the story. From 1990-2000, both surnames and first names have trailed population growth by over 20%.

The second chart reveals that this trend has continued from 2000 into 2009 as well. By making choices outside of their cultural norms, the naming trends of Hispanics serve as yet another example of the rise of cross-culturalism.

As we see in the name data, names are no longer herded among a few popular choices. In the past 60 years, the sheer number of names has increased by 25,000. During that time, the top 25 names have fallen from accounting for 46% of the population to 18%. This is a change that reflects a loss of the general market. The same trend was observed in looking at the growth of Hispanic names. In this instance, popular Hispanic names have not kept up with their rise in population, proving dispersion among their names as well.

For the marketer, these shifts are a sign of the times. Its not that people are gravitating less towards the old cultural norms, it’s the fact that people are not gravitating towards any sort of norm at all. If people are willing enough to strive for uniqueness in their names, then they certainly will in their consumer preferences. Take this research as an indicator of the loss of a true “mass market”. Once you stop looking for the product that will benefit as many as possible, you can start marketing the product that will find the untapped consumer.

How does your brand present itself to customers? Does it blend in with the crowd? Or does stand out from the others?

How does your brand present itself to customers? Does it blend in with the crowd? Does stand out from the others?

Americans today value individuality, doubtless the result of cross-culturalism’s growing influence. The norms of yesterday have largely been abandoned as consumers seek culturally familiar ways to express themselves and claim their own spot in America’s cultural melting pot. In doing so they exhibit interests, preferences and needs that are as unique as the names they have and the names they select for their children.

Marketers of today must ensure that their brand is no longer cast in a way to appeal to the “mass market” – a position as outmoded as it is outdated. Rather, to be successful in today’s American culture, marketers must seek a unique express for their brands that will capture the attention of today’s consumer.