The idea may be "unpalatable", but companies seeking an edge over their rivals should ensure that children are exposed to their brands as early in life as possible. That's according to Andrew Ellis and colleagues, whose new research shows that the classic "age-of-acquisition" effect in psychology applies to brand names as much as it does to everyday words.
Ellis's team found that student participants were quicker to recognise brand names they had encountered from birth. This was demonstrated by presenting students with a range of real and fictional brand names and asking them to indicate as quickly as possible whether a brand was real. If a brand had been experienced from birth, the students were quicker to recognise it as real than if it had been encountered from age five and up. A second experiment showed that students were also quicker at accessing information about early encountered brands compared with late-encountered brands, as indicated by the speed with which they said a product was or was not made by a given brand.
These findings resemble classic "age-of-acquisition" effects, in which people are more proficient at processing words they encountered earlier in life. Research has shown that this effect is not explainable purely in terms of greater cumulative exposure to early encountered words. One alternative proposal is that words (and presumably brands too) encountered early in life shape the maturing brain in such a way that a life-long advantage is maintained for processing those early words.
Ellis's team's final experiment was perhaps the most striking. In this case, participants aged between 50 and 83 years were quicker to recognise early brands over newer, current brands, even if the early brands were long since defunct.
Combined with prior research showing that people generally feel more favourable towards words and pictures that they find easier to process - a phenomenon called the "fluency effect" - Ellis and his colleagues said their findings have serious implications for brand success. "The evidence suggests that mere exposure to brands in childhood will make for more fluent recognition of those brand names in adulthood that will persist through to old age," they said.
Ellis, A., Holmes, S., & Wright, R. (2009). Age of acquisition and the recognition of brand names: On the importance of being early. Journal of Consumer Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jcps.2009.08.001