Synergy, Hey There!, Rejuvenate, Tornado Watch and Old World Romance: One might be forgiven for not knowing that these names refer to paint colors. According to a recent New York Times article, non-descriptive naming is a popular concept that may help boost sales in a sluggish economy. Yet the idea is hardly new. Manufacturers of nail polish, ice cream, sports drinks and crayons have used inventive color and flavor labels for some time, and with some success.

Why is this non-descriptive naming concept effective? A common explanation cites emotions as the reason: Color and flavor labels evoke positive associations and thus increase consumers’ likelihood to purchase. But what about less cheerful names such as Dead Salmon, Mud, Turbulence, or Arsenic (all of them paint colors) which seem to sell well despite their names? Research by Barbara Kahn, director of the Jay H. Baker Retailing Center, and co-author Elizabeth Miller sheds light on the link between a surprising flavor or color label and a positive response by consumers. It is the increased cognitive effort in processing an atypical, ambiguous color or flavor name that causes the preference.

The researchers point out two cognitive processes to explain this phenomenon, which they observed in a set of experiments on consumers’ preferences for jellybean flavors and sweater colors. The flavor and color names varied in how typical and specific they were. Typical flavors/names include pine green, cherry red and baby blue while atypical ones include rainslicker yellow and cookie monster blue. Specific flavors/names include lemon yellow, Florida orange and chocolate brown vs. non-specific ones like lucky brown, moody blue and monster green.

The first cognitive process is the mental effort to interpret the surprising flavor or color name. Consumers’ successful solving of this “mental puzzle” creates satisfaction and thus a positive attitude towards the product. The second cognitive process is the mental elaboration undertaken to make sense of why the manufacturer uses an uninformative label. Consumers presume that marketers want to convey a positive message and thus infer favorable product attributes. Both processes increase consumers’ favoring of the product.

“The New York Times article certainly implies that the paint industry is trying to differentiate their products with this tactic,” notes Kahn, especially since “the housing market, and therefore the paint industry, is particularly vulnerable in this soft economy…. Basically, as the market gets more competitive, anything that can give [a product] a differential advantage is worth a try. However, in other categories, we see the tough economy leading marketers ‘back to basics.’ If a consumer is going to buy a product, she wants it to last, to be classic, which would argue against atypical names.”

Non-descriptive naming can backfire in two ways, Kahn adds. “First, if consumers see it as a gimmick, they may try the product, but if it is only a gimmick and the product doesn’t deliver, then we wouldn’t see the repeat. Second, as I implied above, if the consumer feels conservative and is seeking ‘real value’, she may shy away from trendy items and stick to the basics.”

Kahn and Miller’s research paper is titled, ”Shades of Meaning: The Effect of Color and Flavor Names on Consumer Choice.