What does your name say about you?

Breaking Blue

Creating a memorable brand name in a competitive landscape is a huge challenge facing any organisation and marketers need every technique available to achieve this end.

One little known tool for boosting brand recognition that has had little attention is sound symbolism, defined as “the partial representation of the sense of the word by its sound.” In linguistic study, this is the idea that individual sounds carry their own meaning. Sound symbolism conveys information about object colour, shape, size, softness, speed, temperature, gender, friendliness and strength.

By understanding the connection between phonetic features and how these bear meaning, marketers can create identities that convey information about the brand or product itself. In other words, you can relay information through the brand name.

I want you to imagine that you have been tasked with creating a brand name for a new light, white, slightly sharp tasting diet yoghurt. Will you call it Bloug or will you call it Siviz? I’m pretty confident you will have chosen Siviz. Here’s why.

When presented with fictitious or unfamiliar words, individuals use sound symbolism to interpret meanings from the name about the object. It is thought that this arises from connections in the brain that unite the look of the shape (round or angular), the appearance of the speaker’s lips (open and round or wide and narrow), and the feeling of the mouth and the shape it makes and movement of the tongue when the word is spoken.

This is shown in an example study called the Bouba Kiki effect. The shapes shown below were presented to participants who were asked ‘which one is a Bouba and which one is a Kiki?’ 98% of subjects tested agreed that the shape on the left is a Kiki and the shape on the right is a Bouba.



This study demonstrated that nearly everybody is affected by sound symbolism in the same way; that we label round objects with words containing round vowels and consonants (O, U, P, T, B, G, D, C, known as low frequency words) and sharp objects with words that cause our lips to become sharp or angular with production (I, E, F, S, Z, V, known as high frequency words). There is a link between shape and word which can be an important factor in inferring specific meaning in unfamiliar brand names. We can therefore assume that brand names made up of phonemes that represent attributes that a consumer desires will be perceived more positively and will receive higher purchase intentions.

I made the prediction that for the diet yoghurt you would choose a brand name made up of high frequency letters (Siviz) over the lower frequency letters of Blough. Siviz is likely to be associated with lightness, sharp edges and smallness; all attributes that are desirable to the dieter.

The impact that sound symbolism has on brand perception certainly needs to be explored. If sound symbolism does aid associations between the branding elements this will help position the brand more strongly in the mind of the consumer. The overall result will be a more successful brand that consumers have a stronger affinity to.

Fiona Pannell