How Sound Symbolism can help you create a brand name that sticks

Why brand names are important

In a highly competitive market a good brand name can make or break a new brand. With any name - person, corporation, brand - you have an immediate, and sometimes subconscious, impression based solely on the name. Creating a brand name that is memorable, that promotes positive associations with the product and ultimately leads to increased purchasing intent is therefore a goal of any new business or product. 

What makes for a good name

There is a wealth of literature on what makes a good brand name. We’re told it should be simple, distinctive, meaningful, emotional and it should easily construct an image in the mind of the perceiver (Robertson). Combining all of this into one name is not an easy task but one aspect that should never be overlooked is the power of image (the name's ability to generate a visual referent in the consumer's mind).

People connect with images instantly and emotionally. According to researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the human brain can process entire images in as little as 13 milliseconds (Trafton). Social media and content analysts will also tell you that visuals increase user engagement – in some reports, by as much as 94% (Lee). Furthermore, being able to create an image in the mind, from just one word, will more quickly and easily anchor the marketed product or business in the mind and memory of the perceiver.

Creating a brand name that is both meaningful and easily imagined is more easily executed using real words because we already have associated meaning and imagery with them. However, by using a real word you lose another recommended brand name trait, that of distinctiveness. Furthermore, by using real words for a new brand the brand can’t start on a “clean slate” as everyone will have their own associations and personal meaning to that word.

With a non-meaningful word the marketer begins with a "clean slate" and can generate product images without interference from existing perceptions. But by using non-words marketers will have more of a job to create meaning in their name which in turn means that consumers will struggle to construct an image in their mind. Marketers find themselves in a catch 22. 

Sound Symbolism and how it can help

One little-known tool that can overcome these issues is a psycholinguistic phenomenon known as sound symbolism defined as “the partial representation of the sense of the word by its sound.” (McCormick). 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 relay information through the brand name by creating identities that convey information about the brand or product itself.

According to the so called Frequency Code, high pitch vowels and voiceless consonants (I, E F, S, Z, V ) are associated with lighter colours, smaller sizes, sharpness and femininity while low pitch vowels and voiced consonants (O, U, P, T, B, G, D, C) are associated with soft edges, larger sizes, darker colours, strength and masculinity. For example if I wanted to market a new black monster truck I’d be better of calling it Tuggo than Iliz.

Sound symbolism gives marketers a tool for creating brand names that are both distinctive and easily imagined. If the principles of sound symbolism are adhered to when creating a brand name, the consumer should create an image of the brand that is representative of the  brand’s characteristics even in the absence of any other information. The overall result will be a brand that enters a competitive market with subconscious meaning and identity already applied to it. 

How Sound Symbolism is applicable in research

We can listen to what consumers say they like or don’t like but this alone won’t always tell us  what will work as a brand name. By having a knowledge in psycholinguistic phenomena like sound symbolism we have an extra layer of knowledge that we can use during analysis to really understand whether a brand name will stick.