Why Brand Names Matter: Sound Symbolism

In a society so bombarded with choices, it can sometimes be difficult for brands to stand out. A strategic method for grasping attention is to capture them in one of their first interactions with your company or product: the brand name.

Branding Biotech

In a society so bombarded with choices, it can sometimes be difficult for brands to stand out. Discovering a unique and meaningful way to remain in the minds of consumers is at the forefront of discussion for businesses all around the world!

A strategic method for grasping attention is to capture them in one of their first interactions with your company or product: the brand name.

Studies have shown that consumers make automatic assumptions on brands based solely on their name, which provides entrepreneurs and marketers a rare opportunity to craft and capture positive thoughts through one of the basic building blocks of branding.

Let’s explore a few tools that Addison Whitney utilizes in order to foster great first impressions with consumers and some evidence that backs why we do what we do.

The Intrinsic Value of Words

For many years it was believed that words don’t infer meaning but we, as individuals, are the sole proprietors of definition. Though that is somewhat true in the construction of language, it does not negate the fact that humans automatically make assumptions about words, specifically new or unfamiliar words.

Through several famous studies, the measured analysis between speech sounds and visual shapes is called the Bouba-Kiki Effect. In these studies, people from different backgrounds and who spoke different dialects were shown two images: a sharp, pointy object and one more rounded and bubbly.

After seeing these shapes, participants were asked to determine which shape should be named Bouba and which should be called Kiki. A consistently high number of participants associate the rounded shape with the name Bouba and the pointed shape as Kiki. This leads us to believe that sounds intrinsically hold weight, and there is underlying power behind the impact of a brand’s name.

Understanding Sound Symbolism

When individuals infer meaning behind a new word that they’ve never heard before, it is referred to as sound symbolism. To break it down further, words in general are composed of individual sounds called phonemes. These phonemes are not only the building blocks of language, but they also provide context of what a word means according to sound symbolism.

We know that sounds are all based upon the position of the tongue in the mouth, ranging from a low-back position to a high-front position. The interesting and convenient thing for brand creators is that these instances of sound symbolism are fairly consistent across languages, as we saw in the Bouba-Kiki experiment. Sound symbolism tells us that low-front vowels (ex. a in “bat”) connote greater size and more power, while high-front vowels (ex. i in “bit”) connote smaller size and less power. This is just one example of the power of sound symbolism, but even this can take us far with name development.

Do you have a product that’s bigger and better than anything else on the market? Theoretically, incorporating low-back vowels into your name will automatically give consumers across multiple languages an idea of what to expect from your product. Do you have a new technology that’s small and fast, such as a processing chip? Try using high-front vowels to invoke ideas of speed and technology!

The Proof Is In The…Ice Cream?

As marketers, we know and understand that a large number of consumer decisions are subconscious, so as brand developers we want to maximize our customer’s attention during this stage. Sure, we could pump millions of dollars into marketing campaigns to drive consumer interest, including social media ads, commercials, billboards, and more, but if the marketing budget isn’t there or we simply want to get ahead of the curve, sound symbolism can come into play.

In a study published by the Journal of Consumer Research, this concept was tested by analyzing customer preferences on two hypothetical ice cream brand names: Frish and Frosh. The hypothesis? Consumers would gravitate towards Frosh because of the phonetic “ah” sound, which generally feels bigger and heavier, which would translate to more creaminess and richness in a dairy dessert.

The results confirmed that Frosh was the preferred name, proving its ability to better invoke the ideas of smoothness, creaminess, and richness that ice cream is often associated with. We can confidently deduce that consumers, when introduced to any new brand or new product without any previous marketing reinforcements, will essentially “judge a book by its cover.” Companies have the ability to alter these notions through effective marketing, but why not start strong by choosing an impactful brand name for your product!

As brand developers, we have the unique opportunity to grab the attention of consumers at the initial reaction point. For maximum impact, we want the names to sound like the products and the products to look like the names.


In conclusion, sound symbolism has proven to hold weight in the realm of brand naming. Knowing that consumers automatically infer meaning behind new words and brands that they’ve never been exposed to lets us know that a brand name can sometimes make or break a new venture.

Companies always have the option of creating and executing effective marketing plans, but as branding experts, we see immense value in creating an unspoken, positive relationship between brands and consumers through a strategic naming process.

As the future unfolds and more new companies and products launch every day, we will surely find an increasing need for differentiation in order to stand out to consumers and foster brand recognition. If you find yourself in the need for a new or refreshed brand, take your time in deciding as it could be the difference between a successful and not-so-successful product launch.

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