Sound Symbolism and its Impact on Business Branding

Sound Symbolism and its Impact on Business Branding

Do you realize that the majority of us make irrevertable associations (assumptions) about words and the sounds within them even before we actually know what they mean? If you’ve never heard the term “sound symbolism” before, then believe me, it’s a very real thing.

This psycholinguistic phenomenon is something all serious entrepreneurs need to be aware of when it comes time to choose business and product names.

Considering the importance of what you’re about to learn, I seriously hope this information finds you BEFORE you push your brand out to market. How you name your business and various products will have a huge impact on your success.

Basic Ins and Outs of Sound Symbolism

This article from business naming service Brandroot, explains how mixing and matching various vowels and consonants can result in sounds that pretty accurately convey the meaning we’re looking for. You can read the chart in the article to gain more insights into what the various sounds in a given name are really telling people. However, I’m going to gloss over the main points for the TLDR crowd.

Basically, if you mix the wrong letters together, your brand can be sunk before it ever sees the inside of a customer’s home! The big kicker, and the main premise behind sound symbolism, is that the name and how it sounds should match what the brand or product is trying to achieve.

How you intermix consonants and vowels, and the immediate gut-level mental picture they cause in human beings, is the key to them getting the message you’re trying to send.

Using sound symbolism to evoke a positive reaction
Image Credit: Simon Ingram/Flickr

Learning How to Make the Right Sounds for Maximum Impact

Sound symbolism can seem really complicated if you start studying things like phonetics, distinctive feature, and other areas of linguistic study. However, all marketers need to understand is the initial assumption a name will conjure when a consumer hears it. Each letter and letter combination will cause them to make an immediate decision on a brand or product’s:

  • sex
  • color
  • shape
  • size
  • pliabilitiy
  • quickness
  • temperature
  • kindness
  • beauty
  • strength

Lighter vowels and consonants like the letters “I, E F K, N, S, V, and Z”  indicate sunny colors, smallness, sharpness and being ladylike.

Harder vowels and consonants like “O, U, B, C, D, G, M, P, and T”  can conjure thoughts of soft edges, large objects, dark colors, strength, and the male sex.

Some important ones like the letter A, experience a change in meaning to the recipient depending on whether the vowel or consonant that proceeds or follows it makes it abrupt-sounding or long and soft:

  • Short A (such as: sat, hat, cat, fat, mat) — when pronounced abruptly in the “ah” form, the letter A generally means balanced and unshakeable.
  • Long A (such as: Adam, crack, flake, make) — when the letter is dragged out in its pronunctiation in either the “ahhh” or “ehhh” form, this letter conveys an image of being flexibility and earthliness.

Consider the images the word cat generally conjures. We’ve learned that the letter C, as a hard consonant can conjure several different images. Then comes the short A, which speaks for balance and the ability to endure. Then, even the letter T, telling us the cat is flexible and firmly rooted.

How many of you agree with what the psycholinguistic science (in this case sound symbolism) tells us that the word cat means to us when we hear it?

You may distinguish differently between what a housecat, a bobcat, or tiger means to you, but many of the images and resultant assumptions you’ll make upon hearing the word will definitely match up (the only difference is that one requires constant maintenance, and the other may well kill you if it finds you wandering in the woods alone!)

Though sometimes the right picture can change anyone’s presumptions!

Sound symbolism and the images it can conjure
Image Credit: Josh More/Flickr

Putting What You’ve Learned Into a Bad*** Business or Product Name

Now that you’ve got a basic primer on how all those little sounds can impact the people you’re marketing too, it’s time to put this newfound knowledge to work for your brand. But how can you use this, you ask?

The truth is, there are a thousand-and-one bad business and product names out there that have proper sound symbolism going for them, yet are still bad because the name is ambiguous, inappropropriate, or the words themselves mean something entirely different from what the brand is actually all about.

Even though I’ve demonstrated how important this consideration is, how much it can help or hinder a brand, you still have more homework to do in order to find a name that checks all the boxes.

Check out the following articles on good and bad business names and you’ll definitely see how the positive use of sound symbolism has created some of the world’s best business names, and how improper use or downright ignorance of this psycholinguistic principal has made some of the biggest flops:

The Best and Worst Business Names

41 Worst Business Name Puns Ever

Business Names: The Good the Bad and the Ugly (this one’s real funny!)

Hopefully you were able to tie the message each “good” brand listed in the above links are trying to convey. Matching the sound symbolism with the overall goals of the brand is just one of the crucial steps to naming a business or product, including beta testing and holding consumer panels to test what you’ve chosen and its brandability with people.

Comment if you think Google is one of the most ingenious names of the century. How does it compare with the sound symbolism offered up by Apple or Microsoft?

Main Image Credit: Jason Corey/Flickr

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