Symbols in Sound
A couple summers ago, I interned at a company called Lexicon that specializes in developing brand names. Swiffer, Blackberry, and Dasani are among their most well-known creative solutions.
Exposure to this niche industry has shown me just how complex human perception of language really is. Each word has a myriad of connotations beyond its definition. In fact, the dictionary is an inadequate tool when it comes to explaining the intricacies of verbal communication. Beyond semantics, a word’s phonetic qualities also influence how we interpret it; particular sounds are associated with particular meanings. Linguists refer to the “meaning” given to specific sounds as sound symbolism.
Sound Symbolism In Action
Here’s an example of sound symbolism in action. Take two imaginary words: Taketa and Naluma. Now look at the image below. Can you guess which word is associated with which shape?
If you are similar to most people, you would have matched the triangular shape with Taketa, and the rounded shape with Naluma. Why is this so?
The word Taketa is full of obstruents — consonants that are noisier, livelier, and harder-sounding. Letters like t, v, and k are obstruents.
Conversely, the consonants n, m, and l in Naluma are sonorants. Sonorants sound softer, smoother, and more melodic (all vowels are sonorants).
The sense of Naluma and Taketa we get from their phonetic qualities is called sound symbolism.
Branding with Sound
Sound symbolism is at work in brand names all around us. Consider the names of popular cosmetic companies: Aramis, Maybelline, L’Oréal are all rich with sonorants. Sonorants connote smoothness and softness, giving the products a feeling of gentleness and luxury — characteristics desirable for skincare.
The names of pharmacy skin products have quite a different ring. Coined words like Polysporin, Desenex, and PanOxyl sound harsher, livelier, and more powerful due to the obstruent consonants comprising them. In this case, use of obstruents is beneficial because it highlights the strength and effectiveness of the medication.
Hotel names are generally made up of sonorants, and for good reason. Look at these examples: Wyndham, Mandalay Bay, Aloft. Such names sound soothing, harmonious and relaxing — characteristics one would hope to find in a hotel. Though Aloft ends with an obstruent, the “t” sound is less harsh due to its placement at the end of the word. Hotel names are rarely comprised of multiple obstruents, though there are exceptions: Stratosphere Hotel in Las Vegas, for example, is made up of harsher phonemes. This hotel name communicates the lively and exciting atmosphere Vegas can offer rather than suggesting a restful and relaxing experience.
Lexicon’s linguistics research has further illuminated the myriad of connotations each speech sound has. Their “Sounder” experiments show just how powerful a name can be. Respondents were asked hypothetical questions about made-up product names. For example, “which sounds faster, Viron or Piron?”. The studies found that “fricatives”, letters pronounced on the tip of the tongue like z, v, and f, made objects seem smaller and faster. On the other hand, “stops” produced with lips and back of the tongue — letters like like p, b, and d — suggested largeness and slowness.
Survey responses also suggested that certain sounds connote luxury. Voiced letters, in which the sound originates from the back of the throat, sound heavier and more substantial — more luxurious. V, z, d, and g are voiced letters. The double g’s in Grey Goose Vodka, for example, add richness and reliability to the product — perfect for a high-end, luxury brand image they wish to convey. Voiceless letters like t, f, and k do not vibrate the vocal chords, causing them to sound weaker and less luxurious.
The studies demonstrated that sound-symbolic effects are cumulative — that is, repeated use of certain sound types (fricatives, voiced letters, etc.) in a word will augment the associated sound symbolism. For example, more the more v’s in a word, the more energetic it will sound. The studies also found that the first letter in a word holds the most symbolic power. So, if you wish to convey luxury in a brand name, be sure to start the word with a voiced letter.
These results held up across different languages in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, implying that sound symbolism is a universal phenomenon that all marketers should take advantage of. Naming is the first and arguably most important step in crafting a brand identity. In order to develop an unforgettable name and thus establish a trajectory for success, it is important to understand sound symbolism.
Leben, Will. “A Brief History of Linguistics at Lexicon”. Intern Lecture. Lexicon Branding, Sausalito. 27 June 2017. Lecture.
“Using Sound Symbolism for Competitive Advantage.” LexiconBranding.com. Lexicon Branding, n.d. Web.