Take a look at the two shapes below. One of them is a kiki, whereas the other is a malouma. Can you decide which is which?
If you described the shape on the left as the kiki and the shape on the right as the malouma, you’re in the majority — about nine out of 10 people agree with your judgment.
But why is this the case? Given that neither “kiki” nor “malouma” are real words, why does it seem so clear which shape corresponds to which word? The answer lies in a phenomenon called sound “symbolism,” which is the concept that certain sounds inherently convey certain associations — even if they don’t actually mean anything.
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For instance, vowels like “ee” and “i” are associated with smallness, whereas ones like “o” and “uh” generate a sense of largeness. This is why we say words like “itty bitty” or “teeny tiny” describe very small things, and words like “humongous” to describe really big things.
But sound symbolism is more than just a fun factoid to mention at cocktail parties. As noted by Michael Rader, founder of .com brand name marketplace Brandroot, sound symbolism can bear huge consequences for startups deciding on what to call their brand. Here’s why — it shows that we make judgments about words before we know what they mean, simply based on how they sound. A “kiki” is sharp and jagged. A “malouma” is soft and round.
Rader explains: “Sound symbolism means that people are generating associations with your brand name before they even know what you sell — so it’s crucial to choose a name that fits your brand.”
The effects of sound symbolism go way beyond kikis and maloumas. To demonstrate this, let’s do a quick experiment. Suppose there are two cars — a Braddo and a Briddo. One of them is a large SUV, and the other is a sporty convertible. But which is which?If you’ve identified the Braddo as the SUV and the Briddo as the convertible, you’re in good company, according to research done at UT San Antonio.
That 2004 study found that front vowels (linguistics jargon for sounds like the “a” in Braddo) are judged to be quicker and more lightweight than back vowels (sounds like the “i” in Briddo).
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The same study found that people thought Nillen was a better name for a knife than Nallen, whereas just the opposite was true when the product in question was a hammer. Again, this is sound symbolism in action. People simply have an intuitive feeling that certain sounds match certain characteristics, like weight or or sharpness.
In fact, Rader cites an entire chart of sounds and what they symbolize, which he uses when advising his clients on which brand name best suits their company’s goals. “For instance, the Z sound is associated with quickness,” Rader notes, “which is one of the reasons why ‘Zumba’ is such a good name for a high-energy aerobics program.”
Research about sound symbolism in brand names is still in its infancy. But the work that’s been done thus far suggests that it can affect far-reaching and specific domains, such as speed, thickness and even creaminess.
A recent experiment found that participants rated a hypothetical ice cream brand called “Frosh” as more likely to be smooth and creamy than one called “Frish” — without ever having tasted either of them.
Indeed, certain sounds carry certain associations, even when we don’t know what the words mean. And this is wildly important for startups deciding as a brand. Imagine how disastrous Kiki Mattresses would be (or, even worse, The Malouma Razor Blade Company).
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Names matter. Especially in an increasingly competitive market, it’s important for startups to make sure that their brand name consists of sounds that are congruent with their message.