A brand’s name is one of its most important company assets. After all, it is the first impression a consumer has about the brand and can make or break how well a consumer remembers it. Not only do brand names need to cut through the clutter to be memorable, but they also serve as a foundation of trust. A brand name can determine if an audience will pay attention and continue to pay attention to its role within a given industry.
Many may think that brand names are created on a whim or via focus groups. The most successful names – think Pentium, BlackBerry, Sonos, Swiffer – were developed using a scientific form of linguistics called sound symbolism. Sound symbolism is the audible properties of a name – how the name sounds to our ears without semantic clues. Sound symbolism plays a big part in if we find a brand name appealing or not and then ultimately, if we remember it.
Today, names need to work harder than ever due to their global nature and the challenge of trademark registration.
Many brands have started to leverage their name’s sound symbolism to help give some context to what the brand does or aspires to do, with clues in its name.
Symbolism starts with the actual sounds you make when speaking, which are affected by the way air is pushed through your mouth. Research tells us that different sounds and letters together can make a name seem bigger, smaller, faster, slower, comfortable, uncomfortable, and even dependable and undependable. We see this come through in specific industries.
For example, the automotive industry typically wants to emphasize energy, speed, dependability, toughness and action and uses letters to bring this to life in their name. The letters j, p, sh, k, and v can be found in many auto brands like Porsche, Jaguar, and Corvette, names whose sounds convey a sense of action and liveliness.
By contrast, high-ranking hotel chains in the U.S – Marriott, Hilton, Wyndham, and Hyatt – show a preference for gentle, sonorous (read comforting) sounds like m, h, w, l, r, and n sounds. It’s no wonder that cosmetic names also draw heavily from the same pool of luxurious consonants: Loreal, Maybelline, Amour, Revlon, and Aramis.
Sound symbolism is not unique to the English language. When tested against other languages, sound symbolism properties stayed consistent – a crucial finding as more and more brands desire a global reach.
Beyond how a name sounds, it’s also important to consider how the name appears visually when spelled out. Linguistic, letter patterns and spelling also influences perceptions of the meaning of brand names. We recently conducted a study inspired by the simple observation that the name Google looks friendlier than it would if it had been spelled Gugle, even though they’re pronounced the same. We found that doubling the consonant in some places in a product name leads to the product being judged as having more options and features.
Another visual aspect is the use of palindromes. Think Sonos or Kayak – these short but sweet names feature the same spelling forward and backwards. Many of the most popular names use the foundational structure of consonant and vowel pattern. This is the basis of language and how babies even learn to speak. Take the name Dasani, using the ‘san’ as the basis for health-focused, the name uses the familiar consonant vowel structure that works across many languages and is hard to mispronounce.
All of these components – the sound of a name, how it appears visually and its letter shapes – come together to tell a brand narrative and give consumers clues about what your brand stands for. Being able to visualize a brand just from hearing or reading its name is an important component to creating a world-class brand that stands out and makes an impact on consumers, investors and competitors.
Your brand name is a strategic piece of intellectual property, one that is a key foundation of your brand, and should never be considered as optional, or worse yet, an afterthought.
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