If you’ve ever named a company or a product, you’ve probably thought about the meaning, spelling, and availability of the names on your list. Here’s something else you should consider: the way the name sounds — and what that sound symbolizes.
Sound symbolism is the phenomenon by which certain units of sound seem inherently associated with certain kinds of information. The association is mostly unconscious; it isn’t infallible, but it often exerts an effect, subtle or powerful, on our perception of a brand name.
Here’s an example from a classic experiment. In 2001, two psychologists asked people to assign one of two made-up names, “bouba” and “kiki,” to a couple of geometric shapes. Which was which?
They repeated the experiment with English-speaking American college students and with Tamil speakers in India. In both cases, 95 percent of those surveyed said the spiky shape was a “kiki” and the rounded shape was a “bouba.” A later study found that children as young as two and a half, who could not have been influenced by the appearance of the words and their letterforms, gave the same responses.
These associations seem to be hard wired into our brains. As the linguist Gaston Dorren writes in Babel: Around the World in Twenty Languages:
There is a well-documented tendency for humans worldwide to associate low, open vowels such as /ah/ with bigness — words like vast and large fit the bill, as does yang — and high, closed vowels such as /ee/ with smallness — think mini, teeny-weeny, and wee as well as yin.
After all, writes Dorren, “When we say /ah/, our oral cavity (otherwise known as ‘mouth’) is big, when we say /ee/, it’s small.”
But the effect goes beyond vowel sounds. Think about how many English words for certain kinds of light effects begin with gl: glimmer, glitter, glow, gleam, glisten, glitter. Or the many words associated with flight that begin with fl: flock, flutter, flap, fledgling, flit, fly. In English and in many other Eurasian languages, writes the lexicographer Anatoly Liberman, words that begin with sl have a connection with dirtiness or disreputability: slovenly, slippery, slight, slimy, sleazy, slang, slander, slink, slither, slick, slob, slobber.
What does this have to do with brand names? Plenty.
Consider Uber and Lyft — not the companies, their services, their management, or their stock prices, but the sound of the two words.
Uber is a bouba word: It sounds big, substantial, and “round.” It may remind you of other similar-sounding words for big or swollen things: tuba, tuber, boom. It may even suggest the low-pitched sound of an old-fashioned car horn: aah-oooga.
Lyft is a direct competitor of Uber, but it’s a kiki word. Its sound symbolism tells a different story: of lightness (the /l/ at the beginning, the short /i/ sound), speed (compare swift and skiff, a fast boat), and nimbleness (compare deft and pfft, the sound of something quickly passing by).
Neither name is superior to the other, just distinct. And in branding, that’s a good thing: You want your name to stand out, not blend in — to carry specific resonances appropriate to your brand personality.
The next time you’re developing a name for a product, feature, or company, don’t stop with dictionary definitions. Say the name out loud and consider the story told by its sound. Sometimes beauty is in the ear, not the eye, of the beholder.