If branding people had a wish list to make their jobs easier — with easier meaning to quickly create a new and memorable name — high up on that list would be new letters to add to our alphabet. You’d think that combining and recombining the usual 26 letters, A to Z, would be enough to keep people busy. And yet, those 26 symbols may not be enough.
Consider: The 2nd edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, regarded as the authority when it comes to words that are in fairly common usage, has full entries for 171,476 words. That’s not to mention the more than 47 thousand words listed that the editors consider obsolete. Virtually all those words have been scooped up and used — many for trademarks. Even more for URL designations on the Internet.
Common words get snapped up and used again and again. Fling (and forms of the word), for example, appears more than 120 times in the trademark registry of the United States Patent and Trademark Office. A word can be used multiple times as long as the products are dissimilar (people are unlikely to confuse the Fling bar and grill with Flings greeting cards.) Eventually, however, the words do get used up.
That’s where sound symbolism can come to the rescue. Every letter in the alphabet is associated with one or more sounds that it can make — that’s sound symbolism. Often, a word’s semantic meaning far overshadows its sound symbolism…as long as the person encountering it knows what the word means. If the word is foreign, strangely spelled, or completely invented, our brains fall back on what the word sounds like and whether we find that appealing or not.
This is sound linguistic theory, by the way, and not just something we made up to sell names. In fact, Lexicon Branding has laid out several hundred thousand dollars over the years to have master linguists take a look at this principle and how it applies to brands the world over. (You can take a look at some of our thinking in brief here.)
When it comes right down to it, branding is a letters game. A z can add speed and agility to a name, where a d can slow a name down but add an air of dependability. Dependability? From a single letter? That’s what our research indicates.
Sound symbolism can save the day even in cases where the brands are simple English words, generally understood by everyone in the marketplace. In the ongoing war of e-readers, for instance, is Amazon’s Kindle a “better” word than Nook, the offering from Barnes & Noble? Features of the devices aside, the names themselves speak volumes.
As we said in a recent report about these names, the sounds in Kindle work together to convey a feeling that is thin, light, and agile. Kindle also rhymes with spindle. Together these factors suggest a tool that is lightweight, easy to hold, and easy to manipulate. On the other hand, the brand Nook also looks and sounds like “book”, which helps anchor the product in a consumer’s mind. Additionally, Barnes & Noble can counter by exploiting Nook’s relative sturdiness from a phonetic standpoint. We wouldn’t be surprised to see Nook rated more durable based on phonetics alone.
People don’t buy technology based on the brand name alone — they compare things like ease-of-use, does it meet their needs, and a variety of other factors. But it’s interesting to see, if the name were the only factor upon which you had to base your decision, which of these devices would you buy?
In a world where information is coming at us faster and faster, people are tending to make ever-quickening decisions. To the point where someday we might start depending on how something sounds as a main driver to making a buying choice. So choose your sounds wisely.
— David Placek