Using Sound Symbolism for Competitive Advantage

If you are creating a new brand, take note: Traditional meaning is only one part of the communication equation.

Here's a simple puzzle1. Which one of the two nonsense words—taketa and naluma—do you think goes with each of these pictures?

If you're like virtually everyone else, you'll pair taketa with the angular illustration and naluma with the curved one.

That's because all the consonants in taketa are what linguists call “obstruents,” and all the consonants in naluma are “sonorants.”

Obstruents are perceived as harder and sharper; sonorants as softer and smoother.

Consider the two brand names Clorox (a hard-working laundry product) and Chanel (a perfume), and you'll get the idea.

Lexicon’s Sound Symbolism Research

Lexicon has completed extensive research into how sound symbolism affects the way brand names are perceived. If a product would be perceived as faster, bigger or even more reliable depending on how it sounds, it follows that there would be an entirely new set of tools to add to the creative process. The results prove that there is.

Several years ago, Lexicon initiated a global research program called "Sounder" to determine if certain consonant sounds do a better job of communicating specific attributes than others.

Respondents answered an extensive series of questions about possible names for three hypothetical new products: a performance sedan, a laptop computer and a headache tablet.

The results of our U.S., European and Asian studies—independent of both product category and respondent gender—were quite dramatic and validated the powerful impact that sound symbolism has on the communication of both physical and abstract attributes by a brand name.

In an economy where global brands are the norm rather than the exception, a greater understanding of sound symbolism has put Lexicon that much closer to our ultimate goal of deciphering and implementing what we call "the universal language of branding."

1From Wolfgang Köhler (1929). Gestalt Psychology. (New York: Horace Liveright)