Lexicon’s latest study reveals the effects of spelling on a brand name’s character
Does how you spell a word really matter? English is rife with spelling rules and idiosyncrasies – for example, there’s the old mnemonic “i before e, except after c.” But what about weird? And then there are the many ways that the string ough can be pronounced: cough, tough, though and through are the usual examples. It’s also the case that a single phonetic form can have a variety of spellings: take the first syllable in cyclone, cider, silo, and psychology.
The many ways English has of visually depicting sounds can also be used expressively. Consider innovations such as dogg and dawg. Being already entrenched in modern pop culture, these specific variations carry meaning beyond a simple canine referent. Apart from well-known examples such as these, though, do simple variations in spelling mean anything? At Lexicon, we’ve just discovered the answer: an emphatic Yes.
For over 15 years, Lexicon Branding has been conducting research and continually gathering data about how various features of words impact people’s perceptions, mostly in the field of sound symbolism. Our research in this field covers languages from across the globe and has led to the creation of successful brands like Dasani, Swiffer, and Febreze. In this new study, we investigated ways that spelling rather than sound contributes to a brand name’s character.
A couple things triggered our interest in spelling variation: One factor was the popular informal use of respelling in words like boyz, dawg, and kewl. Another was the intuition that Google looks a lot friendlier than Gugle.
What makes Google such a friendly-looking, fun-sounding name? Sounding like funny words such as giggle, wiggle, oodles, goo, and ogle certainly helps. Another endearing thing about the name Google is its spelling. The company’s founders report that they based the name on googol, a term used by mathematicians for a very large number. The founders add that they misspelled it.
Since both Larry Page and Sergey Brin have Ph.D.’s from Stanford, we assume they’re kidding about the misspelling. But we in branding can learn a lesson from their wisdom: spelling matters.
Googol looks imposing and foreign. Google looks approachable—lovable, even. Around 60 English words end in gle (the exact number varies depending on which dictionary you consult). Almost none end in gol (some dictionaries list only googol). No wonder Google seemed more familiar even the very first time we saw it.
There’s more. Compare Google with the hypothetical name Gugle. Googling the latter actually turns up quite a few results, but the search engine’s creators actually had a choice between the two spellings Google and Gugle, and chose the first. Why, given that the two spellings have the same pronunciation? The oo – innocently repetitive, looking like an interjection, appearing in very common words – looks like fun, while u simply doesn’t.
Bearing in mind simple insights such as these, we designed a study to test several hypotheses about spelling. After surveying over 500 English speakers in the US on their views about a variety of coined names, we discovered that some spelling variations consistently and reliably communicate specific attributes.
The survey elicited respondents’ reactions to several pairs of fictitious brand names, each pair differing in one aspect of spelling – for example, a single vs. a double t somewhere in the name. The answers showed reliably that, among other things, products whose names had double letters were significantly more apt to be judged as having more features and capabilities. This means that people are likely to believe that a new smartphone called Zepp will have a more robust set of features than one called Zep.
It’s nice to see how these findings corroborate our intuitions about past Lexicon credentials, too. Take Dasani. Since it’s a made-up name, it could just as easily have been spelled Dassani or Dasanni and have the same pronunciation. In this case, though, a more robust set of features was not something we wanted to communicate with the brand name. In fact, either alternate spelling would have marred the name’s simplicity – and the simplicity and purity it projects onto the product.
Another hypothesis the study clearly supported was that the letter i is seen as more innovative than the letter y. For pairs of imagined brand names, such as a new laptop called Novix or Novyx, people tended to believe that the version with i would be more innovative. Marketers of real world brands Pixar, Audi, Nvidia and Nivea should be happy to hear this result.
We’re excited about the study’s success because it shows, for the first time, that spelling variations can actually be used to express differences systematically. The findings are important for marketers and other people responsible for brand naming because they provide a new tool for predicting what a brand name will communicate, and suggest simple ways to achieve maximum visibility and attention from consumers.
—Will Leben and Greg Alger, Lexicon Linguistics