Are brand names unintentionally informative? Appreciating the sounds of meaning.

The issue we’re facing is that we’re running out of brand names. As a result, many new brands are neologisms. We documented 10 ways to come up with a new brand name in a preceding discussion. We pointed out, many of these names are nonsensical given that they have no meaning. It is marketing and branding that give these names their meaning.  However, no matter how they are used, whether as names or for communication, all words have meaning that is unintentional. 


Why is this important?  From the sound of a word, to its colour and typography, these all communicate meaning about a word.  It doesn’t matter if the reader doesn’t understand the meaning of the word, there is still meaning present, in the word. Sound symbolism communicates a lot of meaning about a brand or product.


The management of brands benefits from understanding how words might communicate other meaning. Furthermore, considering these factors can result in better brand and product names, in addition to improved forms of communication. A brief exploration of this topic will allow us to revisit these challenges and opportunities.

onomatopoeia brand names

The sound of meaning

Ferdinand de Saussure, one of the founders of semiotics, believed that sounds and meanings are not related, and are arbitrary.  The word ‘dog’, for example, has no direct relationship with an actual dog.  In an alternative timeline, cats could be called dogs and vice versa.   Sound symbolism theory or phonology has developed significantly since 1916, indicating that sounds have meaning beyond semantics and that word sounds themselves, have meaning.


Sound symbolism presents the unconscious connotations associated with vowel sounds and consonants that convey information about a brand when a brand name doesn’t make sense.  What is the extent and impact of this phenomenon?


Studying over 6000 languages or approximately two thirds of human languages in 2016, researchers found reliable correlations between sounds in words and their meaning.  In languages that developed independently of each other, these characteristics are also present.  There is meaning in how we relate to the sounds of language.

Onomatopoetic words.

It is common knowledge that onomatopoeia describes words that imitate the sound they denote in some way, such as pop, fizzle, the murmuration of starlings or the tintinnabulation of bells.  In the past, this technique has been used to create memorable ads such as the one below.

Kelloggs Rice Krispies

A resemblance between a word and its meaning is called sound iconicity.  When words are said, they can produce a kinesthetic reaction. For example, the sounds ‘pop’ and ‘snap’ sound explosive.  A vowel or consonant’s physical experience is linked to its meaning. In all languages, the words for “large’ are spoken with the mouth open and the words for “small” with the mouth closed.


Onomatopoeia can also be used to create memorable brand names.  By using onomatopoeic words in brand names, companies can create memorable and distinctive names that are easy to remember and recall. For example, the brand name “Ziploc” suggests the sound of a zipper closing, which is associated with the product’s function of sealing bags.

What is Sound Symbolism?

The concept of sound symbolism is that the sounds of words or phonemes can evoke certain meanings or concepts in a language. Sound and meaning have a non-arbitrary relationship, such that, certain sounds tend to be associated with particular meanings or concepts.


Words with the sound “sn” are typically associated with snake-like or sneaky behaviour, such as “snake” or “sneak.” Words with the sound “gl” are often associated with brightness or light, such as “gleam” or “glow.”


The phenomenon of sound symbolism is not universal to all languages, but it has been observed in several languages, worldwide. This suggests that there may be a universal basis for certain sound-meaning associations that are independent of individual languages.

What is Sound Symbolism?

Shape-related sound symbolism formed the basis of much of sound symbolism research.  In this area, there have been three foundational studies, which are summarised here:


  1. Edward Sapir demonstrated in 1929 that most people associated the made-up word ‘Mal’ with a large table and ‘Mil’ with a smaller table.  People were matching phonetic sounds with the physical characteristics of the table.  Moreover, high vowels like ‘i’ are used for small ie. tiny, little, mini and ‘a’ sounds for large, heavy, tall.


  1. According to Kohler (1929), there is a takete-maluma effect, whereby angular shapes are associated with takete, whereas rounded shapes are associated with maluma.


  1. Those results were further refined by Ramachandran & Hubbard in 2001 by integrating a refined ‘bouba’ and ‘kiki’ effects into the analysis.

In the Kiki-Bouba effect, there is a connection between two abstract figures and two non-words: the star-shaped figure is called ‘Kiki’, and the round figure is called ‘Bouba’. This is explained by the phenomenon of sound-vision synaesthesia, in which certain sounds are associated with certain shapes, in a non-arbitrary way.

Bouba & Kiki Effect

How synesthesia changes experience

The bouba/kiki effect has been observed across cultures and even among non-literate individuals.  Sound symbolism patterns are also recognised by infants.  The phenomenon has been explained as a synesthetic relationship between shapes and sounds. In synesthesia, a sensation normally experienced by one sense modality is experienced by another sense modality. However, the bouba/kiki effect has been questioned as not being true synesthesia, as it is seen as involuntary and not prompted.


Some people have a phenomenon known as synesthesia, which is a way of being able to automatically perceive different stimuli in different ways.  Synesthesia is a neurological condition in which the stimulation of one sense triggers a response in another sense. For example, some people are capable of tasting shapes or hearing colors.


The experience of synesthesia varies from person to person.  There are up to 70 different types of synesthesia, but the most common one relates to color.


It is possible, for example, to have Grapheme-colour synesthesia, whereby you see specific colours in your mind associated with letters or colours in your physical environment.  About 4% of the population has some form of synesthesia.


In a book entitled ‘The man who tasted shapes’, Richard Cytowic, a neurologist, has written about this phenomenon.  There are a lot of people who claim to have synesthesia in various forms, including Vincent Van Goh, Vladimir Nabokov and Franz Liszt.

Van Gough, Nabakov, Liszt

In marketing, synesthesia can be used as part of a semiotic approach to creating more impactful and memorable slogans or taglines by associating sensory experiences with a product or brand.

Synesthesia in brand slogans and brand names

What sound shape symbolism means in product and brand names.

There is a discussion here about the unintentional meanings of a nonsensical brand name or product name, so it is beneficial to look at what the sound symbolism of bouba/kiki communicates, when the brand name is used.


The sound symbolism manifests in many ways:


Visual –  according to studies, the bouba/kiki effect can indicate hardness, weight, brightness, size, shape, and colour.


Kinesthetic – associations of motion that is generated by sound symbolism.


Emotional – the bouba-kiki effect might be rooted in emotional arousal (calming versus stimulating). Spiky shapes induce a degree of edginess and tenseness, whereas the rounded figures were perceived as softer, soothing, and more calming.


Haptic – There have been strong links found across many languages between the sounds of speech and the sense of touch.  For example, the consistent use of ‘/r/-for-rough’ across different European languages.  

Sound-shape symbolism also influences our sensory experiences of food and drink.

Beer and synesthesia

In fact, there have been some interesting studies done around what we eat and drink:


  • It suggests the carbonation of a drink: Spiky sounds (P,K,T,F) sound more sparkling and carbonated than voiced constants (B,D,G,V), which are associated with water and roundedness.


  • This has also been seen in a study of beers. ‘The existence of a significant correspondence between sweetness, voluminousness, and roundness and between bitterness, thinness, and angular shapes. (The study does note this is likely to be a perceptual and linguistic outcome because of the nature of the study).


  • There are cross modal correspondences between the visual angularity of shapes and the bitter taste of chocolate. Milk chocolate was associated with rounded abstract shapes.


  • A study looked at olfactory association with shapes. There was a correspondence between pleasant smells with circle and curve shaped symbols.  Those that were unpleasant were perceived as square and angular in shape.

This sound-symbolism conveys specific information about physical and emotional characteristics of brands.

human faces and emotions from sound symbolism
  • In looking at the use of consonants in names, some are believed to suggest gender; G,B,K are ‘hard’ and masculine, while L,N and R are ‘soft’ and feminine.


  • In examining the geometry of facial expressions, it was ‘revealed that acute angles with downward pointing vertices conveyed the meaning of threat and that roundedness conveyed the meaning of warmth’.


  • That same sound-symbolism could get participants to consistently group made up monsters with meaningful physical descriptions.


  • In another study, researchers worked to personify the two symbols with participants:

‘In our results, the word Kiki is overall happy, clever, small, thin, young, unpleasant, and nervous. The starshaped figure is overall clever, tall, small, slim, nervous, unpleasant, and upper-class. That is, the correspondence above all concerns the qualifying adjectives clever, unpleasant, and nervous, as well as the physical appearance small and thin’.

They hypothesis this is the convention of the fat and thin comedic duo: Laurel and Hardy, Asterix and Obelix, M&M’s, etc.  Thus, sound-symbolism primes us to expect certain things from a person based on these conventions.  Although, the difference in size and height appear to be less consistent, in practice.

Comedic Duo Trope

According to some studies, sound symbolism influences the way we perceive other people and our relationships:


  • It has also been shown that people have a bias for faces that match the sound-symbolism of their names, e.g. Round sounding name for a round face. A political analysis shows that “American senators earn 10% more votes when their names fit their faces very well versus very poorly”.

When considering a meaningless brand name, there are other sources of information that are not semantic.

Meaning from typography

This discussion has focused on the influence of sounds on meaning.   Other factors such as typography, colour and context are also very influential in how we interpret words. It is often the interaction of one sense with another that creates to meaning, especially for colour. Semiotically, we know cursive writing can suggest sophistication, UPPERCASE someone shouting, and fonts like comic sans can suggest specific historical time periods.


We could also consider what is called name letter effect,  which is a psychological phenomenon that describes the tendency of people to show a preference for letters that appear in their own name, in addition to other stimuli (such as words or numbers) that are related to their self-concept.  There is evidence that people prefer brands with names that start with the same letter as their own name.


In practice, a neologistic name’s meaning is influenced by many factors, not just sound-shape symbolism.

Brand management can benefit from understanding the underlying meaning of unintended sound symbolism in brand and product names.

Sound symbolism is important to branding because it can help create a positive association between a brand name and the product or service it represents. By using sounds in a brand name, it can evoke certain meanings or emotions; companies can create a more memorable and impactful brand identity.


Overall, sound symbolism is an important tool for brand identity and can help create a stronger emotional connection between consumers and the products or services they consume.


There is no such thing as a brand name or product name without meaning; even if it is made up or makes no sense at all.  In every name, there is a message conveyed by the sound symbolism, which is a critical and influential dimension that shapes the meaning of the name.  

Three areas present a challenge and opportunity for brands:


  1. What are the sensory associations of the sound-shape of a brand or product name? Is this meaning consistent with the brand’s identity and positioning?


  1. Are their visual identities aligned with the same symbolism?  In the case of a food or drink brand, how do the shapes of your design, packaging, logo communicate flavour, smell, and emotion?


  1. The alignment between the brand names and their brand personas and sound symbolism.


It is easier to apply this type of thinking to a new brand, especially one that creates a neologism.  Nevertheless, all brands describe their services and products with labels. Keeping the sound of words in mind can help communicate a more consistent brand identity.

If you would like any help or advice in creating or managing a brand name, or if you have any questions about this discussion please connect with us here

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